AWD and 4WD can help you cover rough terrain with confidence.
In the past, all-terrain vehicles came with simple four-wheel-drive systems that turned them into capable off-road machines. Rough around the edges at first, these manually-operated setups paved the way for more modern all-wheel-drive (AWD) systems. Many of today's top trucks, cars, and SUVs are equipped with 4WD or AWD. If you're seeking an all-wheel-drive car that matches your driving style, it's good to know about these drivetrain options—and how they work.
If you're looking for the best SUVs for snow and ice, a go-anywhere truck, or all-wheel-drive cars with good gas mileage, this article will aid you in making your choice.
To help you, we checked in with a CarMax associate in Chicago, IL, where the weather can get extreme; so he knows how to find the best car, truck, or SUV for you. He has appraised thousands of vehicles and has some great insights about all-wheel drive—and suggestions about the system that's best for you. With all that information and our help, you can find the best off-road vehicle for your needs.
The pros and cons of AWD and 4WD
Our expert is a senior buyer at one of our Chicago-area stores and he has appraised thousands of cars and trucks in his 14 years with the company. Lots of them have been 4WD and AWD vehicles. He knows what he's talking about when he advises customers! He says the two biggest factors when choosing between 4WD and AWD are the weather where you live and your driving style.
The more exact definition of 4WD is as follows: A two-axle vehicle drivetrain that can provide torque to all its wheels simultaneously.
Four-wheel-drive vehicles have been around for decades, but they're certainly not outdated. Manufacturers continue to choose dedicated four-wheel-drive systems for their rugged trucks and utilitarian SUVs due to their balance of performance and value.
If you want total control of your vehicle's driving characteristics, 4WD is the best choice since you have to activate the different modes manually. Our buyer says that if you get super-stuck, the extra-low or 4-low gear found in a 4WD really comes in handy—and this isn't an option in an AWD vehicle. Beyond controlling the way your vehicle drives, activating the 4WD mode only as needed could also reduce your overall fuel consumption. Furthermore, since basic, part-time four-wheel-drive systems lack an automatic center differential, there are fewer moving parts to maintain and repair through the life of the vehicle.
Our buyer says that if you wouldn't use 4WD more than a couple of times a year, you might be better off with AWD. Living in colder climates where snow and ice are more common is a strong reason for choosing 4WD over AWD. In addition, if you don't pay close attention to the driving surfaces you're covering in a 4WD vehicle, you may experience the shuddering, jolting sensation caused by wheel wind-up. This sensation not only feels terrible—it could damage your vehicle's differentials and axles. As a result, you must always commit to paying close attention to the road conditions and take the time to activate the system to keep your 4WD vehicle in good working order year after year.
The full definition of AWD is similar to that of 4WD, the difference being that instead of sending as much power as possible to each wheel, AWD can vary the amount of power sent to each wheel, either mechanically or electronically.
Modern all-wheel-drive systems have plenty of bells and whistles, but that doesn't mean they don't have drawbacks. Thankfully, the optimal balance of performance and convenience afforded by AWD drivetrains tends to win out over the perceived drawbacks.
Even the most basic all-wheel-drive system does all the thinking and adjusting for you. You can drive over any surface or through extreme weather conditions without selecting 4WD mode or worrying about turning it off afterward. Plus, you won't need to worry about differential or axle damage from wheel hop because the AWD system keeps everything under strict control. You can even find AWD cars with good gas mileage!
“If you don't want to deal with concerns over changing gears yourself, all-wheel drive probably meets your needs better," our buyer says. “With all-wheel drive, the car can detect a slippery road before the driver does."
Since all-wheel drive makes use of several integrated systems, a full-vehicle diagnostic test may often be needed to pinpoint exact part failures and appropriate repair procedures.
Best 4WD vehicles
The concept of going "off-road" can mean different things to different people. For some, it's a necessary part of their job, for others, it's peace of mind when the weather gets bad, and for others still, it’s part of their outdoor lifestyle. Regardless of your situation, a 4WD vehicle can be just what you need to navigate the job site or the campsite. Check out our top 4WD vehicles, based on CarMax vehicle sales data from November 1, 2018, through April 30, 2019.
Full-size trucks can do it all, but if you are looking for a "less-is-more" 4WD truck, then you should definitely check out the midsize Toyota Tacoma. Totally redesigned for 2016 with new engine, transmission, and interior options, the Tacoma is now in its third generation. For 2017, Toyota added the cool TRD PRO trim with hardcore off-road capability. You can also choose from the SR, SR5, TRD Sport, TRD Off-Road, and Limited models, all of which have standard or optional 4WD. For 2018, all Tacoma models received the driver-assistance suite as standard equipment. The 4WD Tacoma just might be your perfect off-road getaway vehicle! Even the base 2019 Tacoma SR has a ton of great standard features like:
- Swing-away exterior mirrors
- Sliding rear window
- Front engine and suspension skid plates
- 16-inch steel wheels
- Class-IV towing hitch
- Cloth seats
- 6.1-inch touchscreen infotainment system.
If you need a lot more space, the half-ton Dodge Ram 1500 should definitely be on your shopping list. The list of Ram configurations is virtually infinite, with the 2017 Ram available in 11 different trim variations, including the cool, off-road-focused Ram Rebel. Plus you can pick from three different engine options and a variety of cab and bed layouts. All trim levels are available with 4WD so you can find a Ram just right for your needs. For 2018, the Ram was updated with a host of new features and in 2019, Dodge did a clean-sheet redesign of the big Ram. With thirteen different levels, all with optional 4WD, the Ram is an impressive truck. The 2019 Ram 1500 comes with a 3.6L V6 mild hybrid engine with 305 horsepower or you can opt for the 395-horsepower 5.7L V8 with regular or mild-hybrid versions. The base Tradesman is built for the job site, but the next trim level up, the 2019 Big Horn, has great standard features like:
- Leather-wrapped steering wheel
- Manual four-way adjustable front seats
- Chrome grille and bumpers
- Fog lamps
- 18-inch aluminum wheels
- Three USB ports
1. Ford F-150
The Ford F-150, now in its thirteenth generation, has been a go-to full-size truck for generations and has continued to evolve and improve. For 2017, Ford offered seven trim levels, all with standard or optional 4WD. The 2017 model year also saw the return of the mighty Ford F-150 Raptor, one of the best off-road vehicles you can buy. With a high-output 3.5L EcoBoost® V6 and a host of off-road racing-inspired equipment, it's no wonder the Raptor and its other 4WD F-150 variants made it to the top of our list. For model years 2018 and 2019, the Ford F-150 received a host of engine upgrades and changes, including a new 3.0L diesel V6 engine for 2019. With all of these great options, it's no wonder the F-150 is at the top of our list. Like the Ram, the base XL trim is a Spartan work truck, but the 2019 XLT comes with a ton of great features like:
- Chrome grille and bumpers
- Carpeted flooring
- Power windows and door locks
- Power tailgate lock
- SYNC® 3 Infotainment system
- 4G LTE® WiFi hotspot1
Best AWD vehicles
Whether you're looking for a compact hatchback, a luxury midsize sedan, or a versatile sport-utility wagon, you can get AWD as a standard or optional feature on all vehicles in the following list. AWD systems are incredibly capable and they’re designed to get you through some of the roughest terrain, driving that used to be reserved for only pure 4WD vehicles. So, if you are just trying to get a bit confidence in bad weather or you’re looking to find a place with no pavement, AWD is a great option. Check out our top AWD vehicles, based on CarMax vehicle sales data from November 1, 2018, through April 30, 2019.
5. Lincoln MKZ
If you are looking to add some luxury with your AWD, then look no further than the Lincoln MKZ. Starting with the 2017 model year Lincoln MKZ, you could opt for AWD at all trim levels. The base engine is a 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder with 245 horsepower and 275 lb.-ft. of torque; or you can opt for the optional twin-turbo V6 that makes a potent 400 horsepower when paired with all-wheel drive. Choose from the base MKZ or step up to the Premier, Reserve, or opulent Black Label trim levels for a variety of standard equipment. The 2018 MKZ was updated with 4G LTE1 as standard on all models and the 2019 MKZ comes with standard features like:
- Adaptive high-intensity discharge (HID) headlamps with LED signature lighting
- Heated front seats with 10-way power driver seat
- Dual-zone electronic automatic temperature control
- Autolamp automatic on-off headlamps
- Reverse sensing system>
- Remote start system
- SiriusXM® radio
4. Ford Fusion
Ford took the Fusion, an already impressive midsize sedan, and gave it a long list of available engines, features, and more importantly, AWD. It remains one of the few cars in the segment, along with the Subaru Outback which is also on our list, that is available with AWD. You can opt for AWD stability at every trim level except the base S model. For 2017, Ford added some sport to the lineup with the new Sport trim. With a twin-turbo 2.7L EcoBoost V6 engine and a healthy 325 horsepower and 380 lb.-ft. of torque, plus standard AWD, it's definitely the athlete of the lineup. The Fusion was mostly unchanged for the 2018 model year, but for 2019, Ford updated the Fusion's exterior styling and offered new engine choices. The SE is the first 2019 trim level in the lineup to offer AWD and it comes well-equipped with standard features like:
- 1.5L turbo four-cylinder engine
- SYNC 3 with an eight-inch touchscreen WiFi hotspot1
- Apple CarPlay® and Android Auto™
- Dual-zone automatic climate control
When many people think AWD, they think about Subaru. With standard AWD on almost every vehicle in their lineup, they have pioneered the technology over decades of off-road racing and engineering. The midsize Legacy sedan represents a great option in the lineup and is one of the few cars in the segment that offers AWD as standard equipment across all trim levels.
For the 2017 model year, Subaru added a cool new Sport trim and the Legacy was available with two engine options, a 2.5L four-cylinder with 175 horsepower or a 3.6L V6 with 256 horsepower. Both engines utilize a Continuously Variable Transmission (CTV). For 2018, the Legacy received exterior design revisions and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto became standard equipment across all trim levels. For the 2019 model year, Subaru's EyeSight® suite also became standard on all models. The base 2019 2.5i trim sports standard features like:
- 17-inch steel wheels
- Subaru STARLINK® infotainment system with a 6.5-inch touchscreen
- Rearview camera
- Android Auto and Apple CarPlay
- Two USB ports and Bluetooth® connectivity
- Cloth upholstery
- Keyless entry
The Subaru Impreza is a compact sedan and hatchback that comes with standard AWD across all of its trim levels. It was all new for the 2017 model year with an updated 152-horsepower 2.0L four-cylinder engine and a new Sport trim available in both sedan and hatchback layouts. A five-speed manual transmission is standard on the 2017 base and Sport trims with an optional paddle-shift CVT available (or standard on Premium and Limited trims). After minimal updates for the 2018 model year, the 2019 Subaru Impreza comes with a ton of great standard features on the base 2.0i model including:
- Symmetrical all-wheel drive
- Subaru STARLINK Multimedia with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto
- Rearview camera
- Vehicle Dynamics Control
- Cloth upholstery
- Power windows and mirrors
Topping our AWD greatest hits list is the Subaru Outback. A proverbial legend in Subaru's AWD history, the Outback is one of the few mainstream wagons left on the market. With standard AWD and a ton of great standard and optional features, it's not hard to see why it's been so popular with the outdoor crowd. For the 2017 model year, the Outback had two engine options and six trim levels to choose from. New for 2017 was a top-of-the-line Touring Trim model. For 2018, Subaru added an updated suspension, revised exterior design, and a new infotainment system. For the 2019 model year, all trim levels feature the EyeSight package as standard and the 2019 Outback 2.5i's base trim also comes with:
- 17-inch alloy wheels
- Cloth upholstery
- Five-inch instrument cluster display
- Subaru's Starlink infotainment system with a 6.5-inch touchscreen, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, and Bluetooth connectivity
- Rearview camera
- Keyless entry
Mechanical components and how they work
When you're driving a vehicle equipped with on-demand four-wheel drive, you can select the 4WD drive mode yourself. This locks the differentials together so your wheels will spin at the same rate. You've got a differential at the center of your car's front axle and another at the rear axle to control the wheels' rate of spin and a transfer case distributes your engine's power through these two differentials. Some 4WD systems let you select a low or high gear to further control the power distribution.
With this type of system, the wheels will spin together, which negates the power loss that occurs when one wheel slips on low traction surfaces, such as ice, snow, or loose dirt. An unfortunate drawback of this setup is windup, or wheel hop, when turning on high-traction surfaces. As the 4WD vehicle turns on non-slip surfaces, the axles start to turn at different rates, causing the wheels to skip across the road surface.
Since this effect could damage your vehicle's drivetrain, you'll need to be sure to disengage 4WD as soon as you return to paved road or non-slippery driving conditions. On older 4WD systems, like the ones used on early Ford F-150 trucks, this meant exiting the vehicle to manually turn the locks on the front wheels or briefly putting the vehicle in reverse to release the differential locks.
When full-time 4WD and AWD systems were developed, manufacturers added a center differential that automatically controls power distribution to the wheels.
A center differential automatically detects slippery situations and directs power where it's needed most, rather than let it travel down the path of least resistance as would naturally happen. This linking differential, found in some of the best AWD cars and SUVs like the Ford Explorer, monitors the drive wheels and immediately sends power to the other differentials upon noticing the system slipping.
Eventually, vehicle manufacturers added electronic control systems to help this AWD and 4WD become even smarter—to allow gear ratios and power distribution patterns to change on the fly. Understanding the difference between AWD and 4WD electronic control systems can help you select between the various modern vehicles on the market today.
Electronic control systems
As production vehicles began to make more use of electronic control modules (engine management, anti-lock brakes, etc.), it was only natural that electronics would be employed to enhance the performance of 4WD and AWD systems. For on-demand systems, electronic controls replaced the archaic manual switches and operations of yesteryear—the days of climbing out of your truck to dial the front wheels into four-wheel-drive-locked position are no more. Modern part-time 4WD vehicles, like the Chevy Silverado 1500, now have a button or lever in the cab that instantly links the differentials to engage four-wheel drive.
Electronic control systems found in full-time AWD and 4WD vehicles smartly determine the best gear ratio and power split to use on the fly. While driving down the road, the system monitors for wheel slippage using the anti-lock braking system (ABS) sensors. Changes in wheel speed activate the control system to help make sure the vehicle maintains traction in all driving and weather conditions. The system may also apply the brakes to decrease wheel slippage as the powered wheels propel the vehicle forward.
If the car's control module links to a traction control system, it may also engage to automatically decrease engine power or adjust the steering mechanism in tandem with other corrective operations. These adjustments occur within a fraction of a second to minimize the skid and skip sensations of older systems and keep the vehicle under control.
As you search for your ideal 4WD or AWD car, there are a few key terms and ideas you should understand.
Manufacturers sometimes use their own naming designations to identify their vehicles as 4WD- or AWD-equipped. For example, the Mercedes-Benz C300 has an all-wheel-drive system called 4MATIC®, while Audi calls its all-terrain drivetrain Quattro®. When choosing between the top AWD and four-wheel-drive cars, keep this naming system in mind to avoid overlooking a suitable vehicle.
The amount of power distributed to each axle or wheel varies according to the settings determined by each vehicle manufacturer. Four-wheel-drive vehicles typically utilize a 50/50 front-to-back split to consistently apply power to the ground.
All-wheel-drive vehicles will split the torque front to back and side to side using a ratio determined best by the center differential. As an example, Subaru vehicles may utilize a 90/10 torque split to send power from the front axle to the rear axle in an effort to navigate across extremely slippery surfaces without sliding around.
Whether you choose a 4WD or AWD car, truck, or SUV, you should abide by the manufacturer's maintenance requirements to keep your vehicle in optimal condition. The repairs for these vehicles may be slightly more demanding than front- or rear-wheel-drive cars and trucks due to their increased utility and performance characteristics. For example, if you damage one tire, it may be necessary to replace two or even all four at the same time to avoid damaging your axles or differentials.
The history of AWD and 4WD
On-demand four-wheel drive arrived on the automotive scene in the late 1800s to dramatically improve the handling of hill-climb racecars. The practical functions of this tech made it a permanent fixture on military vehicles soon after. During the early years of all-terrain drivetrain development, Jeep became synonymous with go-anywhere vehicles after it added 4WD to all of its military and civilian trucks. To push the limits of this tech, manufacturers began to equip their purpose-built vehicles, such as off-road trucks, with full-time four-wheel drive.
In the early 1960s, a British car company called Jensen created the FF sedan—the first passenger vehicle to utilize full-time, all-wheel drive in a sports car platform. At this point, this drivetrain tech was spreading more rapidly as manufacturers began to experiment with all-terrain builds in unlikely platforms. By the motorsports-crazy 1970s, it became common practice to equip sports cars with 4WD to maximize their performance in all weather and road conditions.
Once vehicle manufacturers fine-tuned their torque distribution ratios and mechanical powertrain components, full-time all-wheel drive was born. Today, nearly all vehicle manufacturers offer vehicles equipped with all-wheel drive. Four-wheel-drive systems are still quite popular in the production-vehicle market as well. This means you must choose between these two drivetrain configurations when you're looking to upgrade to an all-terrain capable car, truck, or SUV. Learning more about how these systems work will help you select the best vehicle for your needs.
Choosing your ideal 4WD or AWD vehicle
As you browse and research some of the best AWD cars on the market today, keep the above factors in mind to help guide your decision-making process. The best SUVs, trucks, and cars will usually have either 4WD or AWD systems in place for driving in extreme weather or on all-terrain surfaces. When you know your options and the differences between them, you can select a purpose-built vehicle that will support your driving needs for years to come.
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