What Is the Difference Between All-Wheel Drive and Four-Wheel Drive?

Many people think that All-wheel drive and 4-wheel drive are the same thing. However, there are fundamental differences between the two drivetrains that may have a big impact on how they handle on & off the road. 

In this article, we will explore the features of each drivetrain, the key differences and benefits between them, and use cases for each. 

What is a Drivetrain?

In short, the drivetrain is the part of the vehicle that facilitates movement. In other words, it is how the power is distributed from the engine, through the transmission, and to the wheels. Different drivetrains feature different components and/or assembly based on how the power is meant to be distributed. Drivetrains can include transmissions, driveshafts, gearboxes (like transfer cases), and axles that send power from those gearboxes, to the wheels of the vehicle.

What is All-Wheel Drive?

AWD is a drivetrain that is most commonly found in cars and SUVs. The drivetrain connects the power from the engine to all four wheels via a set of gearboxes. In many cases, the amount of power that is sent to each set of wheels can be changed depending on the terrain. In addition, some newer vehicles feature sensors that changes the power automatically to seamlessly adjust to changing road conditions.

AWD is a very common drivetrain used by domestic, European, and Japanese automakers alike – commonly found in popular vehicles like crossovers & SUVs from Chevy & Ford, sedans from Audi & Mercedes, and several vehicles across many types from Subaru, Honda and Toyota.

What is 4-Wheel Drive?

4WD is a drivetrain that is most commonly found in trucks and large SUVs. The drivetrain splits the power evenly between both the front and rear wheels. Most 4WD vehicles include the option to switch to 2-wheel drive which is best for regular, paved roads.

4WD is a less common drivetrain than AWD, mainly being utilized in American light passenger trucks & full-size vans from Chevy, Ford, & RAM.

Key Differences Between AWD and 4WD

While both drivetrains send control to all four wheels, the way that the power is distributed to the wheels has a big impact on driving on different terrains. 

Power Distribution

AWD drivetrains distribute power from the engine to the wheels at different levels depending on the terrain. However, 4WD drivetrains distribute power evenly between the front and rear tires at all times. As a result, 4WD is considered more powerful than AWD when there is less traction or in off-road scenarios. 

Terrain Performance

If you have been through a winter in Muskegon, Michigan, you probably already know that winter-time driving is often a challenge without either all-wheel drive (AWD) or 4-wheel drive (4WD). In fact, 53.8% of vehicles registered in Michigan are either AWD or 4WD according to CarMax. In addition, the average number of vehicles per household is 2.1, meaning that, on average, each household in Michigan has at least 1 vehicle that features AWD or 4WD. 

In general, AWD is meant to be used on paved surfaces in variable weather conditions, however, light off-road use is also common (this is why rally cars use AWD vs. 4WD). On the contrary, 4WD is more suitable for heavy-duty off-roading. Both drivetrains are beneficial to have in the winter, but AWD is more suitable for roads that are regularly plowed.

Benefits of AWD and 4WD

There are many advantages to driving an AWD or 4WD vehicle, especially in Muskegon. While both drivetrains provide superior traction in the wintertime, they each have their own offerings that can benefit different types of drivers. 

All-wheel drive can provide better traction on flat surfaces, and can also offer improved acceleration in slippery conditions. 

4-wheel drive provides better traction on surfaces covered with loose materials such as snow, mud, or rocks. In addition, it can handle pulling heavier loads than most AWD configurations.

Which One Is Better?

At the end of the day, there is no way to say which drivetrain is better than the other, because they are each suitable for specific situations. For example, someone who uses their vehicle mainly to commute long distances in the winter will most likely benefit from an AWD vehicle, as they’ll get roughly the same traction, and usually, better gas mileage. However, for those who like to take their vehicle off-road, 4WD will usually be the better option. 

Use Cases For AWD: 

  • Rain
  • Snow
  • Sleet
  • Ice

Use Cases For 4WD: 

  • Off-roading
  • Towing
  • Unplowed roads

Here at the Garage MKG, we’re not only experts in the automotive repair field, but we’re also real folks who love the Muskegon community. Check out our website for more information.


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