All-Wheel Drive & Four-Wheel Drive: Both Systems Explained

With roughly 50,000 square miles of public lands, Idaho has a lot to explore on road and off. If you’re looking for a vehicle that handles well in off-road or hazardous road conditions, you have two options: all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive.

Knowing the benefits and drawbacks of each feature can help you make the right choice.

All-Wheel Drive: The Safe Commuter

All-wheel drive sedans provide better road traction than their two-wheel drive cousins.

These days, you’ll have a tough time finding an SUV without all-wheel drive. Some manufacturers, like Subaru and Audi, integrate the feature into sedans as well. This feature is meant primarily for on road use and helps vehicles gain more traction on slippery surfaces.

“With all-wheel drive, if you have a tire that slips, more power will be transferred to the other wheels,”  said Maverick Automotive Technician Craig Wingate. 

Wingate, who’s been a professional mechanic for 15 years, said all-wheel drives are a safer option when driving in winter conditions. 

“When I have people come in looking for a vehicle and they’ve never driven in snow, I recommend an all-wheel drive,” he said. 

All-wheel drive vehicles also perform well in certain off-road conditions, especially if they have the proper tires and clearance, but they should be viewed as a superior road alternative to two-wheel, especially during hazardous driving conditions. 

Four-Wheel Drive: The Offroad Adventurer

Four-wheel drive isn’t meant for on-road, but it makes for a superior off-road experience.

Unlike all-wheel drive, four-wheel drive isn’t on all the time and must be initiated by the driver. Once initiated, the front and rear driveshafts are locked together so the front and rear axles rotate at the same speed. 

In rough, off-road terrain like mud and gravel, increased torque is transferred to the ground on both back and front wheels, helping you navigate tough obstacles. 

Wingate said he recommends 4WD for “off-road application” since the feature can cause uneven tire wear and front end damage when used on dry roads with good traction. 

“4WD is great for getting off-road when you’re doing things like hunting,” he said. 

Purchasing a four-wheel drive with a locked differential or having one installed can make a huge difference in those hairy off-road situations. A locked differential allows torque to be transferred from an unused wheel on the front or rear of the vehicle. 

For example, if you find yourself stuck with one tire off the ground, a locked differential will transfer all of the torque to the grounded tire, allowing you to escape and live to get almost stuck again. 

Fuel Economy and Maintenance 

As far as gas mileage is concerned, you’ll pay more at the pump since all-wheel drives and four-wheel drives are heavier due to their additional components. Both also use more energy to move, since power is allocated to all four wheels. 

Maintenance and parts cost more with both options. Both need more parts for repairs than do old-fashioned two-wheel setups, and subsequently both cost more for regular maintenance due to the increased number of parts.  


It can be empowering to drive either an all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive in conditions like snow and ice, but increased traction and control does not mean your vehicle can stop or turn with any more efficiency. 

Increased stopping distance and slower speeds should be the standard for all drivers on slippery surfaces, regardless of their vehicle capabilities. False confidence in an all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive vehicle/s performance can have disastrous consequences. 

Check out this AWD vs. 4WD video by Engineering Explained for a more thorough overview of both systems.