For those who live in colder / snowier climates, a 4WD (four wheel drive) vehicle has always made sense. When snow falls, there’s nothing quite like the power of all four wheels working to get you where you are going safely.
But today, there are a huge amount of vehicles featuring “All Wheel Drive” (AWD), which confuses many people. After all, isn’t four wheel drive really also all wheel drive? (are we missing wheels in our count? If all four have power, isn’t that all of them?)
Let’s quickly illustrate the differences:
4WD is exactly what it sounds like. With a switch, power is distributed to all four wheels evenly. This gives you a massive amount of power when driving through snow, mud or similar. Typically, 4WD vehicles have two 4WD settings – low and high, the difference being torque delivered. Low has more torque, but you drive at lower speeds (up to perhaps 20mph). High can typically be driven up to 40-60 mph, making it ideal for driving on normal roads during a snowstorm (obviously, check your manufacturer’s specs for details on this.)
The drawbacks to 4WD are the fact that you have to turn it on manually, and you also cannot steer as well. With equal power to all four wheels, it means turning is far more difficult and choppy, especially sharper turns at lower speeds (in normal operation, the inner wheel of a turning vehicle turns slower than the outer wheel).
AWD is a little different. First of all, in almost all cases today, it’s “always on”. But that means the torque is considerably less than true 4WD. So while it’s “4 wheel drive” in the sense that there’s power delivered all the way around, it’s not equal amounts to all wheels at all times – it’s far more sophisticated than that. Today’s AWD vehicles have precision computer controls, enabling the vehicle to deliver (and take away) power to any individual wheel. This makes turning at any speed a non-issue, and relieves the driver of “selecting” anything (although there are some AWD vehicles with different levels of AWD – again, that’s an individual manufacturer thing).
So which is better for you – 4WD or AWD?
Well, it depends. For everyday driving, taking the kids to school, etc, AWD is probably fine. It’s going to give you the traction you want, without sacrificing performance and steering. But it’s not as powerful or as sure-footed in snow as a traditional 4WD. So if you need that kind of power – if you have a job where you MUST get to work no matter the conditions outside, or, obviously, if you are going off-road at all – then a more traditional 4WD is probably the better vehicle for you.