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The Wheel Story: AWD vs. 4WD

Learn the difference between four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive

All-wheel drive (AWD) vehicles typically provide power automatically to wheels that need it. Four-wheel drive (4WD) vehicles require the driver to manually activate the system to engage all four wheels.

Illustration of the differential inside a car

Central to both systems is the differential. In normal driving, the differential allows the wheels of your car to rotate at different rates and balances power between the left- and right-side wheels during turns.

Illustration of car losing traction on a wet road

An AWD system works with the differential. When an AWD vehicle loses traction, the AWD system generally transfers the drive power to the wheel or wheels that have the most grip.

Illustration of differences between all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive


A 4WD vehicle can use a fixed transfer case and/or locking differential to direct an equal amount of power to all four wheels at the same time. 4WD systems, however, will lock the front and rear axles—ideal for off-roading and low-traction situations but not intended for day-to-day driving.

Now that you’re an all-wheel drive expert, check out some of our favourite AWD vehicles [link to AWD Roundup].