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AWD and 4WD can help you cover rough terrain with confidence. 

AWD vs. 4WD | CarMax

In the past, all-terrain vehicles came with simple 4WD systems that turned them into able 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 AWD car that matches your driving style, it’s good to know about these drivetrain options—and how they work.

To help you, we checked in with a CarMax associate in Chicago, IL, where weather can get extreme. He has appraised thousands of vehicles, and he has some great insights about AWD and 4WD—and suggestions about the system that’s best for you.


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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 13 years with the company. Lots of them have been 4WD and AWD vehicles. He knows what he's talking about when he advised customers!  He says the two biggest factors when choosing between 4WD and AWD are the weather where you live and your driving style.

Four-wheel drive

Four-wheel drive vehicles have been around for decades, but they’re certainly not outdated. Manufacturers continue to choose dedicated 4WD systems for their rugged trucks and utilitarian SUVs due to their balance of performance and value.

Pros

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. Plus, the extra traction provided by 4WD gives you an edge when you’re towing on slippery surfaces. Beyond controlling the way your vehicle drives, activating the 4WD mode only as needed could also reduce your overall fuel consumption.

Cons

Our expert says if you wouldn’t use 4WD more than a couple 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.

AWD

Modern AWD 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.

Pros

Even the most basic AWD 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.

“If you don’t want to deal with concerns over changing gears yourself, AWD probably meets your needs better,” our advisor in Chicago says. “With AWD, the car can detect a slippery surface before the driver does.”

Cons

Since AWD makes use of several integrated systems, a full-vehicle diagnostic test may often be needed to pinpoint exact part failures and appropriate repair procedures.


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Top 4WD vehicles

Whether you're looking for a rugged work truck or something built for recreational fun, there are plenty of 4WD truck options available to suit your needs. These vehicles can handle plenty of tasks, from hauling heavy materials to hosting your next tailgate — all without losing traction in less-than-ideal road conditions along the way. Check out our top 4WD vehicles, based on CarMax vehicle and sales data from December 1, 2017, through June 1, 2018.

3. Toyota Tacoma
AWD vs. 4WD: Toyota Tacoma | CarMax

When you're in the market for a 4WD pickup with a smaller profile, the midsized Toyota Tacoma can be a great option. Specifically, all trim levels of the 2016 Toyota Tacoma have 4WD as an available option (though it’s not a standard feature). Still, all Tacomas with 4WD feature low-range gearing to help while traveling up and down hills. Some other standard features you'll enjoy with the 2016 Tacoma include a cargo bed rail system, rearview camera, and a touchscreen infotainment interface.

2. Dodge Ram 1500
AWD vs. 4WD: Dodge Ram 1500 | CarMax

If you're not one to be intimidated by a larger truck, the half-ton Dodge Ram 1500 with 4WD may be an ideal choice for you. For instance, one of the most unique features of the 2016 Dodge Ram 1500 is the fact that it comes with your choice of two available 4WD configurations; one offers manual mode selection, whereas the other features automatic shifting between rear-wheel and four-wheel driving based on perceived road conditions. There are also a lot of customization options available with this Dodge Ram 1500; for example, you can choose between four different bed sizes, two different cab configurations, and 11 trim levels!

1. Ford F-150
AWD vs. 4WD: Ford F150 | CarMax

Earning our top place for 4WD vehicles is the Ford F-150. It’s a very capable pickup; for example, the 2016 Ford F-150 has plenty of towing capacity, when properly equipped1, and lots of payload-carrying potential. Like the Ram 1500, the 2016 F-150 comes with a wide range of customization options that include three different bed sizes/lengths, six trim levels, and three different cab styles to suit your needs. All 4WD models are also equipped with hill descent control to give you some added confidence behind the wheel.


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Best AWD vehicles

These days, you can find AWD as a feature on many different types of vehicles, from SUVs and sports cars to compact sedans and just about every option in between. All-wheel drive is a great feature to have in any vehicle, as it can help to boost your confidence behind the wheel — regardless of the road conditions you may find yourself in.

US News and World Report identified a list of the “9 Best Off-Road Trucks” in 2017.2 From that list, we identified the top three, best-selling vehicles at CarMax from December 1, 2017, through June 1, 2018. Explore these vehicles below.

3. Subaru Legacy
AWD vs. 4WD: Subaru Legacy | CarMax

When it comes to sedans that are rugged enough to take on nearly any terrain, the Subaru Legacy is definitely worth a test drive. The 2016 Subaru Legacy actually comes standard with AWD, so it's not something you'll need to pay extra for to enjoy. And depending on which of the four trim options you select in this five-passenger sedan, you'll enjoy either a 2.5L, four-cylinder engine or a more powerful 3.6L, six-cylinder engine under the hood. Some compelling standard features found in the 2016 Subaru Legacy 2.5i trim include HD/satellite radio, a 6.2-inch touchscreen display, and convenient smartphone integration.

2. Subaru Impreza
AWD vs. 4WD: Subaru Impreza | CarMax

If you thought it was impossible to find a smaller/compact sedan that comes with AWD capability, think again. The Subaru Impreza comes in both sedan and hatchback form and comes standard with all-wheel drive for your convenience. Drivers tell us they enjoy the extra traction and handling that the AWD provides. Specifically, the 2016 Subaru Impreza is available in five different trim levels, with the 2.0i being the base hatchback trim. This base model features full power accessories, smartphone integration, and a rear spoiler for a sportier look.

1. Subaru Outback
AWD vs. 4WD: Subaru Outback | CarMax

Those in the market for a spacious SUV with standard AWD won’t want to overlook the Subaru Outback. This vehicle saw a total redesign for the 2016 model year and comes in four trim options. Some of the top features drivers and passengers will love include a roomy interior, refined steering, and a rearview camera. We love the Outback ourselves, and gave it a thorough review in our Best AWD Car: The Subaru Outback article.


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Mechanical components and how they work

When you’re driving a vehicle equipped with on-demand 4WD, you can select 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. 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 AWD 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 to be 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.

Electronically-controlled 4WD and AWD

As production vehicles began to make more use of electronic control modules (engine management, anti-lock brakes), 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. That’s right—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 yesteryear and keep the vehicle under control.


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Purchase considerations:

As you search for your ideal 4WD or AWD car, there are a few key things to keep in mind.

System Names:

Manufacturers sometimes use their own naming designations to identify their vehicles as 4WD- or AWD-equipped. For example, the Mercedes-Benz C300 has an AWD system called 4MATIC®, while Audi uses Quattro® for its all-terrain drivetrain. When choosing between the top AWD and four-wheel drive cars, keep this naming system in mind to avoid overlooking a suitable vehicle.

Gear Ratios:

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.   

Maintenance Demands:

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.


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The history of AWD and 4WD

On-demand 4WD 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's 4WD military and civilian trucks became known as go-anywhere vehicles. To push the limits of this tech, other manufacturers began to equip their purpose-built vehicles, such as off-road trucks, with full-time 4WD.

In the early 1960s, a British car company called Jensen created the FF sedan—the first passenger vehicle to utilize full-time AWD 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 AWD was born. Today, vehicles equipped with AWD are available from nearly all vehicle manufacturers. 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 vehicles on the market, keep the above factors in mind to help guide your decision-making process. The top 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.

1Various factors may impact towing capacity, including weight of passengers, cargo, and options/accessories.
2 https://cars.usnews.com/cars-trucks/best-off-road-trucks
Unless otherwise noted, information relating to these featured vehicles comes from third party sources, including manufacturer information. Product and company names may be trademarks™ or registered® trademarks of third party entities. Use of them does not imply any affiliation with or endorsement by these entities.