The Difference Between All-Wheel Drive and Four-Wheel Drive Cars

The Difference Between All-Wheel Drive and Four-Wheel Drive Cars

Some of the terminology you come across in ads for new or used cars is pretty straightforward, like the year, make, model, mileage, and category of the vehicle. However, other terms—specifically, “four-wheel-drive” (4WD or 4×4) and “all-wheel-drive” (AWD)—can be a bit more confusing. Here’s what to know about the difference between the two.

What’s the difference between four-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive?

Given that most cars, SUVs, and non-commercial trucks have four wheels, you might assume that 4WD and AWD are the same thing. But that would be too simple. Complicating matters even further is the fact that some manufacturers come up with their own names for driving systems, like 4MATIC (Mercedes-Benz) and xDrive (courtesy of BMW).

Plus, the two systems tend to appeal to the same group of consumers: Those who live places where rain, snow, and other weather impacts road conditions, and/or people who plan to drive off-road.

Here are some of the main differences between 4WD and AWD, according to Kelley Blue Book and Carmax:


  • Designed for slippery, loose, or rugged surfaces
  • Splits power evenly between the front and rear wheels
  • Typically uses rear wheels on paved roads
  • Excels on steep inclines
  • More towing capability than AWD
  • Poor fuel economy
  • Most pickup trucks use it


  • Designed for on-road use
  • Vehicle automatically shifts power between the front and rear wheels to achieve optimal traction
  • Provides added traction in bad weather
  • Costs more upfront, but adds value if you sell
  • More fuel-efficient than 4WD
  • Used on cars and minivans

There’s more to know, and this guide from Kelley Blue Book has additional information on each system, including what to consider when shopping for a new vehicle.

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