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All-wheel drive (AWD) and four-wheel drive (4WD) sound like two ways of saying the same thing, right? Not exactly. Both systems provide power to all four wheels on your vehicle; however, each system is different in how it distributes that power.
The biggest difference between the two is that 4WD means the transfer case is directly attached to the transmission and will provide power to all four wheels. There aren't many 4WD passenger cars on the road because most manufacturers don't see a need for them.
AWD, on the other hand, places an independent system between the transmission and front and rear differentials using a driveshaft to distribute the power through a transfer case. The advantage here is that you get a more even distribution of power and traction on various road surfaces.
Since the 1980s, many all-wheel-drive vehicles have been available with an optional 4WD setting or switch which can be engaged when extra traction is needed. In these cases, the 4WD setting operates like a part-time system and, similar to the AWD mode, uses a differential to proportion power between the front and rear wheels.
These days it's common for all-wheel drive vehicles to also include low-range gearing as well as locking differentials to help vehicles get through tough road conditions such as ice and mud.
In addition to the all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive, many manufacturers have started producing various other advanced traction control systems that serve the same basic purpose as both of these systems, but with a different approach to how they distribute power.
Some examples you might see include:
- Auto 4WD - Uses sensors to determine if the front or rear wheels are slipping and then automatically engages the additional wheels to help power the vehicle.
- Electronic 4WD - Acts like a full-time four-wheel drive but requires no manual operating switch. Sensors detect slippage and engage the system, making it unnecessary for a driver to manually control it.
- Active 4WD - Uses electronic sensors to determine if the front or rear wheels are slipping and then automatically engages the additional wheels to help power the vehicle. Depending on conditions, the system can be operated in full-time mode, part-time four-wheel-drive mode, two-wheel drive mode or in AWD mode for maximum efficiency. Some high-performance vehicles come with this system as the default configuration.
- Automatic AWD - Uses sensors to determine if the front or rear wheels are slipping and then automatically engages the additional wheels to help power the vehicle, up to 100% of available torque can be sent to either axle for maximum traction.
Thoughts About AWD & 4WD Systems
Between all these systems, you can find a wide range of options for any vehicle, but now you know the difference between 4WD and AWD as well as some additional systems that can provide similar benefits.