While the terms “four-wheel drive” and “all-wheel drive” may be used interchangeably among the general public, Automotive Training Center’s (ATC’s) students and instructors know the fundamental difference between these two drivetrains.
Interested in learning about the performance, cost, and handling distinctions of 4WD vs. AWD vehicles? Read our comparison and you’ll get quickly up to speed.
Four Wheels All In: What They Have in Common
Fundamentally, four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive vehicles were developed with the same end goal: to help a car accelerate and maintain control in slippery conditions by providing power to all four wheels. It’s the method in which they transfer power that makes them different.
Another tidbit to know is that choosing a four-wheel or all-wheel drivetrain over a front-wheel or rear-wheel drive system adds complexity and weight to the vehicle, which is why they tend to cost more than two-wheel drive models.
Four-Wheel Drive: Wrangler to Range Rover
Four-wheel drive models use two differentials and a transfer case to deliver power to all four wheels. When you think of vehicles with 4WD, Jeep’s off-road warriors are probably the first to come to mind. Four-wheel drive can also be found on off-road ready trucks like the Ford F-150 and other truck-platform SUVs like the Land Rover Range Rover Sport.
Interested in readying your ride for off-road adventures? Check out ATC’s free guide for must-have equipment, installation tips, and more!
Many four-wheel drive systems operate through high and low ranges that can be designated by the driver. 4WD high is reserved for low-traction conditions such as loose gravel or dense snow, while 4WD low allows the vehicle to traverse uneven downhill terrain with ease while sparing the brakes.
Part-time 4WD systems are also available. These versions allow the driver to seamlessly switch between two-wheel and four-wheel power when transitioning from on-road to off.
All-Wheel Drive: Subaru to Audi
All-wheel drive vehicles utilize a front, rear, and center differential to apply power to all four wheels. Though Subaru has set the pace as the brand most synonymous with AWD with its entire tri-differential vehicle line, many other brands (e.g., Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan) share in on making the handling and stability benefits of AWD readily available to buyers.
Like 4WD systems, AWD systems can work part-time or full-time, operating much like their 4WD counterparts. The only difference here is that you won’t find a max low gearing (used in serious off-roading contexts) like you would on a four-wheel drive system in an AWD vehicle.
Today, the majority of AWD setups offer something called torque vectoring, a smart power directing feature that uses sensors to measure which wheels have the most traction. These wheels then receive all of the power, regardless of their position on the vehicle. In doing this, AWD systems with torque vectoring can maintain enhanced handling in dry road conditions in addition to providing improved control in inclement weather.
Now, What Drives You?
Learning how each drivetrain works hands-on is one way that our technicians in training apply power to their interests across all four of ATC’s automotive programs. Want to learn more? Get a closer look at our programs and courses offered here.