AWD vs 4WD: What's the difference?

two four wheel drives on a dirt bush road at sunset

Tim Nicholson

Posted March 15, 2021

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 than ever before. 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 all- and four-wheel drive. All-wheel drive describes vehicles that have a four-wheel drive system designed to maximise road traction, for example on slippery roads. It is seen as a safety feature and used by many brands, notably Subaru and Audi, to promote 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.


mitsubishi pajero in outback on rocks

The Mitsubishi Pajero has underlyinng ruggedness and strong overall performance.

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 two-wheel-drive (2WD) one 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 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.

Many 4WD vehicles are simply bigger than other vehicles and this can benefit crash performance.

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 A/4WD. In this case the A/4WD is usually a minimum of $2000 more than the 2WD version. For example, the 2021 Toyota Kluger GX auto costs $44,850 before on-road costs, but this increases by $4000 to $48,850 when you option all-wheel drive.

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, it is definitely recommended.


red jeep wrangler jl on wet sand

4WD and AWD can aid traction, depending on the conditions.

Are they fuel efficient?

The fact is, componentry of AWD and 4WD weigh more than 2WD components and therefore place a higher load on the powertrain. This means fuel use increases with the addition of AWD/4WD, but depending on the vehicle, it might not be by much. For example, a 2021 Nissan X-Trail ST petrol auto with 2WD has an average official fuel-use figure of 7.9L/100km, while the ST auto AWD consumes 8.3L/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 rear-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 4WD version.

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, Mitsubishi Pajero and smaller fare like the Holden Jackaroo, Nissan Pathfinder, as well as tiny rock-hoppers like the Suzuki Jimny and Daihatsu Feroza.

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 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.