Is AWD the same as 4WD?

Is AWD the same as 4WD?

AWD vs 4WD - Car in rain

Thanks to a mixture of assumption and bad advertising, there will be many out there who might not know the differences between AWD (All-Wheel-Drive) and 4WD (Four-Wheel-Drive).

While the two are certainly comparable, there are precise contrasts between them, ones that could play a big part in which vehicle you might want to purchase.

What is AWD?

If you’re a regular driver with regular demands for their trips out on the road, then All-Wheel-Drive is possibly the route you want to go down.

AWD is very much suited to the needs of such a driver as, for the most part, the car is actually in 2WD (Two-Wheel-Drive) via the front (typically) or rear axle. Because of this, AWD is often found on more family-orientated vehicles such as SUVs.

Volvo XC90 AWD car

It’s only when the vehicle’s on-board systems detect the need for extra grip that you as a driver gain an extra hand from power being distributed to additional corners of the car.

As such, if you’re the type of driver who appreciates a helping hand from their vehicle when the weather turns, AWD will be there to offer that.

AWD can distribute the torque of the engine’s power to whichever wheel or axle the system believes needs it the most to shore up the overall traction, helping the car keep moving forward when overall grip feels limited.

We are even seeing AWD make its way onto performance cars, such as BMW M cars, where AWD will kick in not just when the road conditions call for it, but also when the driver decides to do some spirited driving, making for a good option on the track.

What is 4WD?

This is where things get a bit more serious, as Four-Wheel-Drive is especially designed for vehicles that will literally go off-road, and doesn’t necessarily fare well on regular roads.

With this in mind, 4WD is something a driver must select whilst at the wheel upon deciding that the conditions demand it.

When going into 4WD mode, the vehicle will lock the front and rear driveshafts together, creating a setup where the front and rear axles are spinning at exactly the same speed.

Driving on surfaces such as sand, mud or snow, this will ensure that torque from the engine is going to at least one wheel at the front, and one at the back. This power from each end allows the vehicle to continue to propel itself forwards, even when the going gets tough.

As 4WD is only meant to be used in such conditions, you’ll only usually find this technology in some pretty hardcore machinery like pickups, and rarely in your humble family SUV.

Ford Ranger Raptor 4WD

In an opposite manner to AWD, 4WD is not what you want to be using on the track. This is because the same amount of torque is being applied to each corner of the car, as opposed to where it’s actually needed at the time.

For similar reasons, it can also be dangerous on the road, as it will make turning at speed more difficult, leaving less room for error when around other road users and pedestrians.

What is ‘part-time’ 4WD?

As described above, 4WD needs to be actually turned on when at the wheel, therefore it is a ‘part-time’ system.

Unless you’re constantly driving on tricky terrain, your vehicle will be in 2WD, as on a normal road, there is no use for 4WD.

Are there different versions of 4WD?

There are two different states of 4WD – 4L and 4H.

The first, 4L, is Low Range Four-Wheel-Drive, and is when a low gear transfer case is used for softer surfaces such as sand or wet mud, as Low Range helps limit sudden, uncontrolled blips of torque.

Meanwhile, 4H is High Range Four-Wheel-Drive, and is useful for harder surfaces such as gravel or firm sand, and whilst doing higher speeds. 

Is 4×4 the same as 4WD?

It certainly is – so if you see 4×4 (Four-by-Four) in relation to a vehicle’s drive technology, it’s best just to think of it as 4WD. Meanwhile, 4×2 (Four-by-Two) is used to describe a car with Two-Wheel-Drive.

Elsewhere, it’s common for 4×4 to be used as a designation for a larger car, rather than the actual drivetrain, but it could be a common occurrence that the vehicle in question is actually running an AWD system.

Is AWD or 4WD better in snow?

This is somewhat of a contentious subject due to the understanding – or lack thereof – of how an AWD or 4WD system can help you as a driver.

It is important to remember that these two systems are all about giving you additional traction when trying to accelerate or move forward.

AWD or 4WD better in snow

In snow and/or ice, neither AWD or 4WD are there to help you brake more effectively or turn better in such conditions. Having either of these will not suddenly allow your tyres to gain more grip, or help your brakes have more bite.

If you’re looking to add extra security in the corners and some additional braking ability in the snow, then winter tyres should be your first point of call.