Aaron Widmar
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What Is the Difference Between 4WD and AWD?

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2022 Ford F-150 Lightning Lariat with four-wheel drive
2022 Ford F-150 Lightning Lariat
Photo: Ford

Picking the drivetrain for your next vehicle can make a major difference in how capable it is in certain situations. While most vehicles come standard with front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive, many can be upgraded to either four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. These two drivetrain systems may seem similar but have considerable differences in their functions. Here’s a quick explanation of 4WD vs. AWD systems.

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What is four-wheel drive?

Four-wheel drive is the older of the two driving systems. Also called 4WD, 4×4, and four by four, it was present in the early decades of the automobile, dating back to the early 20th century.

As Ronan Glon explains in a Digital Trends article, four-wheel drive sends power equally to two axles that provide torque to four axle ends, which are where the wheels are attached. This system provides optimized traction and torque distribution in off-road situations, such as traveling across rocky terrain, through thick mud, or in deep snow.

As its name suggests, power is applied to all four wheels at the same time. But, when it’s not needed, you can turn off four-wheel drive via an electronic button, switch, or secondary lever (which controls the transfer case). This drivetrain is typically found in larger vehicles with body-on-frame platforms, such as trucks and true SUVs.

The Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado, and Jeep Wrangler are three vehicles that are available with four-wheel drive.

Transparent view of 2022 Ford F-150 Lightning two-motor, four-wheel-drive system
2022 Ford F-150 Lightning four-wheel-drive system
Photo: Ford

What is all-wheel drive?

All-wheel drive is a more recent innovation. Although the term used to be synonymous with four-wheel drive historically, it’s changed in recent decades to refer to a slightly different drivetrain system.

Instead of simply providing power to all four wheels evenly, an all-wheel-drive system can distribute power between wheels and axles at varying levels, depending on the vehicle’s traction, speed, and other factors. Unlike four-wheel drive that can be switched off, an all-wheel-drive system is typically designed to remain active all of the time.

All-wheel-drive systems are beneficial because they improve traction during slick on-road conditions such as snow, ice, or wet pavement. However, AWD will not help a vehicle in rocky terrain or thick mud and shouldn’t be taken off-road. That’s why it’s typically available on unibody-constructed vehicles, like sedans and crossovers.

2017 Subaru Impreza with all-wheel drive at WinterFest Copper Mountain
2017 Subaru Impreza at WinterFest Tour at Copper Mountain, CO

The Ford Fusion, Toyota RAV4, and Subaru Legacy are a few vehicles offered with all-wheel drive.

If you want to get the best performance out of your vehicle when driving off-road, it’s best to opt for 4WD. If you want enhanced stability on the road so you don’t spin out, drive a vehicle with AWD.

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