AWD or 4WD – what is the difference?

Buying a new vehicle - car or bakkie - dictates a number of important decisions to be made other than just deciding on which brand to buy.

When reading the specifications of a bakkie, one is often confronted by terms 4WD, AWD, low and high ratio, diff lock, transfer case and many more.

Times have changed though because, although most of these terms have always been associated with bakkies only – some now also apply to everyday road-going cars.

The benefits of power distribution to all four wheels on any vehicle, is an undeniable advantage compared to one where this is not possible.

One can buy a vehicle with AWD – car or SUV. And you can buy a bakkie with 4×4 features. So, what is the difference and how important are they?

All-wheel drive

It simple means what is says – the power source (engine) distributes the power generated to all four wheels, whether car or bakkie. Some manufacturers also distinguish between full-time or part-time all-wheel drive.

In a part-time system the power is – under normal conditions – either driven through the front or the rear wheels. When sensors on the drive system detect eg slippery road conditions or a loss of traction on any of the wheels, it will automatically switch to sending power to all four wheels simultaneously to optimise traction. Modern technology is so sophisticated that most often the driver will not even be aware that all-wheel drive has been activated.

The benefits from these systems are of course, better traction and thus improved road holding and drivability under challenging road conditions.

Hilux Raider.


Four wheel drive is more traditional to bakkies and hard-working off-road vehicles and depending on the vehicle, can also be seriously technical as it involves more than one gearbox or transmission, transfer boxes and differentials.

4WD vehicles can also be full and or part-time 4WD. Many systems offer low and high ranges which can be selected and engaged by the driver via a switch on the dashboard or floor-mounted lever.

Full-time 4WD is similar to an AWD system although, with some systems the driver can direct more power to either the front or the rear wheels depending on what driving conditions dictate.

Part-time 4WD systems, more often than not, drive the power through the rear wheels and when conditions require it, the driver can engage and lock the front wheels which then immediately improves traction all round.

Some of these systems are so sophisticated that the driver can in fact direct more power to even a specific wheel.
4WD systems, especially in bakkies, and heavy duty commercial vehicles, also offer a high or low range. The latter is mostly engaged in really difficult driving conditions.


Whether you need or buy AWD or 4WD will depend on the purpose and general application of the vehicle.
It is important to remember that both AWD and 4WD vehicles are more expensive to buy and maintain than a standard 2WD.
Often a bakkie fitted with a diff lock will, when you think about it, be more than enough to accommodate your off-road requirements.
But of course, the choice is always yours…

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