If you’re looking for a new car, you’ve probably run across a simple fact: Some cars are 2-wheel drive, while others are 4- or all-wheel drive. So what’s the difference? Should you get 4WD to be safe? Can you use 2WD in the snow?
We’ll explain the basics of each system and provide the optimal usage for each one.
What is 2WD?
A 2-wheel-drive (2WD) car is just what it sounds like: only two of the car’s wheels actually receive power. The other two are essentially along for the ride, though having four wheels on the ground obviously makes the car a lot more stable than if there were just three. (See: that tricycle you toppled over in your driveway when you were still in diapers).
Most new vehicles come standard with 2WD, though which two wheels receive that power varies by what the manufacturer intended for the car to do.
Sedans, minivans, and crossover SUVs not aimed at serious towing or off-road use (vehicles like the Toyota RAV4 and Ford Edge) are typically front-wheel drive (FWD). The front wheels steer and accelerate, which may seem like a lot of work. However, an FWD car can weigh less than a rear-wheel-drive (RWD) vehicle, and it drives better in snow. More on that in a bit.
RWD, predominant into the mid-1980s, is now generally reserved for higher-end and sportier cars, as well as pickups and off-road-oriented SUVs.
Most new passenger cars come standard with FWD because it typically results in improved fuel efficiency. There is less driveline loss, or wasted energy, in short, with an FWD car because the engine and drive wheels are close to one another. Additionally, the fact that the engine is pressing down on the front wheels helps with traction, especially in the snow.
Don’t write off an RWD car, though. Power sent solely to the rear wheels results in more neutral, balanced handling that makes cars like a BMW 3-Series more fun to drive than a Toyota Camry. Today’s RWD cars are better in inclement weather than ever before. That is due largely to efficient traction control systems and vast leaps forward in tire technology. Still, FWD definitely has the upper hand when it comes to deeper snow.
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What is 4WD and How Does it Work?
Four-wheel-drive is a catchall term for two different types of systems, which sound similar but actually work quite differently in practice.
A conventional 4WD system such as that seen in a pickup truck or an off-road SUV along the lines of a Toyota 4Runner or Jeep Wrangler typically has a 2WD mode for normal dry pavement use. Systems such as Ford’s ControlTrac or Jeep’s Selec-Trac also include an automatic 4WD mode suitable for use on dry or wet pavement.
From there, these systems typically also include a slippery terrain-only 4WD mode that locks the axles together (meaning the front and rear wheels turn at the same speed) that can result in serious driveline damage if engaged on pavement. A low range use for ultra low-speed off-roading or tugging a boat out of a lake is typically included.
These systems send power primarily to the rear wheels on pavement but can adjust as needed without any driver input. Simpler systems use gears that detect slip and transfer power around. More advanced systems make extensive use of various electronic sensors.
A 4WD system results in impressive off-road ability and hauling utility. But it’s typically found in vehicles that use a lot more fuel, such as pickups and bulky SUVs.
What is AWD and How Does it Work?
Far more common today is an all-wheel-drive (AWD) system. Most SUVs and some minivans and sedans are offered with an AWD system that operates in the background. Power is typically supplied primarily to the front wheels in these setups. Then, it gets sent to the rear wheels as needed.
AWD systems usually require no driver intervention. The systems operate seamlessly and silently underneath. Occasionally, automakers will offer something along the lines of a “4WD Lock,” designed to be helpful in deep snow. But that’s as complicated as these systems get for most use.
The upside to AWD comes in its simplicity: There’s nothing to do other than hitting the road. But AWD is not meant for towing or for serious off-road use.
Which is Better for You?
If you live in a sunny place and don’t plan to go skiing or venture down an unpaved road, a vehicle with FWD or RWD will likely work just fine for you. Even then, carefully selected tires rated for winter duty will go a long way toward instilling more confidence.
A vehicle isn’t automatically safer if it’s AWD or 4WD. It mostly comes down to driver skills. Anyway, 4WD SUVs and trucks sit up higher off the ground. That makes them handle worse than lower-riding SUVs or sedans no matter which wheels are driven.
The big thing to remember is that AWD or 4WD effectively gets a vehicle moving away from a stop and sustaining momentum in snow or wet conditions. But it will not help you stop any quicker or more safely.
Still, we can’t blame you for shopping for an AWD or 4WD vehicle if you live in an area that sees more than occasional rain or a climate with regular snowy conditions.
Most drivers will be just fine with an AWD sedan, minivan, or SUV. A 4WD model is best reserved for those who plan to trek down muddy roads or through especially deep snow with regularity.
Related AWD Articles:
- I Saw a Lifted AWD Toyota Sienna and Apparently This is a Thing
- 10 Best Used All-Wheel-Drive Cars Under $20,000
- Could All-Wheel Drive Be What Keeps Minivans Relevant?
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated for accuracy since it was originally published.