Curious About The Difference Between All-Wheel Drive And Four-Wheel Drive

BOSTON (CBS) – With all the driving problems this winter, you may be thinking your two-wheel-drive car isn’t getting the job done and that you need more power.

Ron from Plympton Declared his Curiosity, writing, “One car company offers four-wheel drive, but the other has all-wheel drive. Aren’t they the same thing?”

Well, almost.

In both cases, power does go to all the wheels, but a true four-wheel drive system gives you more gear choices and is best if you’re going off-road.

Larger SUV’s and trucks tend to have true four-wheel drive.

There are also automatic all-wheel drive systems where the vehicle switches from two to four wheel power when it detects traction problems. Medium-sized SUV’s and crossover vehicles tend to have this one.

Whether it’s four-wheel or all-wheel drive, it won’t help if you have to brake on a slippery road.

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  • Cynic

    A car with Jersey plates stuck in the snow……Why do I find this Funny?

  • emom

    I cant tell you how many times I have seen someone in any kind of vehicle and still manage to get stuck,,, Its a laughable moment evertime,,Especially those 4 wheeled super SUV’s.. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA, its such a joke and so arent the drivers, Me I have a Van front wheel drive and well manage to manuver very well, I guess some just THINK they can handle those vehicles,,,,

  • response

    emom – it’s nice to know when you see someone get stuck in the snow, you drive by laughing instead of stopping to see if you can offer assistance?
    nice way to go through life

    and BTW…I do have a large suv, with four wheel drive, and I am no joke…..I also don’t just THINK I can handle the truck, I know I can.

  • Dan Silverman

    What you defined about 4-wheel drive is not entirely true. 4-wheel drive is actually one driving wheel at each end. The exception is a “limited-slip” real axle which will switch power from side to side in the event of slippage. It is true that one has more gearing options with 4-wheel drive and is better suited for off-road. You’re correct, all-wheel drive means exactly that, all wheels driving, all the time as in Subaru. The exception is part-time all-wheel drive where the front wheels drive the vehicle until slippage is encountered and then adds drive to the rear wheels.

  • Cynic

    If you can’t get up a hill with your front wheel drive turn around and Back Up the hill…Now you are driving with Rear Wheel Drive.I learned that the first time I tried to drive my New El Dorado up the hill to my house.

  • Cynic

    Of course I meant in Snow.

  • emom

    Lets see, Yes its real funny watching people BELIEVE they can handle a huge SUV in the snow, ,, I mean since when is it the way to GUN it in snow or ice. Is it funny they have an accident , I never said that,, But so many buy BIG SUV’s to drive in bad weather , However, most haven’t a clue on how to operate one. I have been driving big vehicles all my 30 years of driving, I learned how to drive in our new england weather the first year, So glad for that, at least I dont SPIN MY TIRES as a display of how tough I am , and frankly a fool is a fool, and if they dont know how to manuvere such a large vehicle then why drive it, .

  • DStein

    Thanks for the over-simplified answer to the question. There are a lot of different 4WD and AWD systems out there depending on the manufacturer. And, unlike what the response says, there are AWD systems out there that perfectly capable for severe off-roading and have just as many gears/ranges as any part-time 4WD systems. Just ask Jeep. Or Dodge. My Dodge pickup has full-time AWD with a dual range transfer case all backed up by a limited slip differential and traction control. The system runs year ’round with a 30/70 power split between the front and rear axle. However, the system is sophisticated enough to determine how and when to automatically vary the power ratio between front and rear wheels to gain maximum traction and not needlessly spin wheels that can’t get traction. Further, the entire transfer case can be locked to ensure power goes to all wheels whether they need it or not. For hill climbing or pulling, it can also be switched into low range giving you a first gear ratio of 66:1 if you’d like to pull a house. These are some of the characteristics that separate the REAL trucks/SUVs from the pretenders/soft-roaders.

  • 1stackmack

    as clik and clak say.the differance is awd and 4wd.the spare tire spins.ha ha ha.

  • 1stackmack

    really though i would rather a 4wd system that can shift out of 4wd.when the suv had more utility and less sport i,e chevy k5 blazer,ford bronco,and dodge ramcharger.even first gen small suv’s could handle a little 4wd duty.i mean a little 4 wheelin, mudding, and ever a snow plow.yes fisher made small 6′ snow plows for S 10 blazers and even jeep CJ’ the only small suv that can take a plow are jeep wrangler rubicon’s.and ful size tahoe/suburban’s
    awd is great for a little snow or whatever.but if there’s no nothing on the ground you can’t shift out of 4wd to save gas and tire wear. but thats what makes a subaru a useless waist of money

  • mjeddry

    Suzuki SX Crossover is an excellent vehicle that offers front wheel drive, front with rear traction or true AWD. I’ve never gotten stuck

  • LR

    The most important component in the car is the nut behind the wheel. It does help to have a standard transmission, however, unless you have an automatic with traction control. Just give me a front wheel drive sedan with really good snow tires, the standard, and anti lock brakes and hold the SUV for someone with too much money.

    Once drove up to Cardigan Lodge in an ice storm in a BMW 2002 with all season radials, without using the chains I had on board. When I got there all the yuppies with their front wheel drive Toyotas, with chains on, were whining about how tough it was to get there.

    As far as off road, I once drove a Saturn SL1 to the end of the little road you see in the center of this map:
    That was pushing it a bit hard, I’ll admit, and since then the “road” has become even more washed out, so I don’t know if I could do it again.

    Long ago, a friend modified the suspension of his 2002 a little bit and took THAT off road. There’s a picture of him driving up the middle of a stream with a boat on the roof rack.

    I know of at least on CJ that is running a plow these days. It’s not brand new, though.

  • ron ballard


  • xjma

    Nobody has answered this correctly!!! That’s OK, honda actually puts a 4WD label on the all wheel drive CR-V, so I think the car companies like the confusion. Electronic traction controls can be on both 4 and all wheel drive vehicles and are separate animals. To explain the difference, one needs to ignore these features….no electronics, pure mechanical workings only.

    4wd, the front and rear driveshafts leaving the transfer case are spinning at the same speed, period. There is no mechanism for differentiation between the front and rear driveshaft, hence you can’t drive them on dry pavement like this. this is for heavy use, offroad use, snow, etc. less moving parts = more reliability.

    AWD is actually the same as full-time 4wd (some 4wd vehicles have all-time capability, which is all wheel drive). there is differentiation between the front and rear driveshafts. There are m any mechanisms that can accomplish this. If you got really stuck with awd, only one wheel would spin.

    Real 4wds have low range transfer cases and at least mechanical limited slips or locking differentials. all four wheels spin when stuck. the only real 4wheel drive you can buy is a jeep wrangler rubicon, it has air locking front and rear diffs.

    Then add all the various electronic traction controls to both four and all wheel drives and it’s a mix of features and capabilities that gets blurred. But the basic difference between four and all is differentiation in the transfer case.

    • xjma

      Also, it is physically impossible to put 60% of the power to the front and 40% of the power to the rear wheels… a physics proof of how this can be done and you’d be rich. If you put power to two wheels, four wheels, or none.

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