Snow covered roads

AWD vs. 4WD: What’s the Difference?

Updated February 4, 2024 . AmFam Team

You’re ready to shop for the vehicle that’ll drive your dreams, but the choices are endless. When comparing AWD vs. 4WD, the decision comes down to the drive system — do you need all-wheel drive (AWD) or four-wheel drive (4WD)?

We’ll fill you in on the difference between the two, and highlight pros and cons for each to help you decide which vehicle is right for you.

Safe Winter Driving Tips
Follow these tips to help keep yourself and others safe when the road is slippery and snowy.

What is the Difference Between AWD and 4WD?

The simplest way to tell the two driving systems apart is to remember that all-wheel drive systems are always on, while four-wheel drive is typically disengaged and needs to be turned on. But there’s more behind these two systems to understand before you decide which is right for you.

What Is AWD?

All-wheel drive is a vehicle that sends power to all four of its wheels when driving. This is done automatically through the vehicle’s computer. As a whole, AWD is one of the safest and most capable type of vehicle on the market. Most cars and crossovers are equipped with AWD.

AWD Pros

  • Many drivers like AWD because the vehicle needs almost no input from the driver due to the computer-controlled system always being on
  • AWD automatically adapts to road conditions, sending more or less power to each wheel and axle as needed
  • Suitable for both slow and highway speeds
  • Has sportier handling and improved traction to keep you safer on the road

AWD Cons

  • AWD typically doesn’t get as much life out of the tires because all four wheels are being powered while driving
  • Added weight can reduce fuel efficiency
  • Limited off-road capabilities
  • A more complex system, which raises the cost of a vehicle

What Is 4WD?

Four-wheel drive is a vehicle that can also send power to all four wheels, like AWD, but the key difference is 4WD vehicles are pure mechanical systems. That means the driver operates a lever or switch to determine which wheels receive power, instead of a computer operated AWD system.

With the driver in charge, 4WD vehicles can have superior control in off-road conditions to help overcome tough obstacles, like mud and other rugged conditions. For example, if one wheel gets stuck in snow, the other three wheels can be engaged to help pull the vehicle out.

4WD Pros

  • Higher vehicle clearance of larger objects under the vehicle
  • You can turn 4WD on or off, depending on the terrain
  • When 4WD is disengaged, only the back two wheels move the vehicle forward while the front two spin freely
  • 4WD can be switched off to increase fuel efficiency

4WD Cons

  • Needs to be disengaged to drive on pavement without issue
  • Not suitable for all driving conditions
  • Adds weight and increases fuel usage when engaged


SUV parked in a field


Is AWD or 4WD Right for You?

Hopefully, these pros and cons helped clear up some things. But before you go out and buy one or the other, consider what you’re looking for in a car, along with your driving style. If you’re looking for an everyday vehicle that handles well in most conditions, an AWD car is right for you.

Do you drive on rough and rugged terrain? Are you interested in vehicles with off-road capabilities like trucks, Jeeps or Range Rovers? If you answered “yes” to these questions, a 4WD drive car may be your ideal ride. Keep in mind, for the inexperienced, that 4WD comes with a learning curve.

If you’re wondering whether AWD or 4WD is better in snow, AWD is better for most winter weather conditions. With all four wheels engaged, your car can have greater traction on slippery, snowy roads. For off-road situations, 4WD is better equipped to handle uneven snowbanks.

Protect Your AWD or 4WD Vehicle

Whichever vehicle system you decide — AWD or 4WD — it’s important to have the right protection. Connect with your American Family Insurance agent (Opens in a new tab) to make sure your car insurance coverage meets your new and changing needs.

Looking for an easy choice when it comes to shopping for a new car? Check out these tips and resources to make car shopping a smooth ride.

This article is for informational purposes only and includes information widely available through different sources.


Tools & Resources

Explore our tools and smart tips.