It’s a common myth that all-wheel drive (AWD) and four-wheel drive (4WD) are the same. Shoppers, as well as some sales associates, use the terms interchangeably for what are, actually, two different systems.
The mechanical differences between AWD and 4WD are significant, and most would consider them complicated. I prefer to keep things nice and easy. That’s why I’ve found, in most instances, it’s better to leave that to my mechanic.
To keep it simple, if you are in the market for a more rugged vehicle (trucks and/or truck-platform SUVs) that can traverse harsh terrains, you’re most likely looking for a 4WD vehicle. But if you’re looking for a commuter or grocery-go-getter that performs well for every-day driving, AWD is a more logical choice.
As an owner of both an AWD and a 4WD vehicle, I can unequivocally say that each drives very differently and serves its own purpose in our family.
For instance, I live in an area that got a lot of snow this winter. Then, recent record-high temperatures melted more than half of the snow. What do you get when a lot of snow melts quickly? MUD. Lots and lots of mud.
Choosing which vehicle to drive and best handle the extreme road conditions has been easy.
In the snow and ice, I chose the AWD vehicle almost every time. Why? First, because AWD is on all the time. You don’t have to remember to switch it on and/or off. This is especially important when you get into a situation where you need it and thinking about which button to press is not the first thing on your mind.
Second, there are sensors on the wheels of AWD vehicles that monitor various things, two of which are traction and speed. They send this information to the differentials which then send the most power to the wheels that are doing the most good. So, if you find yourself in slippery conditions, the wheels with the most traction are getting the most power.
Makes sense, right?
On the other side, 4WD is an on-demand system that you turn on and off as needed. You used to have to get out of your truck and turn a dial to lock in 4WD, but these days it’s as simple as hitting a button or flipping a switch from the driver’s seat.
Since the snow meltdown, our 4WD truck has been a beast. Flip the switch to 4WD and it can negotiate the deep mud and potholes without blinking an eye – and, while doing so, pull a trailer through the same mud and muck. (This recent discovery only made me love my truck even more.)
Then, when back on dry pavement, it’s a simple matter of switching back to 2WD for more maneuverability and better gas mileage.
Of course, not everyone needs AWD or 4WD and adding either as an option can increase the price of a vehicle. But if you’re an off-road enthusiast, live where wintery weather can be bothersome or a combination of the two, understanding which better suits your situation can come in handy!