New cars can be quite intricate and full of industry specific jargon and vernacular. Most can easily tell the core difference between front-wheel and rear-wheel drive systems, although some of the finer points of each might not be common knowledge. Figuring out the differences between all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive can be trickier. Both system increase traction through powering all four wheels at once. This can mean the difference between sliding all across the road or confidently conquering adverse conditions. Our guide aims to demystify these systems, equipping you with the tools to better choose the system that is right for you.
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All-wheel drive (AWD) is the perfect ally for road prowess, whether it's snow or a sunny stretch craving speed.
How does it function?
AWD routes engine power to all wheels via various components like front, rear, and center differentials. It's ideal for performance beasts like the Nissan GT-R, unleashing ferocious acceleration. In adverse weather, even if one wheel slips, three others push the car forward.
There are diverse AWD systems. Some, like in the 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer, engage at the push of a button. Others, like in the Toyota Prius, activate an extra axle when needed to save fuel. The Jaguar I-PACE boasts unique electric motors on each axle.
Choose AWD if...
You face regular light snow or rain.
Serious off-roading isn't a priority.
Four-Wheel Drive - 4WD - 4x4
Four-wheel drive is like the rugged sibling of all-wheel drive, designed for tackling extreme off-road challenges.
How does it work?
Four-wheel drive, known as 4×4 or 4WD, channels torque to all wheels simultaneously. It's often associated with off-road capabilities, offering various gear ranges and can be either full-time or on-demand. While "all-wheel drive" can refer to torque on both axles, "four-wheel drive" specifically denotes components geared for off-road use.
Each axle has a differential allowing the wheels to rotate at varying speeds. Some 4X4s feature a locking differential, ensuring both wheels move at the same pace for overcoming obstacles. Hardcore models like the RAM 2500 Power Wagon have front and rear locking differentials. But be cautious—driving with locked differentials on dry roads can damage the hardware as the wheels can't turn independently through turns.
Two types: full-time and part-time. Full-time 4WD is constantly active, providing power to all wheels. Part-time 4WD allows you to engage it as needed, typically through a dial or lever.
Get 4WD if...
Your area deals with heavy snow.
You love off-road adventures like mud bogs, sand dunes, and rocky trails.
You need maximum traction for hauling trailers or boats frequently.