Are four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive the same thing? Does it matter which one I get?


No, four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive are not the same. While both configurations offer better traction and handling over problem terrain than two-wheel drive, there are key differences, and the best configuration for you will depend on your driving habits. Read on to check out the differences between four- and all-wheel drive, and discover which configuration would be best for you.

All-Wheel Drive: All-wheel drive utilizes, as one would assume from the name, all of the wheels of a vehicle. This involves more hardware and parts in the vehicle’s drivetrain than two-wheel drive, but offers the benefits of twice the traction in when driving over slippery surfaces. What sets most AWD systems apart from four-wheel drive is that all of the wheels aren’t utilized equally all of the time. For example, a modern AWD system will detect which wheels (front or rear) have the best traction in slippery conditions, and direct more power to those wheels until all wheels have even traction. This can be helpful when conditions are varied, like a road or driveway covered in patches of snow or ice. A small SUV, minivan or car equipped with all-wheel drive will offer more reliable traction in snow, rain, and ice, as well as on dirt roads, and will probably be able to handle situations in which a two-wheel drive vehicle would be stuck with its wheels spinning.

Four-Wheel Drive: A four-wheel drive vehicle also provides power to all four wheels, but are generally more rugged than an all-wheel drive vehicle, and are intended for towing or off-road driving. While an all-wheel drive vehicle generally requires little or no additional controlling on the part of the driver, 4WD systems often feature high and low gear ranges that the driver can select from, and some part-time 4WD even requires the driver to manually engage the system. Professionals with Central Avenue Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram explain that many 4WD-equipped vehicles like rugged Jeeps or heavy-duty pickups have several 4WD and 4×4 options to choose from, because different systems are more optimal for different situations and serious off-road enthusiasts often have preferences based on the kind of terrain they tend to drive over.

So, what’s the real difference? At the heart of it, all-wheel drive is simpler, and generally requires less input from the driver. Four-wheel drive is generally more capable, and opens you up to heavy-duty towing, greater control over traction, and off-road travel. Both would offer superior traction to a two-wheel drive vehicle in unsavory driving conditions.

What configuration is right for me? Ultimately, that will depend on where you want to drive, and how much control you want to have. For most people who just want some peace of mind while driving in the winter or over dirt or gravel roads, an all-wheel drive vehicle would be perfectly capable and offer all the traction they need. If you want to venture off-road, though, or are interested in towing in tough conditions, pulling other stuck vehicles free, or plowing, you may want to consider a vehicle with four-wheel drive. The most important thing to keep in mind with a 4WD vehicle is all of the options you have, and the varying levels of driver input different systems require. Make sure you do some research, and talk to your salesman about what your plans for your 4WD vehicle are, so you can be sure to get a system that will work for your needs.