AWD vs 4WD – What’s the Difference?

One of the most common questions we hear from car buyers here in Minnesota is All Wheel Drive versus 4 Wheel Drive – what’s the difference? Is there even one? The short answer to that question is yes, but it’s an important distinction to make for a few reasons. Let’s take a look at the differences between each system:

For those that prefer reading to watching a video, here’s an explanation of AWD vs 4WD in text-based format:

On paper, AWD and 4WD both mean that all four wheels get power, although each system does so a different way. The primary difference is that AWD uses a specialized mechanism in the center of the car that distributes the power to both the front and rear, sometimes equally and sometimes biased towards one end or the other depending on road conditions. This allows you to accelerate better in inclement conditions such as snow or ice.


Notice that I only said accelerate – it’s a common misconception that AWD and 4WD will help you stop and turn in snow and ice. That is absolutely not the case. Outfitting your car with proper winter tires is really the only way to enhance your vehicle’s stopping and turning capabilities during the winter months. To learn more about why winter tires are so important, take a look here.


Now that we’ve defined AWD, let’s take a look at 4WD. Unlike AWD, you can manually put it in a two-wheel drive mode (called 2H) that operates like a RWD vehicle. Alternately, you can put it in what’s called 4H, or 4-high. 4-high is intended for higher speeds and everyday street driving.  When you put your car into 4H you connect both axles to the powertrain and maintain the same gear ratios as when you’re driving in 2H.


The main difference between 4WD and AWD is another separate mode called 4L, or 4-low. In 4-low you actually engage a set of gears in a transfer case that changes the gear ratio, providing extra torque to all 4 wheels at low speeds.  This isn’t particularly useful on the street, but if you’re stuck in deep snow or mud, doing a little off-roading, or hauling your neighbor out of a ditch this is the best way go.


So there you have it – the difference between AWD and 4WD. You might say that an AWD vehicle paired with a set of winter tires is a good choice for the casual commuter who wants some added driving security during the winter, while a 4WD vehicle is a little more specialized and situationally competent.

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