All-Wheel Drive vs. Four-Wheel Drive: Which Drivetrain Is Right for You?

September 23rd, 2023 by

While all-wheel drive (AWD) and four-wheel drive (4WD) may sound similar, these drivetrains are anything but the same. There are key differences that set the two apart, making each best-suited for different weather conditions, terrains, and drive types. But which is the right one for you? That depends on a number of factors, including where you live and how you plan on using your vehicle. 

Read on to find out everything you need to know about AWD and 4WD, including what makes each drivetrain unique, frequently asked questions, and how to determine which is the best fit for your situation.

Table of Contents

blue 2022 nissan rogue

AWD vs. 4WD: What’s the Difference?

In order to understand how AWD and 4WD vehicles differ, a good place to start is by taking a close-up look at how each drivetrain operates.

All-Wheel Drive

Vehicles equipped with AWD have a system where the engine sends power (or torque) to all four wheels to help drivers maintain control on slippery driving surfaces. In the case of AWD, the vehicle determines when to engage the system and power isn’t always evenly distributed. This drivetrain also has two different types: full-time and part-time.

  • Full-time AWD is exactly how it sounds and is where power is constantly sent to all of a vehicle’s wheels. If any slippage is detected in the front wheels, then extra power is sent to the back axle, and vice versa.
  • With part-time AWD, power is only delivered to all wheels when it’s needed. Under normal driving conditions, this system defaults to either front- or rear-wheel drive mode depending on the vehicle.

No matter which type of AWD your vehicle has, an important differentiator to note when comparing to 4WD is that both operate independently, meaning that no driver involvement is usually needed to activate the system.

Four-Wheel Drive

In the case of 4WD, the front and rear wheels are linked through a transfer case that distributes torque evenly between all four wheels. Unlike AWD, the system is almost always activated by the driver via a toggle switch and is best used for providing extra traction in off-roading scenarios or when getting out of slippery spots.

Another key differentiator is that 4WD should only be used when needed. If a 4WD system is constantly engaged or consistently used while driving on high-traction surfaces (such as dry roads), tire wear and vehicle damage can result.

picture of ford f-150 2021 black exterior for sale in Hooksett New Hampshire

What Is All-Wheel Drive Good for?

Everything from the area you live in to the kind of driving you typically do can impact the drivetrain that’s most advantageous. When determining if AWD is the right choice for you, it’s always helpful to consider the following three factors:

  • The weather. AWD is generally best suited for conditions that lead to slippery roads. If you live in an area where snow, rain, slush, and / or ice are common, then an AWD vehicle is most likely your best choice.
  • The terrain. Vehicles with AWD tend to drive best on paved surfaces and can be advantageous on roads that have been treated and plowed during snow storms or even if you’re looking for better handling or cornering under normal conditions.
  • Driver type. AWD has the most benefits for people who are predominantly city or highway drivers in regions that are prone to inclement weather.

Everything You Need to Know About Four-Wheel Drive

The same three considerations apply to 4WD as well. Vehicles with this drivetrain generally perform better under the following circumstances:

  • Extreme weather conditions. 4WD systems are best equipped to help drivers get out of tricky spots, which can include everything from deep, drifting snow to the slippery mud slicks that pop up during rainstorms.
  • Off-roading terrain. 4WD enables both of a vehicle’s front and rear axles to turn at the same rate, making it possible to more easily traverse the rocks, hills, gravel, or loose sand off-roaders are likely to encounter.
  • Rugged driver type. 4WD comes with the most advantages for people who live in more rural areas, where unpaved (and unplowed or untreated) roads are a part of every-day life. This drivetrain is also ideal for those who enjoy off-roading.

Systems Compared: The Difference Between AWD and 4WD

Check out our AWD vs. 4WD comparison chart to see how the two systems stack up:

All-Wheel Drive Four-Wheel Drive
Weather conditions Best in weather that leads to slippery driving surfaces, such as rain, snow, slush, and ice Best in more extreme weather conditions — helps drivers get out of tricky spots such as deep snow drifts or mud patches
Terrain type Paved and treated driving surfaces, such as city roads and highways More rugged terrain, such as dirt or gravel roads, rocks, hills, and loose sand
Who’s it for? Drivers who live in regions that are prone to inclement weather and who stick to paved roads Drivers who live in rural areas or those who enjoy off-roading

Popular AWD and 4WD Vehicles

Now that you have a better idea of what makes each system unique, it’s possible that you’ve also figured out which one makes the most sense for you. If that’s the case, congratulations! You’re ready to move on to the next step — choosing your vehicle. To give you a head start, here are a few of the most well-liked AWD and 4WD options:

Top AWD Vehicles
Top 4WD Vehicles

AWD vs. 4WD FAQs

Q: What is AWD?

A: Vehicles equipped with AWD have a system where the engine sends power (or torque) to all four wheels to help drivers maintain control on slippery driving surfaces. AWD is typically engaged independently, meaning that there’s no driver involvement needed.

Q: What is 4WD?

A: In 4WD drivetrains, the front and rear wheels are linked through a transfer case that distributes torque evenly between all four wheels. This system is typically activated by the driver using a switch.

Q: Are AWD and 4WD the same?

A: Even though these terms are often used interchangeably, there are key differences that set AWD and 4WD apart.

Q: What’s the difference between AWD and 4WD?

A: Apart from AWD being engaged independently and 4WD needing to be activated by drivers, other differences include:

  • AWD is best for maintaining control on slippery driving surfaces, while 4WD provides extra traction for getting out of slippery spots
  • AWD is constant and can be useful even when driving in normal conditions, while 4WD should only be used when needed
  • AWD is best suited for city and highway driving, while 4WD is better for off-roading

Q: Is AWD or 4WD better for me?

A: The answer depends on a few different factors, namely weather, terrain, and driver type. If you live somewhere that experiences inclement weather (such as snow and ice) and mostly drive on paved roads, then AWD may be the better choice. On the other hand, if you live in a more rural area, where roads are more likely to be unpaved and untreated (or you enjoy off-roading), a vehicle with 4WD could be right for you.

Find Your Next AWD or 4WD Vehicle at Merchants Auto

If you’re considering bringing home a used AWD or 4WD vehicle (or any type of car or truck), we can help! Merchants Auto is the largest pre-owned dealership in New Hampshire that’s also been in operation for more than 60 years.

The inventory on our 26-acre lot is always changing. We have hundreds of vehicles to choose from with more than 30 different makes — including hatchbacks, sedans, SUVs, pickups, sports cars, fuel-efficient models, compact cars, and work vans.

We strive to save our customers time and money, and our ultimate goal is to provide an enjoyable and hassle-free car buying experience.

Ready to get started? Browse our inventory online or stop by our Hooksett, NH showroom today.

Posted in Used Cars, Used Trucks