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What’s the Difference Between AWD and 4WD?

BY: Larry Witherspoon Jr.
A red Jeep Wrangler Rubicon off-roading.

Buying a brand new car or used vehicle can be an exciting time, but it can also be a little confusing. From choosing between coupes, hatchbacks and convertibles or between manual transmissions or automatics and many other factors, there is plenty you need to consider before signing on any dotted line apart from just the sticker price. 

Another of the most important aspects to consider for any car, truck or SUV you purchase is its drivetrain. Depending on where you live, such as in areas with heavy snow or rainfall during the year, the type of drivetrain your vehicle has can help give you a safer and smoother ride. For many car buyers, one of the most confusing aspects of deciding between drivetrains is understanding the difference between two of the most common types — all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive. 

What is All-Wheel Drive?

All-wheel-drive systems, commonly just referred to as AWD, are a type of drivetrain found in many vehicles, such as the Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape. With AWD, a vehicle can simultaneously send power to all four wheels without needing any input from the driver. AWD can also control the amount of power (or torque) given to the wheels to help distribute that torque more effectively, helping you to optimize traction on any surface, including snow and ice. This is also considered more efficient because it transfers power to all four wheels as needed, while a four-wheel drive sends power to each wheel even when not required, resulting in a decrease in overall fuel economy.

Depending on the make and model of your vehicle, you may have the option of using either full-time or part-time AWD. 

Difference Between Full-time and Part-Time AWD

With full-time AWD, both the front and rear sets of wheels are driven all of the time. This drivetrain can help your vehicle handle better and provide a smoother ride on dry pavement. At the same time, in slippery conditions such as ice, snow, or mud, it provides additional traction to ensure safer handling that will give you more confidence when driving on those types of terrain.

In a typical operation, part-time AWD sends torque to only one set of wheels, similar to how two-wheel drive systems operate, such as those found in front-wheel drive (FWD) or rear-wheel drive (RWD). In a part-time AWD, an array of sensors feeds information into a computer that controls power distribution between all four tires for maximum efficiency. When the system senses any loss of traction, it will automatically engage the second set of wheels.

What is Four-Wheel Drive?

Like AWD, four-wheel drive systems (4WDs) are designed to send torque to all four wheels at once to help increase traction when needed. However, the key difference between the two is that 4WDs cannot individually control the torque given to the wheels, meaning torque is sent to each wheel as the vehicle is driving. 

Along with this main difference, 4WDs are also often more robust than AWD systems, making them better suited for off-road conditions. Many 4WD vehicles also have various settings, such as a high and a low range setting. When engaged, these settings can engage your 4WD to provide different benefits when driving, such as the low setting giving maximum traction when off-roading while the high setting (the default setting) is ideal for slippery conditions like snow, ice, sand and gravel. 

Difference Between Full-time and Part-Time 4WD

Despite having key differences, like AWD, 4WD vehicles can also come in full- or part-time. Often found in most trucks and SUVS, a part-time 4WD system acts just as a part-time AWD — sending power to one set of wheels at a time (most often the rear set). This works by using what is known as a transfer case, which helps your vehicle determine where to send the power.

Unlike AWD, however, you must physically change between part-time and full-time movies. To do this, you would simply need to either use a lever or a button on their vehicle’s dashboard, depending on the make/model. Conversely, a vehicle with just a full-time 4WD system cannot shift between two-wheel drive and 4WD.

What Are the Differences Between AWD and 4WD?

The difference between AWD and 4WD can be confusing for many car buyers as both systems send power to all four wheels and can come with available operating options in both full-time and part-time modes. However, put simply, the main differences between the two come down to a few key factors. These include:

  • AWD vehicles cannot operate in a high or low range setting, such as 4WD vehicles.
  • 4WD systems are heavier than AWDs.
  • AWD systems can control the amount of torque given to each wheel, while 4WD systems can only provide power to either a single set of wheels or all four wheels at once.

No matter if you have an AWD or a 4WD, it’s important to protect yourself and your vehicle from the cost of unexpected breakdowns and other necessary repairs. By purchasing an Endurance auto protection plan, you can be sure your car, truck or SUV’s most vital components are covered from the cost of expensive auto repair bills. Additionally, you will also receive 24/7 roadside assistance whenever you purchase an Endurance plan, helping to give you peace of mind whenever you’re on the road. 

You can also find even more savings with a year’s worth of Endurance Elite Benefits. Coming with the purchase of any Endurance plan and a small activation fee, you can get extra perks and savings in the form of collision discounts, key fob replacements, tire repairs or replacements and more.  

Should My Car Have AWD or 4WD?

AWD is a fantastic feature that you can find in cars, trucks, and SUVs of all sizes. It can provide you with increased traction under normal winter conditions and during light off-roading. AWDs will also provide you with the reassurance that your vehicle will actively be engaging all four wheels when needed, giving you the most amount of traction possible. Not only that, but AWDs are also more fuel-efficient compared to their 4WD counterparts, meaning you’ll be making less frequent trips to the gas station. Overall, AWDs are great for drivers looking for an overall reliable ride on all types of road conditions.

If you are looking for a vehicle to handle more extreme conditions, such as a heavy-duty truck for work or an off-roading weekend vehicle, 4WD vehicles are often the better choice. This is because while 4WD cannot provide power to individual wheels, they are often heavier than AWDs, making them better suited for more extreme driving conditions, such as managing deep snow or rocky terrains.

Protect Your AWD or 4WD Vehicle with Endurance

Whether you have an AWD or 4WD drivetrain, staying up-to-date on your car, truck or SUV’s preventative maintenance is vital for any vehicle. With an EnduranceAdvantage™ auto protection plan, you can rest easy knowing you’ll have comprehensive breakdown coverage as well as receiving up to $3,500 in regular maintenance services, including up to three oil and filter changes, engine diagnostic exams and more. Each Endurance plan will also automatically come with 24/7 roadside assistance as standard, along with the chance to receive a year’s worth of Elite Benefits. Simply purchase any Endurance protection plan, pay a small activation fee and enjoy perks such as key fob replacements, up to two tire repairs or replacements, collision discounts and more for an entire year.

To learn more about how Endurance can help you and your vehicle, give us a call at (800) 253-8203 to speak directly with one of our representatives, or you can get started by requesting a free quote. By visiting our Learning Center, you can also find even more answers to common automotive FAQs, expert auto tips, vehicle buying guides, and other informative and fun topics.

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