The Ultimate Transmission Guide: AWD vs 4WD

With the rise in sales of SUVs and dual-cab utility vehicles, it’s clear that more and more Australians are buying vehicles with all-wheel drive (AWD) or four-wheel drive (4WD). Contrary to two-wheel-drive vehicles driven from the front or rear wheels, all or four-wheel-drive vehicles direct power to all four wheels. 

A professional opinion matters when considering AWD vs 4×4: that’s why we’ve compiled this ultimate guide to transmission. 

Let’s get started!


What is AWD?

All-wheel-drive (AWD) systems power all the wheels of a vehicle, all the time. This includes both the front and rear wheels. 


How All-Wheel Drive Works

AWD systems operate customarily with no aid from the driver. The wheels get torque through a series of cogs, couplings and clutches, which supply power to the wheels for optimised traction. 

AWD is best suited for on-road use. It constantly and consistently sends the engine’s power to all four tires. In many high-performance vehicles, the all-wheel-drive systems seamlessly shuffle force between the front and rear wheels as necessary, switching to two-wheel drive automatically at the appropriate times to improve fuel economy.


Full-Time AWD

In full-time AWD, the front and the rear axles are driven constantly. 


Part-Time AWD

Depending on the vehicle model, part-time AWD sends torque to two driven wheels, either the front or rear. Hence the terms front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive

The AWD system only employs the other two wheels when road conditions demand extra traction. Part-time AWD systems use a variety of electronic sensors, feeding a constant stream of information to a computer that directs power to each wheel.


AWD Pros

  • The best thing about AWD is that it functions automatically, freeing the driver from the responsibility of engaging the system at the correct times. 
  • If all the wheels aren’t being driven full time, the system is designed for discerning the loss of traction and for sending power where needed. 
  • Furthermore, AWD is available on a wide variety of vehicles, making a buyer’s options seem endless!


AWD Cons

  • While AWD works well in rainy conditions and the snow, serious off-roaders generally write off these systems. Most off-road adventure drivers prefer to engage four-wheel-drive manually, as this ability empowers and excites them. 
  • Unfortunately, AWD increases the cost of a vehicle and often reduces fuel economy.


What is 4WD?

This more traditional system goes back almost to the beginning of motorised transportation. In recent years, however, 4WD engineering has become increasingly sophisticated. 

Although its popularity lies in heavy off-road use, you can now find it in many luxury vehicle models. 

4WD systems deliver power through a series of front, rear and centre differentials and transfer cases and couplings, which allow the vehicle to function at maximum traction under extreme conditions.

See where best to use your 4WD vehicle here.


How Four-Wheel Drive Works

4WD systems send torque to all four of a vehicle’s wheels to increase traction where necessary. These systems tend to be more robust than AWD systems, enabling them to traverse more rugged terrain.

4WD systems have low and high ranges, selected by the driver with an electronic switch or a mechanical lever. The low setting supplies maximum traction in an off-road environment. The high setting is a default configuration used for slippery on-road conditions, such as snow, loose sand or gravel.


Full-time Four-wheel Drive

Full-time 4WD functions similarly to full-time AWD, and all four wheels receive continuous power. The driver may have the option to control how power is distributed to the front and rear axles in specific models’ designs.


Part-time Four-wheel Drive

Part-time 4WD vehicles are propelled forward by two wheels, usually the rear. The driver decides when to engage 4WD with the push of a button or by shifting a lever.

Part-time 4WD systems are made for off-road use or abnormally slippery surfaces. This requires the driver to manually shift into and out of the four-wheel drive mode. 

The manual action of pushing a button locks the front and rear driveshafts together, meaning that the front and rear axles will turn at the same speed. 

In extreme conditions, like mud or snow, part-time 4WD guarantees that the engine torque is sent to at least one front and one rear wheel, eliminating the need for computers to detect a wheel slip. 


4WD Pros

  • 4WD vehicles handle adverse conditions best.
  • These systems are the perfect fit for off-road work and play.


4WD Cons

  • 4WD delivers a stiffer ride than 2WD.
  • These systems’ effect on fuel economy increases the cost of the vehicle.
  • 4WD on pavement can be dangerous since the locked driveline inhibits turning. 


AWD vs 4WD difference

Let’s take Auto 4WD vs AWD or AWD cars vs 4WD. What’s the difference?

The truth is, there are many differences when we weigh up an AWD vs 4WD in sand or mud or an all AWD vs 4WD.

Please see the table below for comparison:

Optimised for on-road use and comfort.Maximised road traction for off-road use.
More fuel efficient.Detrimental effects on fuel efficiency.
Automatic. Does not require driver intervention.Manual high and low range gearing. Driver is responsible for engaging the system manually.
Designed with safety in mind.Designed for adventure.
More stylish and comfortable vehicle models.Predominantly truck-like, Service Utility Vehicles with oversized tyres.
The Toyota Kluger is available with on-demand AWD, for example.The Toyota LandCruiser 70 Series is an example of a vehicle with a low-range 4WD.


It is worth mentioning that both AWD and 4WD will provide better traction than two-wheel drive vehicles in winter weather.

Which is Better, AWD or 4WD?

Well, it depends. Drivers can decide on a transmission system by considering the following factors:

  • The primary use of the vehicle. Will it be used for daily commuting in a city, daily construction work or for weekend off-road adventuring? Large trucks and SUVs are perfect for towing heavy loads and usually come with 4WD, while AWD vehicles are optimised for safety.
  • Driving style. Your driving style and preference will determine which option is best for you.
  • Geographic location. If you live in a more rural, sandy or snow-covered area, 4WD may be the best option for you. The opposite may be true if you’re a city dweller in an area with moderate weather conditions.
  • Budget. What can you afford? Consider and compare all the options.


Need help?

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