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Blog/4WD vs. AWD: Which Is Better for Off-Roading? Quick Comparison by GRID Off-Road

4WD vs. AWD: Which Is Better for Off-Roading? Quick Comparison by GRID Off-Road

Four-wheel drive (4WD) and all-wheel drive (AWD) seem like similar driving systems based on their names, but they’re quite different in practice. So, which option makes for a better off-roading experience?

Let’s put them head-to-head, explore the pros and cons, and reach a final verdict.

Pros of 4WD

Four-wheel drive is the older brother of the two systems, going back to locomotives and the first automobile models during the industrial revolution. Today, you’ve probably seen some 4WD vehicles driving through rugged off-road terrains in car commercials.

4WD is designed to send torque to all four wheels, increasing the vehicle’s traction and power. More advanced 4WD systems can operate full-time, but most 4WD cars have a part-time system that drivers can toggle on and off. When the system activates, it locks the front axle to the drive train so all four wheels spin in unison.

4WD also comes with higher and lower gear sets called 4-high and 4-low, which are designed for specific environments. 4-high works best on flat terrains such as roads with fresh rain, ice, or snowfall, enabling the car to reach 55 mph despite less-than-ideal conditions. 4-low is the opposite, working best on shallow streams and increasing the car’s towing capacity.

Auto manufacturers also often pair 4WD systems with heavy-duty suspensions and other unique modifications, enhancing the vehicle’s off-road performance even further. Because of these factors, 4WD is the go-to option for most experienced off-roaders. However, the system still has some downsides.

Cons of 4WD

The ability to turn 4WD on/off and add a variety of modifications might seem like positive things, but they can also work against the driver. First off, the driving experience is noticeably different. The pedals are stiff, fuel consumption increases, and the driver has to pay close attention to their speed. For example, going too fast in 4-low can cause serious damage to the transfer case.

You also can’t shift into 4WD the same way you shift gears manually. You have to pull over, stop the car, and switch to neutral first. 4WD vehicles are also heavier and more expensive on average than other cars, which could nullify the system’s positive qualities depending on which off-roader you ask. A lighter vehicle is almost always better than a heavier one.

Pros of AWD

All-wheel drive has a similar function to 4WD: improving the car’s traction and power on flat terrains with ice, snow, and other debris. However, the system toggles on and off automatically, allowing the driver to stay on course without missing a beat.

The ability to automatically redistribute power to individual wheels ensures the best traction possible when the system is turned on. Plus, AWD doesn’t guzzle fuel like 4WD, giving it a clear advantage in consistency and fuel economy.

Cons of AWD

Although AWD is easier on the driver and the gas tank, it doesn’t come close to 4WD’s off-road capabilities. It improves traction on man-made roads, but it’s not as effective in the wilderness where the “roads” are less flat and more unpredictable. There aren’t any extra high or low gears to help you climb a steep boulder or power through a mud puddle.

Plus, the AWD system doesn’t always turn on when the driver wants it. When given the choice between fuel efficiency and more traction, the system will choose fuel efficiency 100% of the time. It only turns on if it senses the vehicle losing traction, but by then it could already be too late.

If you’re going to take an AWD vehicle off-roading, you have to do some serious prep work to ensure the car makes it through the trip.

The Verdict: 4WD Reigns Supreme

Based on our comparison, 4WD is the clear winner for off-roading purposes. 4WD vehicles might be heavier and more expensive, but they have the capabilities to justify it. AWD is better suited for everyday drivers, helping them navigate man-made roads with poor traction. Other off-road adventures are best left to beefy 4WD vehicles.

Ford truck on GD12 GRID Off-Road wheels

So if you’re looking to add some extra style to your 4-wheeler, definitely add some GRID Off-Road wheels to it! Our off-road wheels are made to fit a variety of 4×4 vehicles, from Jeeps to Broncos, trucks, and SUVs. We have two types of off-road wheels: forged off-road wheels and cast off-road wheels. Our GF collection is all forged and there are countless wheel styles to choose from! The same is true for our GD cast off-road wheel collection, which is very popular with many 4WD enthusiasts. If you like an off-road wheel from our collection, email us at so we can help locate an authorized GRID dealer near you! 

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