So, you’re looking for a capable vehicle, one that tows more than the car you have or handles better in seasonal cold weather. Your research takes you to vehicles with four driven wheels thanks to their superior traction and power potential. In the past, these vehicles limited you to a selection of larger SUVs or trucks, but in the modern day, many sedans, coupes, hatchbacks, and crossovers are also offering the better performances of all-tire drivetrains. All-wheel or four-wheel drive vehicles account for 45-percent of automotive sales in North America today, with 61-percent of drivers opting for this better performance when a model also comes in a less expensive front- or rear-wheel drivetrain. This number is up to over 90-percent when considering areas with more severe cold winter weather. The popularity of these highly capable vehicles is indisputable, but which is better for you: all-wheel or four-wheel drive? Is there a difference? The terminology is confusing and not very clear cut; after all, both power all four wheels, right? We’re here to clarify the difference and help you pick which drivetrain is best for your lifestyle and needs.
What Is All-Wheel Drive?
As implied, all-wheel drive vehicles employ tires both front and rear to generate forward momentum. These systems generally operate with no input from the driver, although select vehicles do come equipped with selectable drive modes that better tailor the AWD to different road conditions or terrains. Torque is channeled through a series of differentials, viscous couplings, and/or multiplate clutches to provide even traction performance between the four tires.
According to our technical consultant at Bodwell Chrysler in Brunswick, ME, under the classification of “all-wheel drive” are two unique operational systems. Vehicles can be equipped with either a full-time AWD, or a drivetrain that engages both front and rear axles all the time, or a more sophisticated part-time AWD, one which can disengage an axle until a time the vehicle needs more traction. These part-time AWD vehicles come with a number of electronic sensors that automatically adds in the second axle when necessary. This saves on some gas, as less energy is needed to turn just one axle for a majority of the time.
What is Four-Wheel Drive?
Four-wheel drive is the original, equipped to vehicles going back almost to the beginning of automotive manufacturing. This system is primarily found in trucks or larger SUVs, and is known for being the more rugged and robust. This drivetrain operates via a series of front, rear, and center differentials, transfer cases and couplings, maximizing traction and torque use in a variety of terrains and road conditions. Like AWD vehicles, this sends torque to all four of the vehicle’s wheels, but many 4WD vehicles come with low- and high-gear ranges to perform more aggressively in certain situations. Low-gear 4×4 operations are great for off-roading, delivering maximum torque throughout the low speeds for continuous forward momentum and crawl even over astounding angles or drastically uneven terrains. High-gear 4×4 settings is most useful on loose or slippery terrains, such as across snow, ice, mud, sand, or gravel. This extra grip also lends to fantastic towing performance rarely found in AWD vehicles, rating anywhere between 6,000 to 10,000-plus pounds depending on the powertrain’s output.
This drivetrain also comes in a full-time or part-time configuration, depending on the vehicle. Same as AWD, full-time 4WD vehicles continuously engage all four tires throughout the drive. Part-time 4WD drivetrains again similarly disengages an axle–typically the front–when spare power isn’t necessary. Unlike AWD vehicles, the drive has complete control of when to engage the front differential either with a button or lever in the cabin. Some vehicles that are built for extreme work and play have locking differentials on front, back, or both axles that can be thrown into action. This system assures both tires of an axle or all tires of the car turn at the same speed, propelling your vehicle forward no matter how uneven the terrain.
Which Should I Get?
Much of this decision hinges on your lifestyle and what you plan to do with your car. If you’re looking to get this advanced handling simply for snow, AWD is a simple system that can run automatically and engage whenever the car itself senses a loss of traction, if you opt for a part-time system. This both assures you have that spare power whenever you need it and still preserves better fuel economy fairly comparable to a front- or rear-wheel model. AWD vehicles can handle rain, snow, and ice, and even offers some light off-roading or trailering performances, typically maxing around 3,000 pounds. Also, if you favor smaller vehicles such as sedans, crossovers, or compact SUVs, undoubtedly you’ll find a majority of them with AWD systems only. If 4WD appeals, you’ll be picking from mostly large SUVs or trucks. These vehicles better tailor to bigger demands for power and can handle more adverse roadway conditions. No AWD can compare to the ruggedness and pulling capabilities 4WD vehicles pump out, and it’s the drivetrain favored everywhere for superior off-roading if you want to venture far off the beaten path.
While both systems will help your vehicle travel better in snow or ice conditions, its worth noting that neither are completely unfailable. Both AWD and 4WD vehicles will spin out if pushed too hard, and neither will help you stop any sharper. Examine your driving habits and what power you need, and undoubtedly the choice will be clearer for you what drivetrain you should opt for now!
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