Have you ever looked at vehicle listings and wondered why some of them claim to have a four-wheel drive system, while others brag about all-wheel drive systems?

Most standard cars have four wheels, so isn’t driving with four of them driving with all of them? Are the two even different, and if so, which one is the right choice for you?

Four-wheel drive systems use mechanical connections to power all four wheels of your car at once, while all-wheel drive systems use smart systems to manage which wheel gets power when needed. Read on to learn more about 4WD vs. AWD and discover which one is right for you.

What Is 4WD?

Four-wheel drive, or 4WD, is a system that gives drive power to all four wheels on your vehicle. In general, 4WD vehicles are driven by mechanical connections that are managed through a series of differentials.

These differentials are placed at the front, center, and rear of the vehicle and are composed of gears that allow each wheel to get a different amount of drive power as needed.

In general, 4WD vehicles are more suited to running over rough terrain, including dangerous weather conditions. These systems can often be turned on and off, and some models even include low- and high-range options. The low-range option is good for off-road driving, while the high-range option is designed with slippery road conditions in mind.

Pros of 4WD

If you’re looking for a drive system that will keep your wheels on the ground, no matter what conditions you’re in, it’s hard to beat 4WD.

The differential setup of these systems gives them the rugged grip they need to pull you out of an ice storm or over a mountain.

While AWD vehicles use differentials as well, they rely more on smart control and less on strong mechanical connections. In a 4WD vehicle, you can hook up any load in your towing capacity and get rolling, confident in the knowledge that your vehicle can handle it.

4WD systems have also branched out more and have started showing up in other vehicle types. In addition to being a feature on full-size pickup trucks, you can also see 4WD on large luxury SUVs and even on some crossovers.

In the coming years, we might see 4WD on even smaller vehicles, allowing more people to work and play with no traction worries.

Cons of 4WD

As rugged as 4WD systems are, they aren’t without their downfalls. One of the biggest problems we see in vehicles with 4WD is a stiffer driving experience than you might get with 2WD or AWD vehicles.

This is because 4WD systems are often paired with heavy-duty suspension that’s designed to stand up to the bumps and hills of off-road driving.

4WD drivetrains also tend to be less refined than the AWD systems, especially when it comes to fuel economy. These systems tend to take a toll on your fuel economy, especially if they run all the time.

And most of the time, 4WD options come as part of higher trim packages, making them more expensive on the front end.

What Is AWD?

On the face of it, all-wheel drive, or AWD, may seem the same as 4WD – a system that sends torque to all four wheels on your car. These systems also use differentials to determine how much drive power each wheel gets.

But in general, AWD systems are geared more towards smart control of your drive system, rather than brute-force grip.

AWD systems tend to be a little more automatic, adjusting the torque for each wheel to optimize your grip on the road. You can get an AWD system that runs full-time, sending drive power to all four wheels all the time.

You can also get a part-time system that uses a variety of electronic sensors to tell when you need extra traction and automatically shift to the all-wheel setup.

Pros of AWD

Overall, AWD systems tend to be more sophisticated and automatic than 4WD systems. Many modern AWD systems don’t even require you to decide when to run the system. They simply read the road conditions and automatically switch on AWD when it’s needed.

AWD systems are a little more versatile than their four-wheel cousins, too. Whereas 4WD systems tend to be limited to trucks and large SUVs, you can find AWD systems on vehicles as small as compact cars. This gives drivers who want that extra power or stability more options in terms of the type of vehicle they want.

Cons of AWD

While AWD systems excel at creating a smooth, sophisticated ride, they just can’t get down and dirty the way 4WD systems can. Like 4WD systems, AWD setups are getting better and are improving their stability performance. But most serious off-roaders still prefer to put their trust in a vehicle with 4WD for its improved power distribution and control capabilities.

Also like 4WD systems, AWD options tend to come as part of the more expensive trim packages. The unfortunate truth is that you just aren’t likely to find an AWD car on a budget. Also, the additional drive power demands of an AWD car will take a toll on the overall fuel economy of the vehicle.

Which Vehicles Have Which Systems

In general, certain types of vehicles tend to have either 4WD or AWD, depending on their overall specialty. For instance, you’re more likely to find a 4WD system on large SUVs and pickup trucks that are designed to take you off-road. These systems are also common in Jeeps and other high-demand driving vehicles.

AWD is more likely to show up in smaller SUVs, including crossover models. Because these vehicles may not have the all-out heft to pull a trailer or stick to icy roads, they need the subtler control levels AWD can offer. You may also find AWD options on some luxury sedans or as part of higher trim level packages.

Best for Icy Weather

If you live somewhere with serious winters, you may want to look for a vehicle with AWD. You never know when you might hit an icy patch or an area where the snow is packed a little harder. Having the automatic capabilities of the AWD system could get you the traction you need before you even know you need it.

That being said, even an AWD system can’t guarantee you’ll keep your tires on the road. It’s always important to drive carefully in icy conditions, even if you do have an advanced traction system. Give yourself some extra space when braking, and make sure to maintain your tires during the winter months.

Best for Rough Terrain

If you live for life off the road, there’s no substitute for a good, solid 4WD system. The mechanical connectors in a 4WD system allow your car to hang on no matter what terrain you’re rolling over. This can also help you keep traction on gravel roads and even through deep snow or sand.

If your 4WD vehicle is going to be your daily driver, you’ll have to live with the less-than-stellar quality of the ride. But this may be worth it if you live somewhere mountainous, where you’re dealing with steep grades on a regular basis. And when it comes to getting through snowstorms, there’s no beating the traction 4WD can provide.

Best for Heavy Loads

If you need a vehicle that can pull as much weight as you do, 4WD is the way to go. For one thing, 4WD is more common on the larger vehicles that tend to come with higher towing capabilities. And when you need brute power, 4WD delivers the road traction you need.

Of course, even with 4WD, it’s important that you respect the tow load capacities of your vehicle. You’ll still need to use extra care when towing something through bad weather, especially icy conditions. But you can rest assured that you’ll be getting the most you can out of your car’s towing capacity.

Shop 4WD and AWD Auto Parts from StockWise Auto

At first glance, 4WD and AWD may seem like the same thing, but the two actually differ in a few important ways. 4WD is more geared towards raw power and is best for rough terrain and towing heavy loads. AWD offers a smarter system that can keep you safe on icy roads and in uncertain conditions.

If you’d like to learn more about 4WD vs. AWD vehicles, check out the rest of our site at StockWise Auto. Our mission is to simplify the auto parts shopping experience with an easy-to-use catalog and spectacular in-house customer service.

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