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Mar 20 2020

All-wheel drive (AWD) and four-wheel drive (4WD, 4X4) systems continue to gain traction in the marketplace and, as a result, are widely available on most of today’s best-selling vehicles. However, advancing technology and OEMs’ marketing spin are making it increasingly difficult to discern between the two features, leaving everyone – from consumers to dealerships and vendors – confused about whether a given vehicle is technically AWD or 4WD.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of why these two drive types often get confused, let’s lay out some of the major differences.

AWD vs. 4WD Comparison


Offered as either a part- or full-time system, AWD operates automatically and cannot be engaged or disengaged by the driver.

4WD is available in part- and full-time configurations. Like full-time AWD, full-time 4WD is always on and cannot be turned off by the driver. Part-time 4WD is controlled by the driver either electronically or, in the case of vehicles like the Jeep Wrangler, by using a floor-mounted shifter.

The majority of AWD systems are available on front-wheel-drive (FWD) vehicles, though there are exceptions (such as the 2020 Ford Explorer).  As such, most vehicles with part-time AWD default to FWD when the AWD system isn’t in operation.

4WD systems are almost exclusively available on rear-wheel-drive (RWD) vehicles (the FWD Jeep Compass being an exception to the rule). When part-time 4WD is not in use, these vehicles default to sending power to the rear wheels.

AWD almost always employs a single-speed differential without high or low settings. When activated, some engine power is distributed to the rear wheels in low-traction situations. Systems such as Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) can also deliver more power to either of the rear wheels in an effort to enhance vehicle handling.

All part-time 4WD systems have a transfer case with hi- and low-range settings. Low-range settings will deliver significantly more torque for tough situations. Some also have an automatic setting that allows the vehicle’s computer to decide which wheels will get power from the engine, effectively mimicking an AWD system. Certain full-time 4WD systems feature an available locking differential that distributes power equally between the front and rear wheels.

AWD is typically featured on passenger vehicles, crossover SUVs, and light-duty pickup trucks like the Honda Ridgeline.

Full-time 4WD is featured on a variety of mid- and full-size SUVs, while part-time 4WD is typically reserved for pickup trucks and off-road oriented vehicles.

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So, with several differences between the two, how do AWD and 4WD get mixed up all the time? On a high-level, there are ­­­­many variables/exceptions for each AWD and 4WD system across manufacturers and models, and each has its own branding to add to the confusion. Here’s a deeper dive:

1. The functionality of AWD and 4WD can appear quite similar

With both systems, all four wheels are powered at one point or another. In other words, both AWD and 4WD can be engineered as full-time or part-time systems, which means not every system has all four wheels powered at all times. As noted above, many vehicles function predominately as FWD or RWD unless driving conditions require all four wheels to be powered. These part-time systems save fuel and lower maintenance costs by moving fewer parts when extra grip isn’t needed.

Here's where it gets particularly confusing…

There are several full-time 4WD systems on the market today, such as Toyota’s 4runner and Land Cruiser, that function similarly to full-time AWD systems. Additionally, on some versions of GM trucks (Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra)  and the Jeep Grand Cherokee, for example, there are part-time 4WD systems with an automatic setting that determines when to engage all four wheels, which is basically how a part-time AWD system works.

All AWD systems are controlled by a computer and do not allow any input from the driver, while most 4WD systems require some sort of driver input, whether it’s engaging the automatic setting, switching the vehicle into hi- or low-range, or locking the open differential.

That last bit is the key:

What differentiates AWD from 4WD is the latter’s availability of a low range. That’s essentially a low gear that delivers significantly more torque at a lower speed, which is ideally suited for off-road use, climbing steep grades, or plowing snow.

2. OEM marketing lingo can be confusing

Distinguishing the difference between AWD and 4WD systems based on functionality is not the only challenge. How manufacturers market their systems can also be confusing, especially when they offer multiple variations of these systems across models, or even within trims.

One of the most complex examples would be the 4WD systems offered by Jeep. Each one of their models offers anywhere from two to four variations (learn more here). More basic systems found on the less expensive trims function just like AWD, but Jeep still markets them as 4X4. Similarly, Subaru offers four different AWD systems – all named Symmetrical AWD – even though they each function differently (learn more here).

When you start looking at AWD/4WD systems across more than 40 manufacturers, all with different branded names (4matic, xDrive, quattro, 4motion, SH-AWD, iActiv, etc.) and functions, it will make your head spin.

What does all this mean?

For the Consumer

As a consumer, intended use for the vehicle will determine which system is best. Most drivers won’t need anything more than AWD. However, those that plan on using their vehicle for occasional off-roading, towing/hauling, or plowing, a 4WD vehicle will be a better fit.

Given the number of variables for AWD/4WD systems across manufacturers and their models/trims, it’s important for vehicle shoppers to have access to resources that support detailed research. This is where dealers and their vendors come in.

For the Dealer

As a dealer, there’s a lot of value in creating content around the core components of the vehicles you sell. In this case that would be drive type. Not only will it answer the questions of your potential vehicle buyers, it will also build authority and trust for your dealership before these shoppers even step foot on your lot. Here’s a perfect example on the Glenwood Springs Ford website.

For the Vendor

As for the vendors, this may be creating content for your dealers or arming them with valuable vehicle data that can support the creation of this content. If you are involved in the listing of these vehicles, it will be valuable to offer a generic/normalized description for the various drive types across all manufacturers/models/trims in addition to the manufacturers’ marketing names. This is particularly helpful when comparing vehicles of the same class. For example, the vehicle may be listed as a 2020 Audi Q5 Quattro, but in the description, you may want to list the drive type as full-time AWD.

Need help identifying which drive type is installed by VIN? Give our VIN decoder a try!


Photo credits: WildSnap / Shutterstock.com, Pan_photo / Shutterstock.com

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