AWD vs. 4WD in Snow: Which Is Better for Winter Driving?

Dec 4, 2023 3 min read

If you live somewhere where harsh winter weather is a common occurrence, it’s important to have a vehicle that can keep you safe on the snowy and icy roads. This means you will likely need to choose between an all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive vehicle. Here’s how to understand the difference and pick the option that’s right for you.

Understanding the Difference Between AWD and 4WD

The best cars for snow are the ones that can get you from point A to point B as safely as possible, any time of year. Vehicles typically come with all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, both of which handle snow and ice, albeit a bit differently from one another. 

What Is All-Wheel Drive?

All-wheel drive (AWD) powers all the wheels at the same time. Both the front and back wheels operate together. There are two types of AWD: full-time and part-time. 

Full-time all-wheel drive is always using four wheels; part-time is usually in two-wheel drive mode but AWD can “turn on” when additional traction is needed. There are three things to consider when choosing between the two:

  • Both types of all-wheel drive do not require input from the driver. Some vehicle models do come with different driving modes like snow or ice mode, which is designed to optimize traction on snow or ice.
  • Full-time all-wheel drive always uses both the front and back axles. Having full-time all-wheel drive can improve handling on dry pavement and can help the vehicle use its full power. In slick road conditions, it provides additional traction which helps the driver continue to drive with increased safety and confidence.
  • Part-time all-wheel drive always provides torque on two of the wheels time. The system can either provide the torque to the front or back wheels depending on the make and model of the car.  When the system identifies slick road conditions that require additional traction, it will engage the other two wheels. Newer models use electronic sensors that inform the computer in the car on the amount of traction needed for safe driving.

Widely available on a variety of vehicles, makes and models that typically come with AWD include the Toyota RAV4, the Subaru Forester and the Honda CR-V.

What Is Four-Wheel Drive?

When you think of four-wheel drive (4WD) you may think of huge pickup trucks with big tires, a tow hook or other heavy-duty additions. These trucks may have 4WD, but they aren’t the only kind that would. 

4WD systems are also popular in SUVs. Some may think that 4WD implies that a car is designed for off-roading, but it can also mean a smooth and luxurious ride on regular roads. As opposed to AWD, 4WD is designed for a more rugged terrain, so it’s a little stronger and tougher. 

Four-wheel drive also has full-time and part-time four-wheel drive. There are three things to consider when choosing between the two: 

  • Full-time four-wheel drive sends power to all four wheels, and some may have the option for drivers to decide how the power is distributed through the axles. Some full-time four-wheel-drive drivetrains may have the option for drivers to use driving mode to decide how power is distributed through the front and rear axles.
  • Part-time four-wheel drive always supplies power to two of the wheels, usually the rear wheels. When it’s activated by the driver, the other two wheels start receiving power. In order to be completely in 4WD, the driver has to shift a lever or push a button depending on the make and model of the car.
  • It’s also common for 4WD vehicles to be equipped with high and low ranges. The driver can select which range to operate in usually through a lever or switch. The low range provides maximum traction on off-roads, while the high range is the default setting for daily driving. High range can also help when driving on gravel, loose sand, snow or ice. 

Makes and models that typically come with 4WD include the Toyota Sequoia, the Nissan Pathfinder and the Jeep Grand Cherokee, as well as most pick-up trucks.

What Is the Best Car for Snowy Roads?

The short answer: it depends on your needs. During the winter months, when ice and snow can quickly take over the roads, your traction is crucial. AWD systems can provide the power to all the wheels at the same time, or automatically engage torque to all the wheels. 

Typically, AWD is better for driving on snowy and icy roads because the driver doesn’t have to make any changes or use guesswork. But 4WD is the better option if you’re going to be driving in deep snow, rough back roads or very extreme winter weather conditions, such as a snowdrift or an icy hill.

AWD and 4WD aren’t necessarily competitors; it’s more about finding which fits better for your needs. If you live on a back road that isn’t plowed, a vehicle with 4WD may make more sense for your needs. If you’re in the city where roads are typically plowed but still slick, an AWD car may be your best bet.

Protect Your Investment — and Yourself

Whether you choose all-wheel or four-wheel drive, make sure your auto vehicle is properly insured before winter weather hits. Contact your Farm Bureau agent to review your coverage today.

Want to learn more?

Contact a local FBFS agent or advisor for answers personalized to you.