What’s the Difference Between AWD, 4X4, and 4WD?

“Your AWD vehicle is nice and all, but it’s no 4×4.” That sentence has been thrown around by many proud Jeep Wrangler owners, while scoffing at the competition off-roaders. There are many arguments between AWD (all-wheel-drive) vehicles and 4WD (four-wheel-drive) vehicles as well. The controversy between AWD, 4WD, and 4×4 is nothing new, though. It is an age old discussion that has been going on for nearly half a century. But with all pride for your vehicle aside, real questions need to be answered, so you can find the right vehicle for you. The questions include: Which drivetrain is better? What’s the difference between the drivetrains? And most importantly, is there any?

Let’s take a look at all three, and see if we can figure out the answers to the questions that have plagued us all this time.

  • AWD – All-wheel-drive has an almost infinity sound to it, making some feel that it does more or can do more, than other 4 wheel-powered vehicles. The term also is a bit newer, so it may seem like the technology must be better. But is that name misleading? All-wheel-drive vehicles actually are considered all wheel drives, based on the full-time power to all wheels. They are built with a center differential making sure any slips or problems with the road, are met with power going to the wheels with more traction.

This form of four-wheel-drive actually has an automatic switching between two-wheel power and four-wheel power. The system will keep the car in a specific bias-wheel powered state, only switching when necessary. This type of drivetrain can be found on a lot of crossover and SUVs, which enable them to tackle different hazardous terrains. The “originators” of the AWD gave their vehicles this new setup for four-wheel-drive, such as the Audi Quattro and the Land Rover Range Rover. While some AWDs have a manual-locking center differential, it’s understood that AWD mostly refers to automatic center differentials.

  • 4WD – Four-wheel-drive can generally mean a vehicle that has power going to all wheels. When a vehicle is labeled 4WD, however, it doesn’t necessarily mean just a general state of 4WD. Vehicles labeled “4WD” can or most likely, mean it has a system in place for off-road or hazardous terrain driving and one for everyday commuting. These systems basically are two separate toggles, to match whatever road is in front of you. The everyday commuting toggle is normally specifically putting power behind one axle, making it either a FWD or RWD (front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive), the other toggle is putting power behind both front and rear axles.

Usually, 4WD vehicles have switches or a lever that flips the vehicle into the different modes. Depending on what 4WD you have, there may be different options on the system, for different driving conditions, with some modes giving you a little more leeway within the system. The idea of AWD may sound like it tops 4WD systems, as it can automatically switch between the power going to the different wheels, but this isn’t exactly true. AWD vehicles may not be able to handle everything that is thrown at it, with the system not being fully equipped for off-roading. 4WD vehicles, though, have an entire set up ready and waiting to be taken off-road. Their intention is for the situations that AWD can only react to. Basically, the AWD design is a jack of all trades, master of none. The automatic transfer of power can be great, but really both systems depend on what you are looking for from a four-wheel-powered car.

  • 4×4 – These numbers appear on many different vehicles, with certain manufactures focusing on the fact that they are specifically 4x4s. This constant advertising of the “4×4” title can make some believe that the 4×4 system is the best setup for off-roaders. Is that the case? Actually, not necessarily. While 4×4 vehicles have an advantage over AWD vehicles for the off-road, they are the same system as we discussed for the 4WD vehicles. The terms are used interchangeably between manufactures, with 4×4 being used as a marketing name for hardcore off-roaders. This confusion started back when manufactures couldn’t decide what their systems actually were, and when technology was improving and expanding with new innovations. As time went on though, it has essentially become fact that a 4×4 vehicle manually transfers power between 2WD and 4WD.

Over the years, what makes up an AWD, 4WD, and 4×4 vehicle has changed. What was once considered AWD in the 80’s, is now considered 4WD or vice versa. The important thing to remember in the end is, whenever you go to buy a vehicle claiming to be AWD or 4WD, make sure you check exactly how their system works. Don’t let the marketing hype trick you into a system that isn’t right for you. Once you find out how the vehicle is designed, you can make a well-informed decision, based on what you want in a four-wheel-powered car.

Photo credit: The National Roads and Motorists’ Association via Foter.com / CC BY