Four Wheel Drive or All-Wheel Drive? What’s the Difference?

August 26th, 2021 by

Mazda’s AWD Options Offer Unparalleled Handling

It’s easy to take a vehicle with four driven wheels for granted. Even a decade ago, these kinds of powertrains were largely limited to bulky SUVs and industrial trucks. Today, you can enjoy robust four-wheel and all-wheel driving systems on a variety of different vehicles–from hatchbacks to sedans. In recent years, Mazda has introduced groundbreaking all-wheel drive options into its lineup.

There are plenty of benefits to driving a car that puts power behind all four wheels. These vehicles offer robust handling and plenty of flexibility, especially when driving in difficult conditions. Although the terms are used interchangeably by the unaware, there are actually some pretty big differences between all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive systems. 

To that end, let’s explore the differences between four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive systems, along with the unique benefits of using Mazda’s i-ACTIV AWD system.

What Is a Four-Wheel Drive?

Unlike its counterpart, a four-wheel drive (or 4WD) system isn’t going to be active all the time. Instead, drivers have to manually shift to it, which locks the front and rear driveshafts together. This means that the front and rear axles are turning at the same speed and trajectory, which can prove incredibly useful in difficult terrain. 

Simply put, this means that the engine is always going to be sending torque to both a front and rear wheel, which makes a difference when navigating obstacles like mud or snow. Additionally, this means that the vehicle is directing more power towards the ground, which translates to better traction in rain. 

Although 4WD systems offer an incredible amount of torque and control, they’re actually not designed for use on paved roads. During curves, the tires’ uneven exposure to the ground means that each one will be turning at a slightly different speed. Taking tight corners on pavement stresses the system, and it can cause the wheels to rapidly wear down at uneven angles. 

What Is an All-Wheel Drive? 

An all-wheel drive (or AWD) system has the ability to direct engine power through all four wheels at the same time. This means that the vehicle can handle paved roads with much more finesse than a 4WD car without running the same risk of tire damage. While 4WD systems have to be manually toggled on and off, AWD systems are always active. 

Having power directed through all four wheels gives the car a better grip on the road and therefore better traction in difficult driving conditions. It also provides more points of control when driving on wet surfaces which greatly decreases the risks of a car hydroplaning or losing control. 

However, it’s worth noting that most AWD systems are reactive, not proactive. This means that the vehicle’s drivetrain won’t make adjustments until after a wheel’s traction changes, which can mean a delay in handling when you would benefit from it the most. 

Mazda’s i-ACTIV AWD Rethinks the Equation

While Mazda’s i-ACTIV system is an AWD in the technical sense, it provides a level of responsiveness that sets it apart from anything else available on the market. Whereas all-wheel drives in other brands rely on sensors that can only address a loss of control after the fact, the i-ACTIV AWD is constantly thinking ahead. 

A total of 27 different sensors are checked more than 200 times per second in order to provide the i-ACTIV AWD with real-time information about driving conditions. This means that it’s able to monitor things like wheel speed, g-force, brake responsiveness, and even outside temperatures in order to make informed decisions about where to allocate power. The result is an AWD that never loses control, even in extreme weather conditions. In fact, the i-ACTIV is so smooth and seamless that it’s easy for drivers to forget that it’s even on. 

It’s not hard to see the benefits that the i-ACTIV offers over conventional AWD systems. By predicting any difficult changes in driving conditions, the i-ACTIV covers any gaps in traction that the tires may be experiencing, allowing for total, uninterrupted control over the car. In crowded traffic, this means having a better ability to react to other drivers. Meanwhile, drivers on remote or adventurous roads will have more focus with which to enjoy their surroundings. 

If you’d like to learn about even more benefits of Mazda’s intuitive engineering, then swing by McDonald Mazda West today for a test drive!