All-Wheel Drive and Four-Wheel Drive: What’s the Difference?

When buying a car, all of the different engine types, makes, models and built-in features can get confusing. Four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive may seem interchangeable, but they’re actually different.

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The Difference Between All-Wheel Drive and Four-Wheel Drive

Four-Wheel Drive

Four-wheel drive is made for the adventurous type. Cars with 4WD are optimized for off-road driving—going through mud, over boulders, and up steep hills with loose dirt. This system is found mostly in trucks and SUVs. Four-wheel drive works by sending torque to all four wheels to increase traction when needed. It’s available in both full-time and part-time, meaning, for instance, if the vehicle has part-time 4WD, the driver has the ability to switch it on and off. Additionally, some four-wheel-drive systems let the driver select how much power is given to each wheel. (Check out more weird car features most owners aren’t familiar with.)

All-Wheel Drive

All-wheel drive means that power is going to both the front and rear wheels of the vehicle all the time. Similar to four-wheel drive, AWD can be both part-time and full-time. In vehicles with part-time AWD, the majority of the time the vehicle operates in two-wheel drive but when additional traction control is needed, all-wheel drive kicks in. The main difference between part-time AWD and part-time 4WD is that the car will transition into AWD without the help of the driver. The system is designed to react when it senses a loss of traction. All-wheel drive is available in a much wider range of vehicles, from small sedans to large SUVs.

Does every driver need all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive?

The simple answer is no. It really depends on where you live and if you need to use your vehicle in bad driving conditions. If you live in an area that gets a lot of snow you might want to consider a vehicle with AWD or 4WD. (You should also review these winter driving safety tips.) Four-wheel drive is better for people who live in rural areas and need to travel in deeper snow on roads that might not get plowed quickly. Something to always keep in mind though is that while 4WD and AWD vehicles can help you get through the snow, they can’t help make the vehicle stop, so it’s always important to practice caution.

Now that you know the difference between all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive, find out 13 car dealer secrets they don’t want you to know.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest