What are the differences between 4WD, AWD and 2WD?

AutoTrader NZ
Published 26 April 2024

Are you looking to upgrade your car but not sure which drivetrain will suit your needs?

Cars now come with multiple drivetrain options, each designed to cater to different driving conditions and preferences. These are split into 4WD (Four-Wheel Drive) and 2WD (Two-Wheel Drive). Here’s a breakdown of the common types:

  • Part-Time 4WD (Four-Wheel Drive): Drives the rear wheels by default, allowing the user to manually engage the front wheels when necessary. Ideal for rough, low-range, and varying terrain.
  • Full-Time 4WD (Four-Wheel Drive): Provides power to all four wheels all the time.
  • AWD (All-Wheel Drive): Provides power to all four wheels automatically, when the vehicle loses traction. This is great for varying road conditions, and improved fuel economy over Full-Time 4WD.
  • FWD (Front-Wheel Drive): Powers the front wheels only and is typically more fuel-efficient, suitable for city driving.
  • RWD (Rear-Wheel Drive): Delivers power to the rear wheels, offering better balance and handling, ideal for performance-oriented vehicles.

Understanding these options will help you make an informed decision based on your driving habits and the typical road conditions you encounter.

The Difference Between Full-Time 4WD, Part-Time 4WD and AWD

All drivetrains power all four wheels, yet they function differently and are suited to different driving conditions.

  • Part-Time 4WD (Four-Wheel Drive): This system is designed primarily for off-road and rugged terrain. It typically powers the rear wheels by default and allows the driver to manually engage the front wheels when necessary. In many modern vehicles, engaging 4WD is as simple as pressing a button or shifting a lever, which is especially useful in variable conditions.
  • Full-Time 4WD (Four-Wheel Drive): Unlike Part-Time 4WD systems, which require manual switching between two-wheel and four-wheel drive, full-time 4WD automatically sends power to all four wheels at all times. It typically uses a center differential to manage power distribution between the front and rear wheels, ensuring effective traction on all terrains.
  • AWD (All-Wheel Drive): All-Wheel drive (AWD) is a newer and more complex system that automatically distributes power to all four wheels when it detects the need for extra traction, like on slippery roads. Often, the AWD system operates part-time using a viscous coupling or electromagnetic clutch, providing the vehicle with better control over power distribution to the wheels. It’s ideal for handling a variety of road conditions, including wet, icy, or snowy surfaces.

View All Four-Wheel Drive cars for sale

The Difference Between FWD and RWD

Both FWD (Front-Wheel Drive) and RWD (Rear-Wheel Drive) are classified as 2WD systems, meaning they power only two wheels at any given time.

  • RWD – (Rear-Wheel Drive): This system powers the rear wheels of the car. Even though the engine is typically mounted in the front, it transfers power through a driveshaft to a gearbox located at the rear, often referred to as the differential.
  • FWD – (Front-Wheel Drive): This system powers the front wheels of the car. The engine is mounted transversely at the front, and the gearbox, which is integrated with the engine, drives the front wheels directly. This configuration is known for its efficiency and compact design, which contributes to more cabin space and lower manufacturing costs.

View All Two-Wheel Drive cars for sale

Do you need a 4WD for New Zealand roads?

Both drivetrains have their positives and negatives. Although 4WD and AWD offer unbeatable performance in wet or off-road conditions, they might not be the best choice for everyone.

In general, for New Zealand roads, you do not require anything more than a Front-wheel Drive or Rear-wheel Drive. For day-to-day driving, a 2WD unit is usually preferred due to its better fuel economy.

If you are an action-packed adventurer needing a vehicle that can tow your boat, hit the trails, and tackle the winter slopes, then a 4WD or AWD may be the way to go.