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4WD? AWD? Understanding Wheel Drive Differences

Buying a car is complex enough with people using terms interchangeably. There are a lot of terms in the world of cars that seem to mean the same thing, but actually have subtle and important differences. The most common example? Probably four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, also referred to as 4WD and AWD.

It’s annoying… but it’s understandable, right? It can confuse just about everyone when it comes to reviewing a vehicle with four wheels. After all, let’s sat a vehicle has four wheels. It has a system that allows for greater control and power of all four wheels. Four wheels on a four-wheeled vehicle… that’s all the wheels, right?

The problem: 4WD and AWD do, in fact, refer to different things. And the difference isn’t exactly small; it can mean a lot to most motor enthusiasts. Let’s say you’re looking at a car you want to buy. Let’s say it’s an Audi, featuring the Quattro system. The salesperson tells you that it’s all-wheel drive. But sometimes they refer to it as four-wheel drive.

But these Audis are all-wheel drive in a different sense than implied by the term four-wheel drive. (This is made more confusing, admittedly, by the presence of ‘quattro’ in the system title.) The Audi Quattro system is a famous all-wheel drive system; calling it a four-wheel drive system will infuriate those in the know. It’s important to learn the difference.

If you’re a newcomer to this entire concept? Then we should probably start by explaining two-wheel drive. With 2WD, only two wheels get power from the engine simultaneously. Either the two front wheels or the two back wheels will be powered by the engine.

You can probably guess what 4WD does. This sees the engine powering all four wheels. The vehicle usually has the ability to switch between two-wheel and four-wheel drive. That’s because having all four wheels powered by the engine can damage the tyres if used in certain conditions. 4WD is built for uneven, rocky surfaces. This is key to understanding the difference between 4WD and AWD.

AWD is similar to 4WD, but it’s built to handle all conditions. 4WD doesn’t usually have the traction to deal with dry pavements or snow, for instance. AWD is more complex. It tends to utilize more features and technology than 4WD, which results in some very specialized systems. For example, Subarus are famous for their Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive. The presence of such specialized tech is why people choose to go to a specialized Subaru service centre if they need their Subaru fixed!

So even when you understand the difference between four-wheel and all-wheel, you still have to find out what specific system is being utilized by the specified type of wheel drive. This is why it’s essential that you now only make sure the salesperson you’re talking to actually knows if a given car is 4WD or AWD specifically, but also, if it’s the latter, what kind of AWD the car has. Audi’s Quattro system is quite different to Subaru’s Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive!

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