Winter Driving: AWD vs. 4WD in Snow and Ice

AWD vs 4WD

All You Need to Know About All-Wheel-Drive and Four-Wheel-Drive

AWD and 4WD systems serve different purposes; it all depends where you’re driving and what you’re driving. Do you live in a place where winters are filled with snow and ice? Well, you probably know how important it is to have a good set of snow tires on your vehicle. But you may not know that your drive wheels and your tires are two separate things! If that’s the case, you came to the right blog! Let’s get you up to speed on all you need to know about AWD vs. 4WD. 

AWD vs 4WD - winter driving

The Difference Between Drive Wheels and Tires

It used to be that only trucks, SUVs, and heavier work vehicles had AWD and/or 4WD. However, approximately a third of all vehicles sold today are made with all-wheel-drive systems or four-wheel-drive systems. But first, what’s the difference between drive wheels and tires? 

  • Drive Wheels are the wheels of a motor vehicle that transmit force, or power. The force transmits torque into tractive force from the tires to the road. Basically, it’s what causes the vehicle to move.
  • Tires are simply rubber cushions that fit around a wheel and contain compressed air. 

So, a two-wheel-drive (2WD) vehicle has two driven wheels, typically with both at the front or the rear. This is what they mean when a vehicle is described as a rear-wheel-drive or front-wheel-drive vehicle. A 4WD vehicle has four driven wheels. 

Now, combine the power of your drive wheels with some all-season tires or snow tires. 4WD and AWD systems with snow tires will give you the ultimate traction control in snowy or icy road conditions. 

How is AWD vs 4WD different

Four-Wheel or All-Wheel, That is the Question

Now that we’ve distinguished the difference between wheel drive and tires, it’s time for this blog’s ultimate question! Which is better… all-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive? In the winter, the difference between AWD vs. 4WD can be significant. So what’s the difference? 

all wheel drive AWD

All-Wheel-Drive (AWD)

Depending on the system, AWD vehicles can provide maximum forward traction during acceleration. AWD feeds power to each corner of the car, truck, or SUV equipped with this system. Most AWD systems primarily force the power to one set of wheels – the front or rear axles. “When slippage is detected at one axle, power is diverted to the other axle, in hopes of finding more traction there. It is especially helpful in sloppy road conditions and when driving over moderate off-road terrain.” Essentially, AWD will help get the vehicle going and keep it moving through mud, snow, sand, and other loose terrains!

AWD is a common wheel-drive system in most vehicles we see and drive today. If you have an AWD system and great snow tires, you’ll be juuuust fine during the winter. Throw a couple of sandbags in the back of the vehicle while you’re at it! Weight is very helpful for snowy conditions… not great for fuel economy, but if you’re stuck, a couple of extra bucks for gas won’t seem all that bad. 

four wheel drive 4WD

Four-Wheel-Drive (4WD)

4WD systems deliver torque through a series of the front, rear, and center differentials, transfer cases, and couplings. This allows the 4WD vehicle to run at a maximum traction level in multiple driving conditions. 4WD systems tend to be more robust, which makes them better for handling really rough terrain. Unlike AWD systems, 4WD systems come in two types: full-time and part-time. This means that vehicles with four-wheel-drive come with the option of using the full-time, or AWD capabilities. Otherwise, the driver can choose to drive part-time, which typically puts the power on the two rear wheels instead of power to all four wheels. 

for winter driving, which is better: AWD vs 4WD

How is 4WD Different from AWD?

Both four-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive are similar in that they provide power to two axles (and all four of the wheels). But with 4WD, this is done with a transfer case that can be used on-demand, rather than automatically. There are two types of transfer cases: chain-driven or gear-driven. Chain-driven transfer cases are generally lighter, while gear-driven transfer cases tend to be more durable. 

In most off-road vehicles, like Jeep Wranglers or trucks, 4WD is set manually with a gearshift or specific button on the dashboard. 4WD vehicles give you a separate range of gears for driving all four wheels. Usually, these are marked with “low” or “high” selections, indicating the higher or lower gears. 

With 4WD, you essentially have a choice, whereas, with AWD, you don’t. Fuel efficiency with 4WD/AWD isn’t ideal. This is why trucks with 4WD are particularly great. Being able to turn the 4WD on and off helps conserve the fuel economy – something you can’t do with AWD.

make a choice: AWD vs 4WD

Making the Choice: AWD vs. 4WD

What it really all comes down to is this: what are you driving and where are you driving it? AWD is a great option for winter driving. 4WD is also a great option, but even more so for those of you who live in rural, unpaved areas, and/or areas with lots of steep inclines. 

Now that you understand the difference between how each system works, we hope you feel more confident about tackling this winter! As always, regardless of which wheel-drive system your vehicle is equipped with, be careful. Always use the utmost caution when accelerating or braking in snowy or icy road conditions. No wheel-drive system is necessarily safer than the other; it’s the driver who determines the safest way to drive in winter conditions.

Are you looking for the best vehicle for winter driving? Well, look no further! Visit any of our 11 Northwest Motorsport locations in Washington state. We have so many choices! Choosing which is better, AWD vs 4WD, can be an easier choice than you think. Our NWMS team will be there with you every step of the way!