We all know that driving with four wheels of force is better than two. After all, who likes to be stuck in the snow? Who likes breaking traction with two wheels and having the other two sit there and admire the smoke coming from their counterparts? That leads many people to the conclusion that they need a four-wheel drive vehicle.
Then comes the trip to the dealership. All of a sudden there are two choices staring you in the face and they both sound like they mean the same thing. One is Four-Wheel Drive (4WD), the other is All-Wheel Drive (AWD). Well, the last time you checked your vehicle probably only had four wheels. By that rationale, AWD would signify four wheels driving at the same time so it’s the same thing as 4WD, correct? Well, if it was there probably wouldn’t be much sense in reading this, or even writing it for that matter, so there must a catch.

There is.

Despite the lack of difference in vocabulary meaning between the two, they are very much different. Most of the differences will only need to be learned by your technician, preferably before he works on your vehicle, but it does help to know the minor differences so that you can make a better choice when purchasing a new vehicle.
Let’s start with AWD. This one is the less complicated of the two. It basically means what it says. All the wheels are being powered evenly all the time. It never turns off or stops. There is no switch to take you out of AWD. Whether the vehicle is on dry pavement, wet pavement, snow, or dirt, the wheels are being powered the same. It is much safer than 2-wheel, especially in bad weather, and will provide much better traction and handling for small, fast cars like sport coupes.

4WD, on the other hand, usually has a barrage of options. First, there is full-time 4WD. It can be turned off or on depending on your driving conditions. You control it with a switch in the cab of the vehicle. Full-time 4WD vehicles can switch between two-wheel drive (typically only the rear wheels driving the vehicle) or four-wheel where all wheels are engaged no matter what the driving conditions. There is also part-time 4WD. This one is a little trickier. It can be controlled with a switch, just like the full-time version, but cannot usually be run on dry pavement. Leaving part-time 4WD engaged in non-inclement weather will wear out the transfer case, resulting in a very large repair bill. Not the case with the full-time version. The full-time 4WD typically comes with options for high and low gearing as well. Low being used for pulling through very heavy muck, mud, or snow at low speeds, and high being used at…well,…higher speeds. Either option in full-time can be run on any surface in any condition. Just remember, using the 4WD drive system will make your gas mileage go significantly south.

Either option is convenient to have, especially if you live in an area that doesn’t see much sunshine, despite its hardships on your miles per gallon. Keep in mind, however, that either option will add a significant chunk of cash to the overall price of the vehicle and is beastly expensive to fix if it should ever have the misfortune of breaking down. To avoid these failings, remember your routine maintenance. Any of these vehicles will have a differential or a transfer case or both. These contain gear lube which must be changed at regular mileage intervals just like your engine oil. Keep up the routine maintenance and inspections and you should be able to catch any major problems before they arise, no matter which version you choose.

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