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What is all-wheel drive (AWD)?

All-wheel drive (AWD) is a system in cars that makes all four wheels get power from the engine all the time. It's effective for enhancing traction on icy roads, particularly in cold weather, but not ideal from the fuel efficiency perspective.

In this article, we'll discuss all-wheel drive and its functionality, compare it to four-wheel drive (4WD), types of drivetrain setups cars and their benefits and considerations for choosing between AWD and 4WD.

What is all wheel drive auto? | St. Charles, Florissant, MO

How does all-wheel drive work?

The heart of AWD is the center differential, which decides how much power goes to the front and rear wheels based on how you're driving. The presence of differentials in all-wheel drive cars facilitates smooth turns and ensures the car remains stable by enabling wheels to rotate at different speeds. This setup is great for maintaining good traction, especially in tricky road conditions like snow or mud. You can find an all-wheel drive in a range of vehicles, including compact cars, trucks, and SUVs.

Most all-wheel drive cars send a bit more power to the front wheels during regular driving, while sportier ones might focus on the rear wheels for a more exciting ride.

For instance, vehicles like the Toyota Highlander and Ford Escape lean towards powering the front wheels more in their AWD setups, whereas sporty models like the BMW X5 and Dodge Charger tend to emphasize the rear wheels for a more dynamic driving.

Two main types of all wheel drive

Full-time: This type ensures that all four wheels receive power constantly, regardless of the road conditions. Vehicles with full-time AWD have a center differential that allows each wheel to turn at different speeds when turning corners. This system is versatile for different roads, and the center differential can be locked manually or automatically when traction is low. Vehicles without a locking center differential use electronic traction control systems on all four wheels to detect slipping and transfer torque to the wheels with traction, ensuring stability and traction in slippery conditions. However, electronic systems may not perform as effectively as mechanical locking differentials in extreme off-road scenarios.

Full-time AWD systems are often featured in vehicles tailored for off-road adventures or designed to navigate harsh weather. Examples of such vehicles include Toyota Land Cruiser,  Land Rover Discovery, and Volkswagen Touareg.

Part-time: Unlike full-time, part-time AWD systems only engage all four wheels when necessary. Most of the time, these systems operate with power sent to two wheels, usually the front or rear wheels, and switch to all-wheel drive mode when sensors detect a loss of traction. This is like a "temporary" AWD where usually only one axle, often the rear one, is powered during normal driving. However, when the road gets slippery, such as on ice or mud, you can activate the all-wheel drive for another axle using a lever or button in the car. Part-time lacks a center differential, meaning the front and rear driveshafts are physically linked, and spin at the same speed when all-wheel is engaged. This system is suitable for low-traction surfaces like snow,  mud, or sand but should be used for short periods and at low speeds to avoid transmission problems and accidents on regular roads. 

Part-time systems are typically more fuel-efficient than full-time AWD because they don't constantly power all four wheels. Some of the most popular part-time AWD cars are Toyota Land Cruiser 70, Jeep Wrangler, Toyota Tacoma and Tundra.

What are the differences between AWD and 4WD?

Let's break down the differences between all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive:

Purpose: AWD is great for regular driving, while 4WD is designed for off-road adventures like rocky trails or deep water crossings.

Weather performance: Both AWD and 4WD are awesome in snowy or rainy weather, giving you better grip and stability. All-wheel drive has a slight edge in very snowy areas.

Pros and cons: AWD automatically sends power to all wheels without you having to switch anything, making it easy to use. However, it's not as good in really rough terrain. On the other hand, 4WD is fantastic off-road but can be a bit tricky to operate manually.

Fuel efficiency: Both systems use more fuel, which is something worth to keep in mind.

Fun facts: AWD isn't just for snow; it can also help sports cars accelerate faster. Some fancy autos even have smart systems that adjust power based on the driving style, combining safety and fun.

So, if you're mostly driving on regular roads with some bad weather here and there, all-wheel drive is probably enough. But if you're planning serious off-road adventures, 4WD might be the way to go. Either way, both systems have their perks and can make your driving experience safer and more enjoyable.

You can also purchase a vehicle equipped with changeable AWD and 4WD capabilities. Many modern full-size pickup trucks offer these systems as optional features, giving drivers the flexibility to select between all-wheel drive using Auto or 4Auto mode and 4WD using the 4High setting. These vehicles typically include additional modes such as rear-wheel-drive 2High mode and low-range 4Low mode. For example, a Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon functions as an all-wheel drive vehicle until the center differential is locked. When this differential is unlocked, the power is evenly split between the front and rear axles, effectively turning the G-Wagon into a four-wheel drive (4WD) truck. 

Understanding the technology beneath a vehicle's surface can be challenging for buyers due to how auto manufacturers label their systems. For instance, many vehicles equipped with Subaru's Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive actually distribute torque unevenly between the front and rear axles. The Audi Quattro system can signify different things depending on whether you're referring to an Audi A3, A4, or A4 Allroad. Chevrolet labels its all-wheel-drive trucks as four-wheel drive, while true four-wheel-drive models are designated as four-by-fours. Ford also uses the term four-wheel drive to describe its numerous all-wheel-drive SUVs.

So the name of the system, whether it's termed "all-wheel drive," "four-wheel drive," or labeled with a brand-specific term, is not as important as understanding what the vehicle can actually accomplish. It's important to note that AWD is not a guaranteed solution for driving on low-traction surfaces such as ice and snow; the quality and condition of your tires are equally significant, regardless of the type of drivetrain your vehicle is equipped with.

Visit Clement Pre-Owned to test drive a variety of all-wheel drive cars. Our inventory includes a range of options to suit your needs, whether you're looking for compact cars, SUVs, or trucks with AWD or 4WD capabilities.

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