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AWD or 4WD: Which is Best for You?


ow many driven wheels does a vehicle really need? Modern SUVs, pickups, minivans, and wagons on America’s highways over the last ten years would appear to suggest that two just isn’t enough. But what are the advantages of four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive. These are drivetrain systems designed to handle slippery conditions, but what's the difference? 

Just to be sure we’re all on the same page before we go on, AWD mean all-wheel drive, and 4WD means four-wheel drive.

4WD refers to vehicles that have the ability to choose between two and four-wheel drive. They have low and high settings that can be switched using an interior lever. The low setting is good for pulling or climbing in an off-road environment, especially in mud or snow, rocky terrain, and steep hills.  The high setting is used for slippery on-road conditions such as packed snow and ice. 4WD also uses a locking system to avoid slippage between the right and left wheels while driving off-road. 4WD is basically an SUV term associated with off-road use.

AWD generally has no low or high gearing options. It is a car/wagon/minivan term that implies traction improvement for performance and for bad weather conditions such as slippery roads. Most AWD vehicles use the front wheel primarily and only direct power to the rear wheels when a sensor detects front-wheel slip. 

Permanent 4WD or AWD. Found on SUVs, minivans, wagons, and a few pickups, this system provides power to all four wheels, usually with power being shifted between the front and rear axles as needed. The advantages are that the vehicle always provides maximum traction in both dry and slippery conditions. As with all full-time systems, it requires no action from the driver. 

Automatic 4WD or AWD. Available on various SUVs, this system works by turning the controls over to the vehicle. Sensors decide whether 2WD (either front or rear, depending on the model) is needed, or when 4WD or AWD is needed. It then automatically routes power to all four wheels, varying the ratio between front and rear axles as necessary. 

Part-time 4WD. Found on SUVs and pickups, this type requires the driver to manually shift between 2WD and 4WD using either a lever or a switch. All current systems allow you to shift between modes while driving. Vehicles with part-time systems aren't designed to be driven on dry pavement when in 4WD mode.

The system that is best for you depends on what type of conditions you'll be driving in. Both of these systems add significant weight, complexity, and cost to the vehicle. They also reduce gas mileage due to increased drag on the drivetrain. Since traction control is becoming more common on front- and rear-wheel drive cars, the advantages of 4WD and AWD might not be worth the extra expense.

There is no right drivetrain options — just different designs and different characteristics. Your best way to choose is to decide which one is right for your driving circumstances. For rain and light snow, AWD gives you a greater margin of safety. If you’re traveling off-road where conditions are often more severe, you will be better off with 4WD.



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