The 5 Best All-Wheel Drive and Four-Wheel Drive Cars

There are a lot more cars on the road today with all-wheel and four-wheel drive than there were a few decades ago: 45% of new cars come equipped with one of the two. But if you're in the market for a car, and are like most people, you're probably wondering: What's the difference between the two?

The terms might seem to mean the same thing, but they don't. Below we explain the difference, and the 5 best cars you can buy today when you're looking for all-wheel or four-wheel drive. Just make sure you're covered with an affordable car insurance policy.

All-Wheel Drive vs. Four-Wheel Drive

There are differences between all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive. Generally speaking:

  • All-wheel drive (AWD): This means that all the wheels are powered at all times. Note that there are two types of all-wheel drive: (1) full-time AWD systems, where all the wheels are always powered; and (2) part-time or automatic AWD systems, where two wheels are always powered and the other two kick in when the car needs more traction. 
  • Four-wheel drive (4WD): This used to be limited to off-road vehicles. Today, 4WD means that all the wheels are powered at all times for maximum traction. 4WD also comes in full-time and part-time options, where the part-time option typically means the back wheels are always powered up and the front wheels can be turned on as needed.

Generally speaking, it's still safe to say that AWD is more for the city and 4WD is more fit for off-roading. 4WD vehicles come with a switch or lever so drivers can adjust the power when needed.

The biggest difference between 4WD and AWD is that an AWD drive system is on all or most of the time. 4WD capabilities are typically limited to situations where the car is going off-road and you need to turn it on.

Pros and Cons of All-Wheel Drive and Four-Wheel Drive

You don't need to know the nitty gritty about the mechanics of each system to understand their pros and cons.

Here's a breakdown of the benefits and drawbacks of each driving system, from experts at various auto-related publications:

AWD Pros:

  • Increased grip and control under all road conditions
  • Sportier handling and traction fora broader range of cars
  • Works all the time
  • Comes as equipment on everything from sedans to SUVs, so you've got options

AWD Cons:

  • Reduces fuel economy
  • Increases the weight and complexity of vehicles
  • Doesn't perform as well as 4WD in extreme, off-road conditions
  • More expensive

4WD Pros:

  • Best traction in off-road conditions
  • More fuel efficient when 4WD is turned off
  • Proven, tough technology
  • Can choose when to add additional power

4WD Cons:

  • Adds weight and complexity to cars
  • Can’t be used in all conditions
  • More expensive than two-wheel drive models

Depending on which car you want to purchase, opting for the AWD or 4WD system can range in cost. Keep in mind:

  • Both systems cost more initially.
  • Repairs on AWD and 4WD systems are more expensive than for two-wheel drive automobiles.

When Do You Need All-Wheel or Four-Wheel Drive?

Some car buyers believe that they should purchase a AWD or 4WD vehicle, even if they're only going to use it a handful of times each year. This is what happens for people who go off-roading or have a cabin. 

However, if you're only going to do so infrequently, the benefits probably don't outweigh the costs. Remember: AWD and 4WD vehicles cost more up-front and eat up more in gas money. If you're looking for a daily commute car, a two-wheel drive car will get you better gas mileage. 

However, some people might need AWD or 4WD capabilities more frequently. You could live near or spend time in places with unpaved dirt roads or lots of hills and mountains. If you live in an area where it rains or snows for many months of the year, you may want to consider AWD or 4WD systems for better traction control.

If you do choose an AWD or 4WD vehicle, be careful. Some AWD and 4WD vehicle owners have a false sense of security and think their truck or SUV won't get stuck. While the driving systems make it harder to become stuck, it's not impossible. You don't need these systems when towing on dry, paved roads or when camping in developed spots.

5 Best All-Wheel Drive Vehicles

There are a lot of great options when you're buying an AWD vehicle. Here are some that top the list:

1.  Honda CR-V: 

With AWD, the new CR-V comes in at an affordable price of $25,550 before adding on additional features. AWD costs just $1,400 to add at any trim level.

2.  Audi Q5: 

AWD is standard on the Q5 at a cost of $41,500. Paired with its 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine, safety features, and other technology, this is a great choice at a higher price point.

3.  Volkswagen Atlas: 

With AWD, the Atlas costs just $33,700 and features a three-row design. AWD is an add-on for $1,800.

4.  Subaru Outback: 

Another affordable option, the Outback is one of the few cars that comes standard with AWD. This makes it easy to add additional features, since you won't be using extra cash up-front to buy the car.

5.  BMW X1: 

AWD is optional in the X1, but at $35,900, upgrading isn't too costly for the feature.

5 Best Four-Wheel Drive Vehicles

If you think a 4WD vehicle is right for you, consider these five options:

1.  Toyota 4Runner: 

The 4Runner costs $36,485 with 4WD and is rugged and accommodating for your off-road trips. It features three rows of seats and 47 cubic feet of cargo space, along with a standard V6 engine.

2.  Lexus GX: 

The GX comes standard with 4WD at $52,155. The off-road gear includes a Torsen locking center differential (translation: it helps with traction) and a Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System, which continually adjusts the front and rear suspension for the best ride possible.

3.  Jeep Renegade: 

You'll have to pay extra money for 4WD, but the Trailhawk trim comes in at $26,845. It features an extra inch of height, along with a comfortable interior and responsive handling.

4.  Land Rover Range Rover Sport: 

A higher-end option at $66,750, the Range Rover Sport can be upgraded to a V8 engine for even more powerful off-roading.

5.  Jeep Grand Cherokee: 

Equipped with 4WD at $32,995, the Jeep Grand Cherokee offers a lot of space, a standard V6 engine, and lots of additional features, so you can always ride in comfort.

There's Coverage for Every Car or Truck

Whether you go with AWD or 4WD, you need to think about insurance. 

Ask yourself things like: Will you be using your auto to haul a trailer? If so, you may need trailer coverage and contents insurance for the load you're taking, depending on what it is and how much it's worth. 

Regardless, you'll also need coverage for your vehicle. Legally you're required to carry a certain amount of coverage for liability (although in some states you can pay a fee that will essentially opt you out of the liability insurance requirement), and you may also be required by your lender to carry comprehensive and/or collision coverage.

Our independent insurance agents can gather several quotes for you to compare, so you can find a great value and have a real person to talk to about your car insurance needs.

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