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What are the differences between four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive? Get the facts, here

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April 9th 2021 info

Commonly, people will confuse all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive (known sometimes as AWD and 4WD). To most car enthusiasts, this confusion is enough to make them go pale, but for the casual onlooker, the differences between each can be confusing.

Which is better: AWD or 4WD? Do 4WD cars only perform better when off-roading? Is there any point in buying an AWD vehicle? These questions often pop up, so we’re here to answer them.

Below, we discuss the differences between four-wheel and all-wheel drive, how both driving methods work and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

4WD and AWD: the differences

There are a few major differences between 4WD and AWD. The most prominent difference boils down to their usage: 4WD is meant for off-road driving, while AWD shines on-road. They feature in many different 4x4s, SUVs and crossovers.

Confused by the difference between an SUV, a 4x4 and a Crossover? Then check out our post on the subject before reading on.

However, the disparities don’t just come down to what surface you’re driving. 4WD can, of course, still function on the road, while an AWD car isn’t going to struggle massively on all off-road surfaces.

To truly understand the differences, we’ll need to analyse how each system works.

How 4WD works

A fundamental difference between 4WD and other driving methods is the fact that it’s a part-time system. 4WD isn’t switched on all the time; it only comes into action on problematic surfaces when the  driver activates it themselves.

When the 4WD mechanism activates, it causes:

  1. The engine to activate, sending power to the front and rear axis
  2. The engine sends more torque to the wheels to facilitate traction

As a result, all four wheels gain better traction, or, in the case of two-wheel drive (TWD), just the stuck tyres will receive better traction

Ultimately, these steps aim to increase the traction and power an engine produces. This makes driving on icy surfaces, for example, much easier, as the mechanism forces traction on the car’s tyres and movement.

How AWD works

Now, AWD delivers more power and traction to a car’s four wheels too, but not in the same way. There are subtle, but important, differences between how 4WD and AWD function.

AWD delivers extra power on the four wheels by rotating both vehicle axles at the same speed. This delivers the same amount of maximum power to each of the wheels and is not activated by the driver.

4WD, on the other hand, rotates the axles depending on the power needed. This provides a fixed amount of power for the tyres appropriate to the surface someone is driving on with the whole process activated by the driver

These differences are small, but effectively, AWD delivers the same amount of power to all wheels at all times, while 4WD is a little more nuanced and delivers a fixed amount of power to whichever tyre needs it most.

All-wheel drive v 4-wheel drive: the advantages and disadvantages

So, who is the victor? AWD or 4WD? Each system has its advantages and disadvantages. Generally, AWD will suit those who want a jack-of-all-trades, while 4WD is reserved for those who want some serious off-road capabilities.

Discover the advantages and disadvantages of each below.

Advantages of 4WD

  • Greatly improved traction, making off-road problems much easier. By managing how much power each wheel gets, it ensures a smooth drive over ice, mud and even sand.
  • The ability to grip roads better, thanks to the specific distribution of power to each wheel.
  • An overall increase in power, leading to a fast, fun drive.

Disadvantages of 4WD

  • While 4WD ensures better grip, it can sometimes be more difficult to corner on roads as a result.
  • Increased traction can lead to an increase in braking distance, which is something drivers need to become accustomed to.
  • Fuel efficiency can sometimes be a problem because of the extra work a 4WD engine does.

Advantages of AWD

  • It requires no input from the driver as to when it activates, which is a benefit for those who want a no-nonsense approach.
  • It’s built for the road, leading to excellent handling and maneuverability, especially at corners.
  • It’s powerful, leading to a speedy, enjoyable drive.

Disadvantages of AWD

  • It doesn’t operate off-road as well as 4WD motors.
  • Much like 4WD, braking distance and fuel efficiency can be an issue.
  • An increased rate of tyre wear-and-tear and depth depreciation has been noticed, mainly due to the consistent power being put on them. As a result, replacements can be costly.

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