All-Wheel Drive vs. Four-Wheel Drive

Buying Tips & Tricks April 16, 2021

It seems like in every vehicle commercial the words all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive are thrown around with little explanation as to what either does. While the names seem straightforward, they also sound more or less the same thing, however, there are differences between the two. It doesn’t help that many companies like to throw around fancy titles to make their systems seem different (Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive; Subaru, 4Motion All-Wheel Drive; Volkswagen, xDrive All-Wheel Drive; BMW.) While there are differences in the nuances of these systems, dressing it up doesn’t necessarily make it better. We're going to break down the main differences between the two so you can make your own informed decision on which you’d prefer. 

All-Wheel Drive

In recent years All-Wheel Drive has become more and more common with technological advances making these systems easier to implement in a variety of vehicles. All-Wheel Drive used to be reserved for larger, more off-road-minded vehicles, but now it makes its way into all kinds of vehicles from small sports cars to family SUVs. There aren’t many cons to an All-Wheel Drive system in a vehicle, but it’s also not a perfect system to solve all your winter driving issues, as some adverts like to make it sound. 

All-Wheel Drive is intended to be a system to provide more traction and stability to a vehicle. Instead of sending power to the front or rear wheels, it simply sends that power to all wheels. In almost all cases, those systems are still biased, sending more power to some wheels. Which wheels depend on the brands and the kinds of vehicles they make. More family-minded companies tend to send the extra power to the front wheels, such as Toyota, Nissan, and Volkswagen, while more performance-focused brands tend to send them to the rear wheels, more like BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi. The big exception to this rule is Subaru. Subaru has transitioned itself to an All-Wheel Drive exclusive company (with only the BRZ, a joint collaboration with them, and Toyota as the current exception.) Subaru’s patented Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system sends an equal amount of power to each wheel offering the most stable experience, hence the symmetrical title. 

The biggest draw to All-Wheel Drive over Four Wheel Drive is its simplicity. All-Wheel Drive is rather foolproof, it’s always on and can rarely be turned off. It’s meant to be able to be operated by anyone, regardless of experience levels. In an All-Wheel Drive system, the vehicle itself does all the work, whether it’s an internal computer managing the power output to all wheels or a static system that always keeps the power levels the same, it’s easy to manage for all operators. All-Wheel Drive systems are intended for casual driving. While the name may make you think it can handle all surfaces, it’s really in its element on roads and streets, though it can handle much harsher road conditions than a Front Wheel Drive or Rear Wheel Drive system could. It will definitely hold you up much better in a blizzard or in the muck, but it’s still not ideal for taking a vehicle into the ditch and escaping unharmed. 

Four-Wheel Drive

Four Wheel Drive systems are a little more robust and saved for heavier, more off-road focused vehicles. Four Wheel Drive systems are most often found in trucks, with heavier duty SUVs also having them quite frequently. Unlike All-Wheel Drive systems, these almost always need to be activated on their own. Vehicles, in most cases, are Rear Wheel Drive, with some rare Front Wheel Drive one’s existing, with the Four Wheel Drive system needing to be activated with a switch, dial, or level in the vehicle. They typically have several options including, but not limited to, Four Wheel Drive Lock, Four Wheel Drive Auto, Four Wheel Drive High, and Four Wheel Drive Low. Four Wheel Drive systems are intended to tackle more harsh environments than an All-Wheel Drive system can but needs a bit of expertise to be operated. 

The main downside to a Four Wheel Drive system is its fuel consumption. Four Wheel Drive vehicles as a whole are typically larger, less environmentally-friendly vehicles in the first place, so even in Two Wheel Drive mode they tend to use a lot of fuel and not be great for the environment, shifting the power to Four Wheel Drive makes the fuel consumption even worse. On top of that, the operator needs to be a bit more knowledgeable on which modes to use for which climates since the vehicle isn’t going to automatically control those aspects for you. 

Which is Better

There’s an easy answer to that; neither. No one system is simply better than the other. They’re both incredibly useful in the situations they were designed to be used in and will still have downsides when taken out of their elements. If you’re looking for a more environmentally friendly vehicle and do mostly city driving then maybe an All-Wheel Drive vehicle would be more suited to your needs, but if you’re looking for a work truck or other heavy-duty vehicle which may leave the roads behind, then a large vehicle with a Four Wheel Drive system would probably suit you best. In the end, it just comes down to your needs and your comfort levels.


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