What Is the Difference Between AWD and 4WD?

Discover the distinctions between all-wheel drive (AWD) and four-wheel drive (4WD) systems and make an informed choice for your driving needs.
Published on November 27th, 2020
  Written by 
Adrian Edlington
Adrian Edlington is PR & Communications Manager at Savvy. With a keen interest in personal finance, car loans, the mortgage industry, cost of living pressures, electric vehicles and renewable technology, Adrian's research includes conducting primary data surveys and analysis of up-to-the-minute secondary Australian data sources. His work on behalf of Savvy has been featured on ABC.net.au The Conversation, the Sydney Morning Herald, AFR, News.com.au, The Age, Herald Sun, Adelaide Now, SBS On The Money, 7News, Car Expert, Which Car, Drive.com.au and more. In his spare time, Adrian enjoys mountain biking and business podcasts.
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   Reviewed by 
Bill Tsouvalas


Bill Tsouvalas
Bill Tsouvalas is the managing director and a key company spokesperson at Savvy. As a personal finance expert, he often shares his insights on a range of topics, being featured on leading news outlets including News Corp publications such as the Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun, Fairfax Media publications such as the Australian Financial Review, the Seven Network and more. Bill has over 15 years of experience working in the finance industry and founded Savvy in 2010 with a vision to provide affordable and accessible finance options to all Australians. He has built Savvy from a small asset finance brokerage into a financial comparison website which now attracts close to 2 million Aussies per year and was included in the BRW’s Fast 100 in 2015 as one of the fastest-growing companies in the country. He’s passionate about helping Australians make financially savvy decisions and reviews content across the brand to ensure its accuracy. You can follow Bill on LinkedIn.
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When looking at cars, the terms all-wheel drive (AWD) and four-wheel drive (4WD) are often used interchangeably. However, while both systems distribute power to all four wheels, there are crucial differences that set them apart. Understanding these differences is essential for choosing the right vehicle to match your driving needs and preferences. In this comprehensive guide, we delve into the nuances of AWD and 4WD, exploring their functionalities, advantages and limitations.

What is AWD?

AWD systems are designed to provide power to all four wheels simultaneously, enhancing traction and stability across various driving conditions. AWD systems continuously monitor wheel speed and traction. When a loss of grip is detected, an automatic mechanism seamlessly engages the other axle, ensuring uninterrupted power delivery.

One of the key features of AWD is its ability to operate seamlessly without driver intervention. In most modern AWD vehicles, sensors constantly monitor wheel speed, throttle input, steering angle and other factors to determine the optimal torque distribution for each wheel. This real-time adjustment maximises grip and minimises wheel slippage, thereby enhancing both safety and performance.

What is 4WD?

4WD or 4×4 systems are specifically engineered for off-road performance, providing enhanced traction and control in rugged terrain. Unlike AWD systems, which typically operate in all-wheel mode full-time, 4WD systems often feature selectable modes that allow drivers to engage or disengage four-wheel drive as needed. This flexibility enables drivers to conserve fuel and optimise performance based on driving conditions.

These modes can include:

  • Two-wheel drive (2WD): ideal for fuel efficiency on clear roads.
  • Four-wheel drive high (4WD High): increases traction on loose surfaces like gravel or light snow.
  • Four-wheel drive low (4WD Low): engages low-range gearing for maximum power and control in particularly challenging situations like steep inclines or deep mud.

How do AWD and 4WD compare?

  • Engagement: AWD systems are generally always engaged or automatically activate when needed. 4WD allows you to choose between two-wheel drive for fuel efficiency, four-wheel drive high for light off-roading, and four-wheel drive low for maximum traction in challenging situations.
  • Focus: AWD prioritises on-road performance and maintaining grip in unpredictable weather conditions. 4WD is designed for conquering difficult terrain with features like low-range gearing for increased power.
  • Fuel efficiency: both AWD and 4WD can decrease fuel efficiency compared to two-wheel drive vehicles. AWD systems are generally more efficient due to their ability to disengage when not needed. 4WD, especially in 4WD Low mode, consumes the most fuel.
  • Versatility: while 4WD excels off-road, it can be cumbersome and less fuel-efficient on smooth roads. AWD offers a good balance and seamlessly adapts to various conditions, making it a versatile choice for everyday driving with the ability to handle occasional off-road excursions.
  • User-friendliness: AWD requires no special input from the driver, making it user-friendly for various conditions. 4WD requires the driver to select the appropriate mode based on the terrain.
  • Off-road capability: AWD offers some improvement over two-wheel drive in light off-road situations like gravel roads or light snow. However, 4WD excels in off-road scenarios with features specifically designed for tackling steep inclines, rocky paths and deep mud.

Is AWD/4WD available in smaller cars?

AWD is becoming increasingly available in smaller cars, particularly in sedans, hatchbacks and subcompact SUVs. This can help to enhance the appeal of smaller cars for drivers in regions with unpredictable weather conditions. Examples of smaller cars with AWD options include the Subaru Impreza, Mazda3 and the Toyota Corolla.

4WD, however, is typically not found in smaller cars. 4WD systems are primarily designed for off-road capability and are generally used in larger SUVs, trucks and off-road vehicles built for handling rough terrain. 4WD capabilities are not usually a major priority for smaller car buyers. Furthermore, the systems are typically heavier and more complex than AWD, which can negatively impact fuel efficiency and manoeuvrability – two crucial aspects for smaller cars.

Do I need an AWD/4WD vehicle?

You may benefit from AWD/4WD if:

  • You frequently encounter challenging weather: rain, snow or icy roads are a regular occurrence in your area. AWD provides added traction and stability in these conditions.
  • Off-roading is part of your lifestyle: you enjoy venturing off the beaten path, exploring trails, or driving on unpaved roads. Here, 4WD's superior off-road capability shines.
  • You prioritise a secure driving experience: you value feeling confident and in control behind the wheel, especially in unpredictable weather conditions. AWD or 4WD can enhance your sense of safety.

However, there are other factors to consider:

  • Cost: AWD and 4WD vehicles tend to be more expensive than their 2WD counterparts due to the more complex drivetrain.
  • Maintenance: both AWD and 4WD systems require regular maintenance as specified by the manufacturer.
  • Driving style: if you're a cautious driver who prioritises fuel efficiency, AWD or even a 2WD might suffice.

While AWD and 4WD both distribute power to all four wheels, they serve distinct purposes and offer different advantages and limitations. Ultimately, the choice depends on your individual needs and driving habits. Consider your typical driving environment, the importance of off-road capability and your fuel efficiency priorities then do your research. This way, you can confidently choose the traction system that best equips you to handle the road ahead.

Whether you’re after an AWD, 4WD or 2WD vehicle, Savvy can help you finance your ride. We work with more than 40 lenders across Australia to help you find a car loan deal that suits your needs, budget and circumstances. Get started with a quote today!

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