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All-Wheel Drive vs. Four-Wheel Drive: What's the Difference?

The engine and transmission layout used in motor vehicles follow certain set templates. For example, front-wheel drive (FWD) refers to vehicles with an engine and transmission that only drive the front wheels. On the other hand, rear-wheel drive (RWD) vehicles send power to the rear wheels only.

All-Wheel Drive vs. Four-Wheel Drive

All-wheel drive (AWD) and four-wheel drive (4WD) vehicles use engine and transmission configurations that drive power to all vehicle wheels. The mechanics of how all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive vehicles work is very similar. 

The most significant difference between the two is that four-wheel drive is more likely to be used when discussing a vehicle with actual off-road capabilities. In contrast, all-wheel drive is more likely to be used in vehicles to maintain on-road traction and improve passenger safety.

Four-wheel drive

A four-wheel drive vehicle has two axles that provide torque to four axle ends. In North American vehicles, the term four-wheel drive is typically reserved for a vehicle with a transfer case that can manually switch between two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive. 

Some four-wheel drive vehicles require you to stop the vehicle before engaging four-wheel drive, whereas others have four-wheel drive engaged at all times.

A vehicle listed as four-wheel drive is more likely to include features designed for pushing the limits of the vehicle off-road. Many four-wheel drive vehicles include a center differential that helps divide the torque and power between the front and rear axle of the vehicle, for instance. 

Four-wheel drive vehicles often allow the driver to choose between low-range and high-range gearing. Low-range gearing makes it possible to traverse steep inclines and declines at a slow speed.

All-Wheel Drive

All-wheel drive was used interchangeably with four-wheel drive throughout much of motoring history and was typically reserved for vehicles with more than four wheels. Nowadays, all-wheel drive designates any vehicle with a permanent multi-wheel drive. 

All-wheel drive performs roughly the same function as four-wheel drive in passenger vehicles, but it’s usually accompanied by technology designed to improve traction on the road.

Where four-wheel drive typically comes with features that excite off-roaders, all-wheel drive is usually marketing at those who want their cars to be safer or perform better on the road. 

Many vehicles with all-wheel drive operate on a two-wheel drive basis unless a slippage or lack of traction is detected, wherein the other axle is engaged. This improves vehicle handling, performance, and safety while keeping the vehicle efficient.

Are Four-Wheel Drive and All-Wheel Drive Vehicles Worth It?

As stated above, the difference between four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive primarily comes down to marketing. But are they worth the price premium?

If you intend on off-roading in your vehicle, four-wheel drive is a big step up in capabilities over two-wheel drives. And an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) study of vehicles showed that vehicles with all-wheel drive resulted in significantly fewer deaths than their two-wheel-drive counterparts.  This suggests that all the additional safety features that come with all-wheel drive are with the investment.

Categories: Pre-Owned Inventory

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