AWD vs 4WD: What's the difference?

Toyota Landcruisers parked on a rocky, red dirt field

RACV Staff

Posted June 06, 2023

Ever wondered what's the difference between AWD vs 4WD vs SUVs? Here's your guide.

With the rise of SUVs and dual-cab utes, more Australians are buying vehicles with all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive. Unlike two-wheel-drive vehicles driven from the front or rear wheels, in an all or four-wheel-drive, power is directed to all four wheels. Many people choose cars with all-wheel drive (AWD) traction for safety reasons, while adventure-seekers opt for four-wheel drive (4WD) vehicles so they can head off road. We take closer a look at the benefits and drawbacks of all-paw traction and AWD vs 4WD.

All-wheel drive vs four-wheel drive: a guide

What’s the difference between AWD vs 4WD?

There is very little difference in the mechanicals of AWD and 4WD. AWD describes vehicles that have a four-wheel drive system designed to maximise road traction, for example on slippery roads. AWD is sometines positioned as a safety feature, and used by many brands, notably Subaru and Audi, to differentiate their models. Many AWD systems limit the drive to one set of wheels (front or rear) and only engage the other set of wheels when the system detects a slippage or a lack of traction, or for performance or efficiency purposes.

Four-wheel drive is used as a description of vehicles that are more inclined to be used for actual off-roading. Many, but not all, 4WD vehicles have a centre differential that helps divide the power and torque between the front and rear axle.

Serious off-roaders will usually have high and low-range gearing. Low range makes it easier for the engine to propel the vehicle at a lower speed over steep terrain. Many four-wheel-drive models do not have high and low range but will still have off-roading ability. 

There are a variety of different four-wheel-drive systems found in different models. Some require the driver to stop the vehicle and engage the four-wheel-drive system, while with others all four wheels are engaged at all times.

Do I need a 4WD or AWD vehicle to drive off-road?

It depends what you mean by off-road. If you're only briefly driving along an unsealed, dirt or gravel road that is largely free of obstacles then you can most likely get away with a AWD vehicle, or even a 2WD vehicle.

But if you plan on doing some serious off-roading regularly then you'll want to invest in a vehicle with 4WD. This is because 4WD drivetrains are built specifically to withstand different terrain types and supply maximum traction to the wheels, with the body of the car built higher off the ground to avoid obstacles. 



Subaru WRX tS Sportswagon

Some manufacturers, like Subaru, promote AWD as a safety measure. Image: Supplied.

Are AWD/4WD vehicles safer than two-wheel-drive models?

It depends on the conditions of the roads and how the vehicle is driven. Therefore, it is difficult to state categorically that an AWD vehicle is safer than a front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive vehicle given the level of mandatory safety features now fitted to all new passenger vehicles. Victorian regulations state that all new passenger vehicles must be fitted with electronic stability control, which stabilises the vehicle when it shifts direction from what the driver intended.

One of the main benefits of AWD or 4WD is that a vehicle fitted with one of these systems will accelerate from a standing start with greater traction than a two-wheel-drive vehicle. This is especially the case when the road is wet or slippery, as the traction is distributed more equally between all four wheels.

AWD and 4WD also aids traction, depending on the conditions, when towing a boat, caravan or float. This is evident when towing on wet or slippery roads, at a wet boat ramp or on unsealed roads designed for off-roading. It is also handy when driving on sand.

Do I need a 4WD or AWD vehicle to drive in snow or on sand?

4WD and AWD cars can provide an advantage due to their extra traction, but they're not a must for driving in the snow. All cars sold in Australia, even 2WD models, have had Electronic Stability Programs (ESP) installed in them since 2013. The ESP provides traction control and vehicle stability automatically thanks to sensors that pick-up when the vehicle deviates from the direction you're driving in. However, it's still important to know how to drive safely in the snow, including when and how to fit snow chains. 

Driving on sand is a different story, however, and you must use a 4WD. The 4WD must also have a low-range gear selection. You'll also want to reduce the pressure in your tyres - 16psi is a good starting point but don't be afraid to take it lower if your engine is struggling or your tyres keep sinking into the sand. 

Are AWD and 4WD vehicles worth the higher price tag?

AWD or 4WD models generally cost more than equivalent two-wheel-drive models. Many SUVs are offered in the same model grade but with the option of 2WD or AWD/4WD. In this case the AWD/4WD is usually a minimum of $2000 more than the 2WD version. For example, a 2022 2-door Toyota Hilux costs from $31,733 driveaway for a 2WD model, but this increases by more than $15,000 to $47, 172 when you opt for a 4WD drivetrain. 

Whether the extra outlay is worth it depends on how the vehicle is used and where it’s being driven. If it’s covering a lot of miles on country roads, particularly unsealed roads, then it could definitely be worth the extra cost. Likewise if you live in an area that gets a lot of rainfall or snow. When it comes to towing a caravan, boat, horse float or bigger trailer, AWD/4WD is recommended.


blue toyota hilux

Expect to pay more for a AWD or 4WD vehicle, though the extra costs might be justified depending on how you plan to use it. Image: Supplied.

Are 4WD/AWDs fuel efficient?

Componentry of AWD and 4WD systems weigh more than 2WD components and therefore place a higher load on the powertrain. This means fuel use typically increases with the addition of AWD/4WD, but depending on the vehicle, it might not be by much. For example, a 2023 Nissan X-Trail petrol auto with 2WD has an average official fuel-use figure of 7.4L/100km, while the intelligent 4x4 model (in reality, an AWD system) consumes 7.8L/100km. 

The difference is slightly more noticeable in bigger vehicles, like the Mazda CX-9 large SUV. The Mazda CX-9 Touring drinks 8.4L/100km of petrol in front-wheel-drive guise, and increases to 9.0L/100km in the AWD version. This can add up over a year of filling up, so consider whether you really need the AWD version.

In terms of overall running costs, the Subaru Outback 2.5 AWD CVT MY23 was one of the most affordable AWD vehicles to own in 2022, while the the most affordable 4WD was the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport, according to RACV’s latest Car Running Costs Survey.

Are SUVs all 4WD/AWD?

SUVs are big business in Australia and have overtaken traditional passenger sedans, wagons and hatchbacks as our favourite type of car. But anyone choosing an SUV assuming it will have some off-road ability might be disappointed. In decades past, what we now know as SUVs were rugged four-wheel-drive wagons engineered and built with off-road driving in mind. Think of the likes of the Toyota LandCruiser, Nissan Patrol, and smaller fare like the Nissan Pathfinder, as well as tiny rock-hoppers like the Suzuki Jimny.

These days, a huge chunk of the high-riding wagons on our roads are not AWD/4WD, much as they might look it. Car companies realised a while back that people like the look of an off-roader – chunky wheel arches, big wheels, tough design and that all-important ride height – but they didn’t necessarily want to take their car off road. SUVs of all sizes have taken over and a quick look at the small compact SUV segment shows that only a handful of variants are even offered with all-wheel drive – most are front-wheel drive only.

There are, however, a new crop of ‘real’ off-roaders available for those lamenting the shift to soft-roaders. Many manufacturers including Ford, Holden, Isuzu, Mitsubishi and Toyota sell SUVs based on their respective 4x4 utes and all of them are built for off-road adventures. Alternatively, those very utes they are based on are also quite handy off road.


Blue audi e-tron

4WD EVs haven't hit Australia yet, but a few AWD EVs like the Audi e-tron are available. Image: Supplied.

Are there electric 4WD/AWD vehicles?

If you’re looking for a 4WD electric vehicle in Australia you’re out of luck. While a few such models exist (notably the Ford 150 Lightning and Rivian Rt1), none are yet available in Australia.

Liam Brady, EV Manager at RACV, says there are a few potential reasons electric 4WDs haven’t hit Australia yet. “Most likely it’s simply due to consumer demand and market forces. That is, automakers favouring other markets where they believe they will sell better,” he says. “4WD owners may also be more likely to do longer trips in more regional and remote locations where there is a lack of charging infrastructure.”

However, Australians do have options if they’re looking for an electric AWD vehicle. “There are a few EV models that come with AWD as a standard such as the Volvo XC40 Recharge, BMW iX, Audi e-tron and Jaguar I-PACE,” says Brady. “There are also EVs that have an AWD model variant like the Tesla Model 3, Polestar 2 and VW ID.4.”

Do I need a 4WD or AWD to tow my boat, trailer or caravan?

It's not the drivetrain of the vehicle, but torque that mostly determines a vehicle's suitability for towing. In reality, that does mean anyone towing a larger load, such as a caravan or boat, is going to require the torque that comes with 4WD and AWD vehicles, with diesel engines preferred for their ability to generate torque with minimum revving.

Aim for between 400Nm to 500Nm of torque when selecting a vehicle for towing and familiarise yourself with terms like 'maximum tow capacity', 'tow ball download', 'gross vehicle mass', and gross combination mass'.

If you're towing smaller loads like a trailer, there are petrol and SUV options that may suit your needs. 

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This is general advice only and does not take into account your individual objectives, financial situation or needs (“your personal circumstances”). Before using this advice to decide whether to purchase a product, you should consider your personal circumstances and the relevant Product Disclosure Statement and Target Market Determination. For copies, visit RACV Car Insurance issued by Insurance Manufacturers of Australia Pty Limited ABN 93 004 208 084 AFS Licence No. 227678. As distributor, RACV Insurance Services Pty Ltd AFS Licence No. 230039 receives commission for each policy sold or renewed.