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or 4WD: Which is Best for You?
ow many driven wheels does a vehicle really need? Modern SUVs, pickups,
minivans, and wagons on America’s highways over the last ten years
would appear to suggest that two just isn’t enough. But what are
the advantages of four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive. These are
drivetrain systems designed to handle slippery conditions, but
what's the difference?
Just to be sure we’re all on the same page before we go
on, AWD mean all-wheel drive, and 4WD means four-wheel drive.
4WD refers to vehicles that have
the ability to choose between two and four-wheel drive. They have
low and high settings that can be switched using an interior lever.
The low setting is good for pulling or climbing in an off-road
environment, especially in mud or snow, rocky terrain, and steep
hills. The high setting
is used for slippery on-road conditions such as packed snow and ice.
4WD also uses a locking system to avoid slippage between the right
and left wheels while driving off-road. 4WD is basically an SUV term
associated with off-road use.
AWD generally has no low or high
gearing options. It is a car/wagon/minivan term that implies
traction improvement for performance and for bad weather conditions
such as slippery roads. Most AWD vehicles use the front wheel
primarily and only direct power to the rear wheels when a sensor
detects front-wheel slip.
4WD or AWD.
Found on SUVs, minivans, wagons, and a few pickups, this system
provides power to all four wheels, usually with power being shifted
between the front and rear axles as needed. The advantages are that
the vehicle always provides maximum traction in both dry and
slippery conditions. As with all full-time systems, it requires no
action from the driver.
4WD or AWD.
Available on various SUVs, this system works by turning the controls
over to the vehicle. Sensors decide whether 2WD (either front or
rear, depending on the model) is needed, or when 4WD or AWD is
needed. It then automatically routes power to all four wheels,
varying the ratio between front and rear axles as necessary.
Found on SUVs and pickups, this type requires the driver to manually
shift between 2WD and 4WD using either a lever or a switch. All
current systems allow you to shift between modes while driving.
Vehicles with part-time systems aren't designed to be driven on dry
pavement when in 4WD mode.
The system that is best for you depends on what type of
conditions you'll be driving in. Both of these systems add
significant weight, complexity, and cost to the vehicle. They also
reduce gas mileage due to increased drag on the drivetrain. Since
traction control is becoming more common on front- and rear-wheel
drive cars, the advantages of 4WD and AWD might not be worth the
There is no right drivetrain options — just different
designs and different characteristics. Your best way to choose is to
decide which one is right for your driving circumstances. For rain
and light snow, AWD gives you a greater margin of safety. If
you’re traveling off-road where conditions are often more severe,
you will be better off with 4WD.
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