What Is The Difference Between 4 Wheel Drive and AWD?

Last Updated on April 21, 2023 by Paul S.

Are you in the market for a vehicle that can be dependable in harsh weather?  Typically, you would look at two options in a vehicle, the All-wheel Drive/AWD or the 4 Wheel drive systems/4WD.  These two drive systems can help you get to where you want to go no matter the conditions. This article will help you understand the difference between 4-wheel drive and AWD by breaking each system down and its offerings at a basic level.

What does AWD Stand For?

AWD stands for all-wheel drive.  And you guessed it, the engine powers the front and the rear wheels.  There are two kinds of all-wheel-drive systems that today’s vehicles use. 

AWD can be found in sedans and crossovers but there are SUVs and trucks with AWD as well.  The most iconic AWD vehicles come from Subaru.

Full-Time AWD

The first all-wheel-drive system is full-time all-wheel drive.  Full-time AWD delivers power to the front and rear axles evenly.  Some of these systems can vary the power depending on the traction that is available due to conditions on the road.

Automatic AWD

The second all-wheel-drive system is automatic all-wheel drive.  This typically delivers power to just one axle on the vehicle.  As you drive the vehicle will detect if the tires are slipping due to weather conditions and can instantly send power to the other axle.

Automatic AWD tends to be a lot better on the miles per gallon than full time because typically only one axle is receiving power. 

Toyota, Tacoma, Bed, 4-wheel Drive
Toyota Tacoma – 4 Wheel Drive

How Does 4 Wheel Drive Work?

Four-wheel drive or 4WD work, in basic terms, is similar to AWD in that power is sent to all four of the vehicle’s wheels at all times. 

The major difference between the two is that you have to select when you are in four-wheel drive and select when you want to come out of it.  It is not operated automatically, and the vehicle cannot provide more power to one axle or the other.  Another difference is that 4WD systems are more robust and can handle the rigor of rugged terrain.

With 4WD systems, you can typically select between high and low 4WD gearing.  4WD high can be used at higher speeds when road traction gets difficult, or the trail isn’t too technical. 

4WD low is typically used to obtain maximum traction and power on the trail.  This option gears down to cause the tires to turn slower and more powerful.  It is very useful on the trail on uphills, deep sand, water crossings, and rock crawling.  Your speed should be kept to a minimum in 4WD low.

Typically, 4WD vehicles have been installed on SUVs and trucks.

Is AWD or 4WD Better In Snow?

The first thing to cover is, does either option make me invincible to black ice or losing traction?  The answer to this is NO!  One will still have to drive within reason based on traffic and weather conditions.  If you have to lock up your bracks on ice neither 4WD nor AWD have an automatic stopping system on them!    

Both systems provide an automatic advantage when driving in the snow compared to only two-wheel drive vehicles.  It can be argued that AWD vehicles have an advantage in the snow at speeds as they have the vehicle assisting when to engage the AWD system as tires lose traction.  That could be the reason why there are so many Subaru’s in Colorado!  In more recent models you can select the type of condition you are driving in to help aid the system while driving. 

With that said if you are in deep snow and need to navigate hills, get stuck in the snow, or need to get through the snowplows leftovers then a 4wd comes out on top.  4WD low will come in handy when you encounter black ice at low speeds.  The low gear will give you power but allow the tires to slowly move and avoid slippage. 

In terms of snow, my recommendation would be to choose a 4WD if you live in snow country and live away from the City.  If you live in or close to the City an AWD vehicle may suit your needs.

The Decision Between AWD or 4 Wheel Drive?

If you are deciding between the two there are many factors that need to be accounted for. 

In terms of vehicle selection between the two, there are many choices to choose from.  With AWD you are going to get a system that can automatically select the power and where it is needed at lightning speed.  They are typically better vehicles in terms of MPG and can even be used for light trail usage.  These vehicles are typically a blend of a 4WD and a typical sedan.

If you want a vehicle that can operate on trails and in really tough weather conditions then the arrow points to the 4WD.  Typically the vehicle is going to have a higher ground clearance which means you sit up higher, have larger tires, and are built like a tank.  The system is not automatic but being able to choose what type of system you need at certain times can be an added benefit to an experienced driver.

Since this is a 4WD website I will push you towards the 4WD as the trails are a little more beautiful and definitely more fun in one!

Additional AWD and 4 Wheel Drive Resources

Want to get into the weeds about AWD and 4WD?  Check these videos out: