What Is All-Wheel Drive?

what-is-all-wheel-drive.jpg illustration by Paul Dolan

All-wheel drive is a type of four-wheel-drive system or mode that automatically shifts power between the front and rear wheels to maintain traction, and it’s usually adequate for lighter-duty winter driving and light off-pavement use. In shorter terms, it provides power to all four wheels at once, automatically.

Related: AWD Vs. 4WD: What’s the Difference?

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All-wheel drive is typically used to describe lighter-duty vehicles — cars, car-based SUVs or crossovers, minivans and the like. The engine in an AWD vehicle can deliver power to all four wheels and automatically modulate the amount of power delivered to the front and rear wheels to maximize traction and get the vehicle moving forward. Some AWD systems also have the ability to operate only in two-wheel drive and/or a “lock” button that essentially locks the power distribution at 50/50 front/rear; others do not.

The key takeaway from all of this is that what matters most is not what the system is called — whether generic “all-wheel drive,” “four-wheel drive” or some automaker-specific name — but what the specific vehicle is actually capable of doing. Remember also that AWD isn’t an automatic solution to low-traction driving; your tires also matter a great deal no matter what kind of drivetrain your vehicle has (here’s just one of many videos illustrating just how much tires matter, even if they spell it “tyres”).

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