What’s the Difference between All-Wheel Drive and 4-Wheel Drive?
Most vehicles are only propelled by one axle, or two tires, either the front or the back. These are front-wheel drive, the more common option these days, and rear-wheel drive. But neither of these two options are ideal when road conditions are too slippery, or for roads that aren’t even paved at all.
4WD runs in complement with a two-wheel drive setup. When the 4WD mode is selected, the power from the drivetrain is split equally between the front and rear axles, ensuring the vehicle does not get stuck or spin out in thick mud, snow, uneven terrain, or when scaling a boulder like in most off-road jeep commercials. Split-axle power helps to reduce fishtailing and spinning out on slick pavement, saving you the need to call over someone for a push. When you consider that many work trucks operate in construction lots or farmers’ fields, you can appreciate why many advertise 4×4 on the side of the bed.
So why would you need anything other than 4WD for difficult road conditions? When driving forward in a straight line, 4×4 technology is brilliant; the difficulty comes when turning, as the difference in the turning radius between the front and rear axles requires that the wheels turn at different speeds, something that 4WD does not allow for. If you’re driving in suitable 4×4 conditions—that is, with icy roads, uneven terrain, or loose dirt or gravel beneath the tires—that allows for the wheels to become unstuck and release their windup. Otherwise, they can lock up, especially when driving slow.
Pros and Cons of 4-Wheel Drive
- Best off-road traction capabilities
- Can be switch off to increase fuel efficiency
- Not suitable for all driving conditions
AWD is the newer technology, and while it also splits the power from the engine between the two axles, it has two main differentiators from 4WD:
With AWD, the system is always on (well, almost always). It isn’t a feature or mode that you need to select. This means that when you hit unexpected poor road conditions (like a patch of ice), the system automatically kicks in to give you better traction and handling.
The power split between the two axles isn’t always 50-50. There is usually a range of the amount of the split, but the AWD system is continually gaining feedback from the tires and sending the most power to the wheels which are receiving the most traction at the moment. For this reason, the AWD often achieves a better safety rating, and is preferable and handy during slick Canadian winter driving conditions.
A true AWD vehicle does not require the driver to actively shift between two-wheel and four-wheel mode. If it does, it is a 4×4 masquerading as AWD. But since the AWD option does not quite match the 4WD system for extreme off-roading, you’re more likely to see it in sporty performance coupes and aesthetically outdoorsy SUVs with no serious off-road pretensions.
Pros and Cons of All-Wheel Drive
- Better grip and sporty feel
- Higher safety ratings
- Poorer fuel economy
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