What Cars Are All Wheel Drive – The difference between all-wheel-drive (AWD) and four-wheel drive (4WD) is a confusing topic for many buyers of cars, trucks, and SUVs. Both systems send power to the wheels where traction is most needed. But if you find yourself wondering which is better, AWD or 4WD, these guides will help:
For these reasons, we associate AWD with cars and crossovers and 4WD with SUVs and pickup trucks. However, the dividing lines between AWD vs. 4WD remains elusive for many. Therefore, a car buyer should understand the functional differences between the two systems before deciding which one is right for them.
What Cars Are All Wheel Drive
AWD systems operate normally without driver involvement. They are computer-controlled systems that use sensors to automatically decide which axles and wheels are getting the most power at any given moment, depending on road surface conditions or vehicle maneuvers that require more traction. The wheels receive varying amounts of torque through a differential system and clutch packs, which distribute power to increase traction in rain, mud, snow and ice.
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In dry everyday driving, AWD can improve road accuracy, especially in turns. For this reason, many high-performance applications combine AWD with torque vectoring capabilities to maximize cornering power at high speeds. A prime example of this is Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD – shown in the image above), the latest version available on the updated 2022 MDX SUV.
There are two types of wheel-drive systems: full-time and part-time. Full-time AWD powers all four wheels continuously. Part-time AWD usually stays in front-wheel-drive (FWD) or rear-wheel drive (RWD) mode unless more traction is needed. At that point, the part-time AWD system directs power to the axles and wheels as needed. Some AWD systems offer a locking differential that splits power equally between the front and rear axles for greater traction at low speeds.
The main feature of the AWD system is that the driver does not need to do anything to engage the system. Either all wheels receive constant power, or the system automatically allocates torque to maintain traction. And because it’s a computer-based system, it will make real-time decisions better than a human can.
The downside is that AWD can’t handle extreme off-roading or rock crawling. For those looking for serious adventures, AWD won’t be enough.
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Another disadvantage of AWD is related to fuel efficiency. Compared to two-wheel drive (2WD) configurations, AWD cars have lower fuel economy ratings. This is especially true for full-time systems, which provide power to all four wheels at all times.
Like AWD systems, 4WD can send torque to all four wheels to increase traction when needed. Unlike automatic AWD systems, the driver must engage 4WD with the push of a button or pull of a lever. However, some 4WD systems, such as the Autotrac system found in vehicles such as the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon, provide automatic 4WD operation.
Conventional 4WD systems are also more robust than AWD configurations and can handle higher traction and towing loads and rougher terrain. That’s why they’re usually found on conventional SUVs and pickup trucks that are designed for heavy duty and extreme conditions that require high ground clearance.
Mechanically, 4WD systems use front, center and rear differentials and a four-speed transfer case to send power to all four wheels. The driver can decide to keep power flowing to the rear axle or direct a certain percentage of torque to the front wheels. The transfer case also allows the driver to choose between 4-Hi or 4-Lo gearing. The 4-Hi setting is ideal for wet or cold road conditions like the standard AWD system, while the 4-Lo setting provides 4-Lo maximum traction in difficult off-road conditions.
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Some 4WD systems are permanent, sending power to all four wheels continuously. Others, like General Motors’ AutoTrac, automatically engage 4WD when needed, like an AWD system. But most 4WD systems prove short-lived. Unless the driver actively selects 4-Hi or 4-Lo when road conditions or driving conditions require it, the vehicle uses only two of the four wheels to propel itself. With some systems, the driver can lock the differential for added traction in difficult off-road conditions.
4WD vehicles inspire confidence even in adverse driving conditions. They are also ideal for navigating rough terrain or providing the pulling power needed to tow trailers, boats and machinery. Generally, 4WD vehicles are suitable for heavy duty and recreational use.
As 4WD systems become more sophisticated, new technologies are emerging to aid in tough off-road journeys. An example is off-road cruise control, which is available on Ford F-Series trucks and Jeep Gladiator and Wrangler models. When the transfer case is in low range, off-road cruise control enables the vehicle to maintain speeds below five mph during off-road and rock crawling. This technology allows the driver to focus around, over or around any obstacles.
Disadvantages of 4WD include the suspension weight that often accompanies it, which makes the ride quality of a truck or SUV harsh and unforgiving. Also, 4WD can produce lower fuel economy due to the additional power required to drive all four wheels and the added weight of system components.
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If you’re trying to decide whether you want a vehicle with AWD or 4WD, the answer is simple. It depends on the type of driving conditions you regularly encounter and what you plan to do with your car, truck or SUV.
An AWD car or crossover might work well for those who want to go uphill in normal winter weather, maybe do some light off-roading, and enjoy taking roads less traveled at the speed limit. For those looking for a solid vehicle that allows the driver to actively control power flow to the wheels, 4WD may be a good option.
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