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4WD vs. AWD: What’s the Difference?

When buying a car in Canada, you have to expect you’ll be driving it in bad weather for the majority of the year, so you’d be remiss not to pay attention to how much traction is offered in the models you’re considering.

Traction is critical because it determines how well your tires grip the road. When all 4 tires spin normally while you’re driving, your car moves the way it should without any surprises. Good traction comes in handy during inclement weather, less-than-ideal road conditions, and when your car travels on dirt or gravel roads.

Vehicles come in various configurations including front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, 4-wheel drive (4WD) and all-wheel drive (AWD) – each one a different way to apply traction to the ground. For the most traction control, you’ll want either AWD or 4WD, but those terms are often confused.

Here is what you should know about the matter.

AWD vs. 4WD: Similarities

Traction control systems, required on all model cars 2012 or newer, gauge how much power each wheel gets when you’re driving. This automatic, computer-controlled system works by adjusting how the wheels turn based on changing road conditions. The idea is to prevent tires from slipping during acceleration and deceleration. Traction control systems help your car stay on the road.

All-wheel drive and 4-wheel drive are similar in many respects when it comes to traction control. Vehicles equipped with either option send power all 4 wheels when you hit the gas. In a 2-wheel drive vehicle, either the front or back wheels turn when you put your foot on the accelerator, but not all four. AWD and 4WD cars generally accelerate better in slippery conditions compared to 2-wheel drive cars. This comes in handy when it rains and snows. Think about getting an all-wheel drive or 4-wheel drive vehicle in hilly areas where your vehicle may have a tough time going up a hill in inclement weather.

When all 4 tires receive power, you have better towing ability on your truck or SUV. One situation that works well with this system is if you have a boat you put in at a boat ramp. Your truck or SUV has a much easier time accelerating out of the boat ramp, at an incline, when all 4 wheels get power at the same time. Consider purchasing an all-wheel or 4-wheel drive vehicle when you tow a fifth-wheel camper down dirt or gravel roads in the wilderness or along backroads. Otherwise, you may find it hard to get out of your prime camping spot.

You’ll also want to consider buying a vehicle with all-wheel drive and 4-wheel drive if you regularly drive on dirt or gravel roads. When rain turns that dirt to mud, having power to all 4 wheels helps prevent you from getting stuck in the mud. Having power to all 4 wheels can help keep you from getting stuck in snow on rural roads that don’t get plowed.

4WD vs. AWD: Differences


4-wheel drive equally distributes accelerating power to all 4 wheels at the same time. Drivers have direct control over 4-wheel drive, usually by pushing a button or flipping a switch on the dashboard or gear shift. Once activated, a light appears on your dashboard showing that this system is active.

Some vehicles have part-time 4WD or full-time 4WD, and some systems allow the driver to set low and high ranges for this feature. A low setting often works for dirt roads on dry conditions driving slowly, while a high setting optimizes traction during wet and slippery conditions on a paved road at higher speeds. Driving fast in a 4WD low setting can break certain components on your axles. Full-time 4WD engages power to all 4 wheels all of the time. A part-time system engages 4-wheel drive in extreme conditions.

Vehicles with 4WD may say “four-by-four” or “4×4” in their sales materials. When shopping for 4WD vehicles, think of a Jeep Wrangler or Toyota Land Cruiser. You’re ready for some serious off-roading with a 4-wheel drive vehicle as you climb over boulders, ford a remote stream or traverse a mountain pass.


All-wheel drive vehicles automatically adjust to driving conditions and slippery traction instead of constantly applying power as in 4-wheel drive. Cars do this physically, with transfer cases and differentials on each axle, or electronically by applying the brakes on one or more wheels. Sensors on each wheel monitor traction and wheel speed hundreds of times per second and transmit information to the car’s computer. Called brake vectoring, many modern cars have this system to improve handling in all types of weather conditions.

Under normal driving conditions, most AWD systems send power to just 2 wheels, either the front or back. When the car detects slippage in a wheel, it sends power to that wheel to try to find better traction. AWD vehicles don’t need the driver’s input to activate, unlike manual 4WD options. If there’s ever a problem with your all-wheel drive system, a warning light may show up on the dashboard alerting you to a potential problem. AWD systems are ideal when you have rapidly changing conditions, such as when it first starts raining or if you have light snow on the road.

You typically find AWD options on road-going sedans, wagons, SUVs and crossovers. Anything from a Dodge Charger and Subaru WRX to a Mazda CX-3 and Toyota RAV-4 all have AWD systems. These vehicles adapt to road conditions as they change and make your transit to and from home safer.

Keep in mind that AWD and 4WD vehicles improve traction on road surfaces and prevent your car from slipping on roads and getting stuck in mud and snow. Traction control does not help your car steer better, brake more efficiently or take corners better. Even with top-of-the-line traction control systems, drivers must still remain completely alert during bad weather conditions. You should still drive carefully at all times.

When deciding on AWD vs. 4WD in your vehicle, take into account some factors before making a purchase. Since components of 4-wheel and all-wheel drive systems add weight to a car, fuel economy dips by 5-10%. Over the lifetime of a vehicle, those fuel costs add up.

Up-front costs of vehicles with all-wheel traction control systems go up. Expect to pay an extra $1,300 on a Honda CR-V or $3,500 on a Ford F-150 pickup equipped with 4WD or AWD. Maintenance costs also increase because the differentials on each axle require oil changes that can run anywhere from $40 to $150. If you don’t change the oil at regular intervals, repairing the differentials cost more than the oil changes. Repairs may be more complicated with all-wheel drive systems because they have more electronic components versus 4-wheel drive cars. If finances are a concern for you, do the math when it comes to AWD vs. 4WD before buying a car.

When it comes to 4WD vs. AWD, automakers keep improving these systems with each new model year. These options are just one of many factors to think about when buying your next car, so take your time and choose a vehicle that fits your lifestyle.

To find the perfect used luxury vehicle for you, visit our Cambridge, ON showroom and pick out your next automotive pet.

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