4WD vs. AWD – What’s the Difference?


There was a time when if you wanted a vehicle that was driven by all four wheels you were limited to a handful of large, cumbersome, and extremely inefficient full-size four-wheel drives.

In 2019, when more than 40% of new cars sold in Australia are all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, the number of options and vehicle sizes, as well as price range has significantly expanded to include a wide range of options that suit most budgets and most purposes. According to Australian 4WD parts retailer Sparesbox, the market for 4WD parts in Australia has increased dramatically over the last three years. The increase in popularity is attributed to the growing number of 4×4 and SUV vehicles populating driveways across the country.

There is no denying the growing popularity of vehicles that are driven by all four wheels. But what’s the difference between all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive? And which one is the right option for you? All-wheel drive versus four-wheel drive terminology can seem very confusing, especially since all-wheel-drive has become common terminology and four-wheel drive systems have become increasingly sophisticated. There has been an increasing crossover between the terminology. Adding to the confusion, vehicle manufacturers often use these terms interchangeably without specifying the difference.

What Is All Wheel Drive (AWD)?

As you can probably guess from the name, all-wheel drive systems send power to the front and rear wheels of your vehicle. It seems simple however in practice, there are two types of drive trains that are called all-wheel-drive. Firstly, there is full time all-wheel drive that will drive all four wheels continuously. And secondly, there is the part-time all-wheel drive or automatic all-wheel-drive systems which operate two wheels most of the time and will send power to all four wheels only when traction is needed.

How Does All Wheel Drive Work?

Full-time and part-time all-wheel-drive systems share one thing in common, generally speaking, they operate with no input from the driver. While some manufacturers offer selectable modes that will allow a greater degree of control over how much power goes to each axle, all of the wheels will get torque from a series of differentials, and/or multiple clutches which help to distribute power to the wheels as traction is needed.

What is Four Wheel Drive (4WD)?

Four-wheel drive systems are the more traditional system that is associated with vehicles driven by all four wheels. Stereotypically, four-wheel drive vehicles are personified as off-roaders with high ground clearance, shielded underbody, robust appearance, and tyres with a lot of traction and knobbly bits.

However, over the last decade, four-wheel-drive engineering has become increasingly sophisticated. Although four-wheel-drive remains the chosen traction system of vehicles that are designed for off-road use, four-wheel drive systems have also found their way into a range of comfort and luxury vehicles as a way of improving safety.

How Does Four Wheel Drive Work?

Four-wheel drive vehicles deliver torque to each wheel through the front, rear, and centre differentials. The four-wheel drive system allows vehicles to operate at maximum traction under a variety of conditions. Generally speaking, unlike all-wheel-drive systems which are “on-demand” according to traction requirements, four-wheel drive is always operating.

Should You Choose AWD or 4WD?

All-wheel drive has become a popular option for manufacturers looking to improve the safety and traction of the vehicles across a wider range of driving conditions. AWD systems deliver increased traction when you needed, without sacrificing fuel economy when you don’t.

Four-wheel drive vehicles may be the better choice for those who live in remote areas, are exposed to extreme weather conditions, and enjoy it off-roading. The system which is typically found in bigger trucks and SUVs with higher ground clearance, provides the greatest amount of control and attraction in tricky driving conditions.

Choosing between an all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive vehicle depends entirely on your intended usage and what kind of driving conditions you encounter throughout the year.

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