Driving in snow

Whats Best for cold weather: AWD or 4WD?

So, you’re looking for a vehicle that performs well in seasonal cold weather. Your research takes you to vehicles with four driven wheels thanks to their superior traction in slippery conditions. In the past, these vehicles limited you to a selection of larger SUVs or trucks, but today, many sedans, coupes, and crossovers also offer the superior performance of four-wheel drivetrains. And the sales results attest to their popularity.

Today, all-wheel or four-wheel drive vehicles account for 45-percent of automotive sales in North America. This number is up to over 90-percent in areas with more severe cold winter weather. The popularity of these highly capable vehicles is indisputable, but which is better for you: all-wheel or four-wheel drive? The terminology is confusing and not very clear cut; after all, both power all four wheels, right? We’re here to clarify the difference and help you pick which drivetrain is best for your lifestyle and needs.

What Is All-Wheel Drive?

First thing involves nomenclature. In most discussions of all-wheel drive vehicles, the term is shortened into AWD. As implied, AWD vehicles drive both front and rear tires. These systems generally operate with no input from the driver, although select vehicles do come equipped with selectable drive modes that better tailor the AWD to different road conditions.

According to our technical consultant at East Hills Subaru of Roslyn, NY under the classification of AWD are two unique operational systems.  Vehicles can be equipped with either a full-time AWD, or a drivetrain that engages both front and rear axles all the time, or a more sophisticated part-time AWD, one which can disengage an axle until a time the vehicle needs more traction.

What is Four-Wheel Drive?

Four-wheel drive (4×4) is the original multiple-driven wheel system. This system is primarily found in trucks or larger SUVs, and is known for being the more rugged and robust than AWD.  This drivetrain operates via a series of heavy front and rear differentials, transfer cases and couplings. Like AWD vehicles, this sends torque to all four of the vehicle’s wheels, but many 4WD vehicles come with low- and high-gear ranges to perform more aggressively in certain situations.

Low-gear 4×4 vehicles are great for off-roading, delivering maximum torque throughout the low speeds for continuous power. High-gear 4×4 settings is most useful on loose or slippery terrains, such as across snow, ice, mud, sand, or gravel.  This extra grip also lends to fantastic towing performance rarely found in AWD vehicles, rating anywhere between 6,000 to 10,000-plus pounds depending on the powertrain’s output.

4×4 drivetrains also come in full-time or part-time configurations. Same as AWD, full-time 4WD vehicles continuously engage all four tires throughout the drive.  Part-time 4WD drivetrains again similarly disengages an axle–typically the front–when spare power isn’t necessary.

Which Should I Get?

Much of this decision hinges on your lifestyle and what you plan to do with your car. If you’re looking to get advanced traction simply for snow in a sedan, then AWD is a simple system that can run automatically and engage itself. You can concentrate on driving. AWD vehicles can handle rain, snow, and ice, and even offers some light off-roading or trailering performances, typically maxing around 3,000 pounds.

If 4WD appeals, you’ll be picking from mostly large SUVs or trucks. These vehicles are better suited to bigger demands for power and can handle more adverse roadway conditions. No AWD can compare to the ruggedness and pulling capabilities 4WD vehicles pump out, and it’s the drivetrain favoured everywhere for superior off-roading if you want to venture far off the beaten path.