If you're thinking of picking up a vehicle capable of going off-road on the weekend, you might be tempted to think of all-wheel drive (AWD) and 4-wheel drive (4WD) as essentially interchangeable, with both systems equally well-suited to the required task. Unfortunately, this is wrong, and many drivers remain unaware of the differences.
To put it simply, a 4WD system directs power to a transfer case, and that power is then split between the front and rear axles to ensure that each wheel receives the maximum available amount of torque. AWD systems split power between the front and rear axles too, but they can also split that power between individual wheels.
That might not sound like it would make a real difference, but here are just three reasons why a 4WD vehicle is a better choice for off-roading.
1. Stronger Traction
The most important reason to choose a 4WD system for off-roading is that they will provide better traction at low-speeds. AWD vehicles are best used on paved roads or very well-groomed off-road trails, but they lack the low range of a 4WD system. At low range, your vehicle will produce plenty of torque in order to crawl out of deep mud, navigate extremely rocky terrain, cross waterways, or travel in deep snow. AWD vehicles lack that kind of robust reliability across tougher conditions.
2. Can Be Turned Off
One of the main differences between 4WD and AWD is that the former system can be turned off. This is because AWD is used less for serious off-roading and more for long-term driving on roads that might be a little slippery. The advantage here is that 4WD only needs to be on when you're going off-road, but it can be switched off when you're back on the highway in order to improve fuel economy.
3. Made for Off-Road
Manufacturers know that 4WD vehicles are more capable as off-roaders, so they'll tailor their 4WD vehicles around the needs of off-roading drivers. Vehicles that are available with 4WD will often boast larger brakes, skid plates, stronger engines, and more robust suspension systems since they are likely to be pushed harder than their AWD alternatives. This is a particularly important concern if you're buying used since you won't be able to add the necessary systems yourself as options.
If you're looking for a vehicle with true off-road potential, you'll need to look for one that has 4WD equipped. AWD comes with its own advantages, but it's never going to keep up with 4WD for anyone who really wants to get out into the backcountry.
To find the best vehicle for your needs, look at dealerships that have used car options like Glenn's Quality Cars.