AWD vs 4WD: How to Choose a System That Works Best for You

An in-depth guide on AWD vs 4WD. AWD vs 4WD: How to Choose a System That Works Best for You

How many of you have had the debate with family and friends about all-wheel vs four-wheel drive?  Now depending on where you live, you might not have had this debate as of yet, but for those who live where the weather is a factor, you have had this debate one too many times.  Many people have a misconception on what the goal is of each of these systems, and what system is the best to use. In reality, there is not one that is better than the other, they each have their values, but when shopping for a car or truck, the main difference will come down to where you live and what you use your vehicle for.  There is no right or wrong answer, just what is best for you, so hopefully, in this blog, we can give you some helpful advice and the beginning of a better understanding of those systems and which works best for you.

All-Wheel Drive

This system does have two different types in the automotive industry.  There is full-time and part-time all-wheel drive. Typically in this system, it will offer no input from the driver, therefore the sensors in the system do all the work.  All the wheels will receive power through a series of clutches, couplings or differentials to distribute the power to the wheels so that the traction of the car is at it’s best.  In these cases of all-wheel-drive systems, they rely on a system called the center differential to distribute the power between the two axles.

The full-time all-wheel drive gives power to both the front and rear axles of the vehicle at all times, so depending on the roads, it will make sure that you get the best traction for a safer and more confident ride.

The part-time all-wheel drive will operate power to two of the wheels at all times, front or back depending on make and model of the vehicle.  Then depending on the road conditions can activate the other two wheels to create more traction.

Four-Wheel Drive

The more traditional system that everyone is used to and thinks of when talking about drivetrains of vehicles would be the four-wheel drive system.  This system will have the input of the driver before being operated. This system was typically found in trucks in the beginning, but since then you have been finding this system in more SUV’s as well as trucks. This system uses a transfer case, which functions as a locked differential and can be turned on or off by the driver.

The full-time four-wheel drive engages power to all four wheels at all times, so depending on the conditions of the road, it will give you better traction.

The part-time four-wheel drive will engage for extreme conditions.  This usually means that the driver will have different buttons they can push or switch to get the best traction for the roads they are driving.  

A lot of the four-wheel drive systems have the options of high and low ranges that can be selected by the driver with a switch or mechanical lever.  The low setting is more for the off-road environment, whereas the high setting is for slippery conditions on the roads.

Pros and Cons

AWD Pros

Many of the modern all-wheel-drive systems have an optimal balance of performance and convenience. The most basic all-wheel drive system will do all the thinking and adjusting for the driver in most conditions.  You will not have to worry about forgetting to push a button while driving if the road conditions change, which could mean having to pull over to make the adjustment.  The all-wheel drive system does this automatically for you while you are driving which makes one less thing you have to worry about.

AWD Cons

This system is integrated with the design of the vehicle, which means that if something is not working properly, your bill may be quite expensive to have it fixed.  This also means in most cases you will have to take to the dealership to fix since they will have to be able to pinpoint exactly what part of the system is failing and properly fix it.

4WD Pros

The driver is in control of the system.  There are usually different modes that you can choose from which would include 4-low, and this option is not found in all-wheel vehicles.  This option is best for towing, or if you get super stuck on the side of the road or a dirt road.  Also by being able to choose to turn this option on and off, allows for better fuel consumption overall.

4WD Cons

If you are not paying enough attention to the road conditions you could do more damage to the vehicle.  This would include forgetting to shut off the system when done, or not activating the system when needed.  You will need to commit to paying close attention to those road conditions and being diligent in taking care of your system properly for it to work each year.

Similarities Between AWD & 4WD

All-wheel drive and four-wheel drive are similar in what the overall desired effect in how you want the vehicle to handle for traction control.  Vehicles that are equipped with either system will send power to all four of your wheels when accelerating, which is not the case in a two-wheel drive system.  In the two-wheel drive system, your back or front two tires are doing the work at all times no matter what the road conditions are at the time.

Another similarity in these is the cost of the systems for your vehicle are comparable based on overall factors.  Both systems can have an increase in cost in the vehicle, but also be detrimental to the fuel economy.

Considerations in Buying

When buying a vehicle there is a number of things you are considering up front.  The size, fuel economy, price, are just some of those.  While the cost of two-wheel drive vehicles is less than a vehicle with all-wheel or four-wheel drive, there are other factors you want to consider when purchasing one of these two types of vehicles.  Having these extra things in mind when picking one will sometimes help your decision be a little easier.


The climate that you live in will make a huge impact on whether you want an all-wheel or four-wheel drive vehicle.  One of the major weather factors is snow.  Snow conditions are one of the main reasons to choose one of these vehicles.  AWD systems which deliver power to all four of your wheels at all times are best to deal with rapidly changing conditions.  This would include from soft or hard packed snow to glare ice.  This allows the car to sense the changes sometimes more quickly than the driver can.  A four-wheel drive system is more suited to navigating in deeper snow or extreme weather conditions.  This system will allow you to get thru drifts in high winds if it piles up, as well as getting to work if the roads have not yet been plowed.

If you live in an area that experiences more rain, driving an all-wheel drive vehicle may be more economical to help handle the turns and corners.  All-wheel drive can feel the car’s traction on the road, whereas a four-wheel drive vehicle cannot.  A lot of this will have to do with the traction you receive on the road when making corners or sharp turns.  Four-wheel drive vehicle would come in handy if your in an area that floods frequently on a dead end or dirt roads where the chances of you getting stuck are greater.


Vehicles of all different calibers that are street legal potentially can come in all different sizes that can provide the all-wheel drive.  They can deliver the increased traction for easier handling when it comes to light conditions of road wear and tear.  It also provides the least amount of resistance on dry roads to ensure a smooth ride and fuel economy.  This means that all four wheels will be controlled automatically by the vehicle without the driver having to make any decisions.

Four-wheel drive would be a better choice if you live or work in a remote area, or just enjoy hardcore off-roading.  This system usually comes in vehicles with a higher clearance from the ground than an average vehicle.  This will make them great to manage those mountain-like terrains with extreme hills, rocks or gravel.  They are also great and usually come with towing packages on them for those who need to haul heavy loads for work or tow trailers.  Those that come with a  part-time four-wheel drive system as well as the high and low options, lets you decide where you would like your power to be distributed giving you more control.


No matter which vehicle you choose, the repairs for these vehicles may be close, but in most cases, the cost is going to be determined on the system you have.  all-wheel drive vehicles may be more extensive in changing due to the system and it on at all times.  If one part of the system fails or needs to be fixed, you could end up changing another part of it so that it does not fail again because they are connected.  All-wheel drive vehicles also have more electronic components over the four-wheel drive vehicles, this can shoot up the cost of maintenance because they have to replace or change the wiring.  Four-wheel drive vehicles can be just as expensive to fix, but the transfer case has a history of failing or having more issues due to moisture or road conditions because it gets bumped around a little bit more.  This could also cause your vehicle to slip into and out of the four-wheel drive without you noticing right away, which could cause more serious issues.  So this may be something that is more frequently fixed when you may not use it all the time.  Knowing exactly how each system works is the key to this issue and you will want to examine and learn about your specific system in the vehicle you choose.

Gear Ratios

A four-wheel drive vehicle based on research will provide roughly a 50/50 front to back split to apply consistent power to the ground.  However, the vehicle manufacturer will determine the settings based on the axle or wheel.  All-wheel drive vehicles usually split the power from front to back as well as side to side based on the center differential.  So depending on the manufacturer, it could provide a 90/10 split from front to the rear axle to navigate the roads.

Fuel Economy

This is something that we all think of based on gas prices today.  Those prices will continue to increase and decrease over time, however, the type of vehicle your purchase will play a factor.  The amount of travel we do each day to work could also determine which of these vehicles are the best fit for you.  All-wheel drive vehicles can over time dip in fuel economy due to the system being on at all times.  This can also happen in a four-wheel drive vehicle, however, because you can turn it on and off, you can control a little better over time how much impact it will have on your vehicles overall performance.

In the end, it is going to be your decision on what’s best for your family.  Making decisions about car shopping and the number of things you have to think about is already a crazy number of items. Safety is a number one priority for any family and a lot of vehicles today come with more and more safety features.  Whether you get a four-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicle can help play a factor in that.  You have to make the best decision for you, and learning all you can beforehand is the best advice, this is because people will take advantage if you don’t know what to look for.  Based on the elements above, you can help keep your family safer on the roads.  You are responsible for your driving, however, you cannot control other drivers.


  1. Edmunds – The difference and which to choose AWD vs 4WD
  2. Road and Track – AWD and 4WD differences explained
  3. Carmax – AWD vs 4WD which to choose
  4. AutoList – AWD vs 4WD differences guide