When shopping for an SUV or truck, you’ll see one of two terms, AWD or 4WD, as an option.
While both are good for different things, they aren’t always necessary, and knowing how they work and what they’re for helps with the decision process when choosing a car to buy.
Also if you’re going to be dealing with snow, you’ll most likely want one of these as an option. RWD is probably the worst configuration for driving in the snow, as no power goes to the front of the car.
Bear in mind that trucks are usually RWD, and while most will have a 4WD option it’s not always standard, so be sure to get the 4WD when you’re shopping for a new truck in a snowy area.
If you live in an area of the country with harsh winters, then you want a vehicle that can handle snowy and icy terrain.
A vehicle designed with snowy roads in mind can get you from here to there as safely as possible during the coldest months of the year. To that end, cars are now available with all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive, both of which handle snow and ice differently from one another.
What Is All Wheel Drive
Car differentials usually send power to two wheels, and that means power from the engine is only going to one side of the car, and the performance difference between the two is vastly different.
In a rear-wheel-drive car, power goes from the engine to the rear wheels, whereas in a front-wheel-drive car the power goes to the front wheels via what’s called a transaxle, which is a transmission and differential as part of one single unit.
An AWD car has both a rear axle for RWD, and a transaxle for FWD, and connects the two with a third, “Center” differential.
At all times, with AWD, all four wheels are getting power. There’s more drivetrain loss with AWD than with RWD and FWD, but the upshot is AWD layouts have more grip, which is one of the reasons it helps in the snow.
No matter which type of all-wheel-drive drivetrain a vehicle has, all-wheel drive does not require any input from the driver.
However, some vehicle models allow for a driver to adjust their driving modes, which can change what power goes where. Some vehicles come with Snow or Ice mode, designed to optimize traction on snowy or icy roads.
The full-time all-wheel drive utilizes both the front and rear axles at all times. Full-time all-wheel drive can improve handling on dry pavement, according to Forbes, and can also help a vehicle use its full power.
On slick road conditions, such as snowy or icy, it offers additional traction, helping a driver operate their vehicle with increased safety and confidence.
Part-time all-wheel drive provides torque to two of the wheels at all times. This system can either supply this torque to the front wheels or the rear wheels, depending on the specific make and model of the vehicle.
If the system identifies a road condition that requires additional traction, it will engage the other two wheels. Today’s part-time all-wheel-drive uses electronic sensors that inform a computer on the amount of traction needed for safe driving.
How Is 4wd Different From Awd?
4WD is similar to AWD in that it provides power to two axles or all four wheels, but does so with what’s called a transfer case and can be used on-demand.
In trucks and off-road vehicles like Jeep Wranglers, 4WD is a mode you can select, sometimes with a gearshift. When it’s selected, there’s a separate range of gears for driving all four wheels, usually denoted with “Low” or “High” selections, indicating low or high gears.
There are two kinds of transfer cases, chain-driven or gear driven. While chain-driven transfer cases are lighter, gear-driven are more durable.
4WD is great for trucks because using all four wheels make the fuel efficiency worse, so being able to turn it off and on at will helps a great deal, whereas with AWD you wouldn’t have a choice.
What Is Better In The Snow: 4×4 Truck Or All-wheel Drive?
With the current economic situation faring better for our country, the number of new car sales has never seen itself rise as fast as it is now since the onset of the Great Recession.
With the year coming to an end, most of the country is seeing the brunt of the cold winter months. Many places in the country are snow-ridden, and motorists are looking for the kind of vehicles that can handle extreme climatic conditions.
With so many different kinds of cars out there on the market, it only begs to ask the question: What kind of vehicle should you get?
While the typical setup for most cars, for the longest time, has been the front-drive system, sports cars and luxury cars happen to have the rear-wheel-drive setup primarily.
While both of these are popular options, a third of the proportion of the total number of cars sold in the United States belong to another category. There is a rising demand for four-wheel-drive vehicles and all-wheel drive vehicles.
With plenty of 4×4 trucks from different manufacturers offering both these driving setups, motorists are looking to take advantage of their traction-enhancing abilities.
Of course, since 4×4 trucks come in both all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive options (both designed to offer better traction to motorists), buyers must decide which one is worth investing in. Choosing the right vehicle configuration is not a simple black and white matter.
Several factors have to be considered when making this decision. Still, the primary concern at this time of year is the vehicle’s ability to drive properly in icy and snowy conditions.
Here is a quick overview of the different configurations of vehicles and the advantages they offer to motorists. This can help you better understand which kind of 4×4 truck is better for snowy and icy conditions.
Vehicles with front-wheel drive configuration are the most standard. This is found in normal everyday cars and cross-over trucks. Trucks do not typically have these configurations since they are based mainly for operating vehicles in cities that face moderate cold conditions.
The rear-wheel-drive configuration has long been a standard for cars that look to provide superior handling capabilities to drivers. Suited for luxury vehicles and sports cars, driving a rear-wheel-drive vehicle can be problematic in extreme cold.
Drivers of rear-wheel-drive vehicles may need assistance when it comes to getting their cars moving in snow-covered areas.
An increasing number of rear-wheel-drive cars offer the option to switch to an all-wheel-drive configuration in order to make them more suitable for the winter conditions.
Is All-wheel Drive Or Four-wheel Drive Better For Snow?
With cold weather comes rapidly changing road surfaces, Edmunds explains. During the winter months, ice and snow can take over the roads, making roads especially slippery. So, to drive on these slippery surfaces, traction is crucial.
All-wheel-drive systems deliver power to all four wheels at the same time, or they automatically engage torque to all four wheels when needed. That’s why the all-wheel drive is best for driving on snowy and icy roads. With all-wheel drive, the driver does not have to use guesswork.
Meanwhile, four-wheel drive is a solid option for driving in deeper snow or more extreme winter weather conditions, explains The Globe and Mail.
For example, if you were to encounter a snowdrift or an icy hill, four-wheel drive may be better at handling these conditions.
Instead of thinking about the all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive as competitors, consider which is better for your needs.
Auto Sock asks: ‘Where does your tire meet the snow when driving?’ If you live on a back road that isn’t ploughed frequently, four-wheel drive may make more sense for your needs.
Whereas, the all-wheel-drive may be a better choice for you if you live in a city where roads are ploughed frequently, but conditions are still slick.
All of these drive systems move the vehicle forward. This is a crucially important point for the purposes of understanding a drive system’s influence on wintertime driving because it defines both the advantages and limitations.
In slippery winter road conditions and certainly in deep snow, 4WD and AWD systems provide an advantage getting and keeping the vehicle in motion.
Drive is sent to both axles, and all four wheels help the vehicle overcome the physical resistance of snow or heavy wintry precipitation buildup on roadways.
RWD and FWD vehicles are at a comparative disadvantage in these circumstances. To put it in terms of a human body analogy, if you’re trying to push a heavy object on a slippery floor, you’re at an advantage with both legs pushing as compared to just one.
Driving through wintry road conditions is a part of the winter driving experience, which includes compact snow, fresh snow and ice.
In these environments, 4WD and AWD systems can help power the vehicle through these conditions. At the same time, an FWD or RWD vehicle may find itself in trouble.
Most experienced winter drivers put a heavy emphasis on braking performance on slick winter roads.
Does drive type have any influence on vehicle braking performance? None whatsoever. None of these systems plays a role when you stomp on the brakes.
How About Turning/Cornering Performance?
Does drive type significantly improve the ability of the vehicle to turn on wintry roads in response to the driver’s inputs?
In certain cornering/turning situations, especially when the vehicle is moving slowly or just starting, 4WD and AWD will assist in keeping the vehicle tracking “online” (according to the driver’s steering angle/input).
But in general, the cornering performance of vehicles on slippery winter roads is not significantly advantaged by drive type.
No matter the drive type, all modern vehicles are equipped with traction control systems. These systems have more of an influence on vehicle cornering control than drive type.
So if drive type isn’t the key to overall winter driving control and safety, what is?
The most significant winter performance advantage for any vehicle, regardless of drive type, is winter tires.
All vehicle drive types and modern traction control systems require sufficient traction at the road surface to function properly. If tires are mismatched to the road conditions, there isn’t a drive type or traction control system in the world that can overcome the tire traction deficiency.
Winter tires are the only specialized, specifically-engineered solution to all winter’s driving challenges.
That means snow of course, but also ice, slush, freezing wet winter roads, subzero dry winter roads, and everything in between. Acceleration (drive), cornering, and braking performance are all determined by tire traction. If you want your vehicle to stand up to winter’s driving challenges capably, proper tires are a must.
Truck-type 4WD systems are great for dealing with very heavy snow on unplowed roads and for off-road driving on muddy, uneven terrain; the Low range gearing makes it possible to crawl up steep inclines and slog through deep mud. Truck-type 4WD is great — even essential — for people who live in very rural areas or who must deal with heavy snow on unplowed country roads.
Truck-type 4WD systems usually operated in 2WD mode — with just the back wheels receiving engine power.
When in 2WD mode, these vehicles often have less grip than an FWD car, which has the traction advantage of the drive wheels pulling (instead of pushing) the car and also because the weight of the engine and transmission are sitting on top of the driven wheels.
In addition, 4WD systems are not designed to aid high-speed handling/traction on dry, paved roads. Most 4WD systems come with warnings not to engage the 4WD on dry paved roads, because it may negatively affect handling and result in premature wear of the components.
Finally, a 4WD system adds a lot of extra weight to the vehicle, which in turn cuts down on fuel economy.
While you may only need 4WD a few days out of the year, you’ll be paying for it every day by lugging around a couple of hundred pounds of additional dead weight.
Not many people are aware of these significant everyday limitations of 4WD — even though the information is usually right there in the owner’s manual.
AWD provides excellent all-year/all-weather grip on snow-covered roads in winter and improves handling on dry (or wet) paved roads in summer.
Unlike a truck-style 4WD system, AWD is optimized as much for use on smooth, paved surfaces as it is for use in the snow (or even on unpaved gravel and dirt).
High-performance AWD-equipped sports cars and sedans offer incredible dry-weather, on-road handling with superior wintry weather capability.
Also, AWD systems do not require any driver involvement; power is automatically routed to the wheels with the most traction.
And they can kick as much as 90-plus per cent of the engine’s power to the front (or rear) wheels, as the traction situation dictates.
AWD is not designed for off-road use; there is no two-speed transfer case or 4WD Low range gearing.
AWD can also add substantially to the purchase price of the vehicle — sometimes by as much as several thousand dollars. In some cars, AWD also usually adds significant weight to the car, which cuts both performance and fuel economy.
Best Cars For Driving In The Snow
If you’re someone who lives in the snow and prefers a smaller, more economical car than a truck, Subaru’s AWD system is hard to overlook.
The Subaru has a hard time staying stuck, whereas other AWD systems will choose when to activate all four wheels in order to save fuel, or, be more fuel-efficient. Subaru’s AWD is always active, which makes it less complicated.
For needing a truck, a 4WD diesel like a Dodge RAM is the best way to go. The older Cummins Turbo Diesel trucks from early-mid 2000s are tried and true workhorse machines, they are powerful and reliable even in the snow.
So Is Awd Or 4wd Better For Snow?
We’d have to say that it depends more on the vehicle than the type of drivetrain. If you need to get a truck for hauling things around and need to get through the snow, then 4WD is the way to go.
However, if you’re more into commuting and joy rides through the snow, you can get away with a smaller car equipped with AWD.
Trucks need the option in that kind of environment, but when you don’t need that kind of traction, it becomes very inefficient. You always want either AWD or 4WD in the snow, and it just depends on what you’re going to use the car for.
The all-wheel-drive is a much better option to consider when it comes to icy and snowy conditions.
The higher ground clearance makes it easier to operate 4×4 trucks through thick snow, and the variable power distribution between the wheels makes the 4×4 trucks more stable even through the most slippery roads. They can operate equally well on dry pavements.
The vehicle drive type is relevant to the wintertime driving/traction discussion insofar as certain drive types confer advantages in select winter conditions.
But the winter driving discussion should not be centralized around vehicle drive type. The drive type is not the primary determiner of winter driving control, safety, and security.
Whatever your vehicle and drive type, make sure you’re equipped with a set of winter tires. Consistent tire traction will exponentially improve the overall performance of any vehicle through the season and beyond.