all wheel drive explained (Čeština, Deutsch, English, Polski, Русский)

Understanding all wheel drive systems(Edit)

Why is it important to know how all wheel drive works on your car? First, it may appear that its all wheel drive system is not meant to be used on a road. For example, part-time all wheel drive cannot be used in non-slippery conditions - you'll have to drive such car in rear wheel drive mode, even when it is raining or snowing - in the weather conditions where all wheel drive might be needed. Second, depending on the type of all wheel drive, your car behaves differently when driving and cornering in slippery conditions. You might want to know what to expect.

Don't get confused by abbreviations that manufacturers use: "AWD" is not necessarily a full-time all wheel drive, "4WD" is not just for off-road vehicles. There is a dozen of brands car manufacturers are using to distinguish their four-wheel drive vehicles - "quattro", "4motion", and so on. However, these rarely indicate the type of all wheel drive system that is used on a particular vehicle.

In fact, just four types of all wheel drive systems exist:

Note: On this web site, when we describe details of the all wheel drive system used on a particular vehicle, we use the definitions that are listed here.

part-time all wheel drive(Edit)

This is a "temporary" all wheel drive system. In normal driving conditions, just one axle (the rear axle normally) is driven. In slippery conditions, another axle is engaged by the driver, whether by a lever or a button. This type of all wheel drive does not have a center differential - when all wheel drive is engaged, the front and rear driveshafts are mechanically connected and rotate at the same speed.

When a vehicle is turning, front wheels travel greater distance than rear wheels.

Figure: Wheels rotate with different speeds and travel different distances when vehicle is turning

Because part-time all wheel drive system does not have a center differential, front wheels cannot go faster than rear wheels. This type of all wheel drive cannot be used on pavement. Turning on pavement (even on a wet pavement) with all wheel drive engaged causes transmission windup and increases the chances of the transmission breakdown. When all wheel drive is engaged, the vehicle heavily understeers and this can lead to an accident.

The all wheel drive mode on a vehicle with part-time all wheel drive should only be used on surfaces with low traction (mud, snow, ice, sand), for short periods, and at low speeds. When driving on such surfaces, the transmission windup is eliminated by slipping of the wheels.

Note: "Part-time 4wd" mode of the Jeep Cherokee's SelecTrac transmission means "locking of center differential". Jeep's SelecTrac is a selectable all wheel drive system.

full-time all wheel drive(Edit)

This is a permanent all wheel drive or permanently engaged all wheel drive system. All wheels are powered at all times. The vehicles with full-time all wheel drive are equipped with a center differential that lets each wheel travel different distances while turning. This type of all wheel drive can be used both on and off road. In slippery conditions, the center differential can be locked, whether manually or automatically, depending on the vehicle.

When a manual center differential lock (available on off-road vehicles and some SUVs) is engaged, the transmission's behavior is similar to part-time all wheel drive, i.e. the front and rear driveshafts rotate at the same speed. The use of full-time all wheel drive with locked center differential is limited to surfaces with low traction.

In case of automatic lock, a Torsen differential, viscous coupling, multi-plate hydraulic clutch, or similar traction control device is used in conjunction with the center differential. When a wheel slips on one of the axles (one driveshaft rotates faster than the other) the device locks the center differential and torque is transferred from the axle that slips to the other axle that has traction. As soon as the wheel slip is eliminated, the device unlocks.

Some vehicles (Land Rover Discovery II, pre-xDrive BMW X5) do not have a locking center differential, but are equipped with an electronic traction control system (known as Electronic Differential Lock - EDL) on all four wheels. This electronic system detects slipping wheels by reading ABS sensors, then it applies brakes to slipping wheels and torque gets transferred to the wheels that have traction. While it performs well on slippery roads, the system cannot compete with a real mechanically locking differential when driving off-road.

automatic all wheel drive(Edit)

This is an "on-demand" all wheel drive system. Under normal driving conditions, only one axle is powered. When wheel slipping occurs (the driving driveshaft rotates faster than the driven driveshaft), a multiplate hydraulic clutch, viscous coupling, or other similar traction control device locks and engages another axle. Torque gets transferred to another axle. As soon as difference in front and rear axle speeds is eliminated, the device unlocks and the vehicle goes back into two-wheel drive mode.

The difference between the traction devices that are used in full-time all wheel drive and automatic all wheel drive systems is that the device used in automatic all wheel drive system replaces the center differential.

Advanced electronically controlled all wheel drive systems can be proactive and lock the traction control device even before wheels start to slip - the need for all wheel drive is determined in real time, based on the information that is collected from various sensors (i.e. g-force sensor, accelerator pedal position, etc.).

Some vehicles let the driver to lock the multiplate hydraulic clutch manually when the driver feels that he needs all wheel drive engaged permanently, for example to drive off road. For example, in Nissan X-Trail, this is accomplished by pressing a button on the dashboard console. In Subaru Legacy, the clutch is locked when the automatic transmission gear shift lever is at the position "1".

A known problem with multiplate hydraulic clutches that are used in automatic all wheel drive systems is traction device overheating. For example, this can occur with some compact SUVs when they are driven off-road, through a thick layer of snow, etc. ECU detects overheating, disengages the clutch, and puts the vehicle into 2WD mode. A warning light is displayed on the instrument panel.

selectable all wheel drive(Edit)

In this category falls the Mitsubishi Pajero(Montero) with its Super Select transmission, Jeep Grand Cherokee with SelecTrac transmission, and a few other off-road vehicles. Mitsubishi, for example, has transmission that is similar to the one used in full-time all wheel drive vehicles, but with two-wheel drive possibility. In Mitsubishi, the driver can choose between the 2wd mode, 4wd mode with automatic distribution of torque via viscous coupling (vehicle behaves just like the one with full-time all wheel drive), 4wd with locked differential (behaves like part-time all wheel drive) and 4wd with low gearing (low range part-time all wheel drive).


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1-15 of 58 Comments
David Diesel
October 13, 2015 - 17:28

The all-wheel drive system was created for automobiles to ensure that the driver wouldn’t get stuck in rough terrain, which was a problem in the early 1900s, when people had to get somewhere without delay. It wasn’t until the late 1930s and the early 1940s that all-wheel drive was used constantly by the military and by civilians. The first all-wheel drive system was built by the Cunningham Engineering Company of Boston, in 1900. The system was used on a steam wagon, which was driven by chains. The first dramatic change in all-wheel drive was in 1941, when Willys Overland and Ford won the contract for the definitive general purpose vehicle, the jeep. The first civilian jeep was introduced to the public in 1946 after the war. The jeep was named the CJ-2A, there was a Fageol Twin Coach Special that featured two engines and four wheel drive at Indianapolis. In 1948, the first jeep influenced vehicle was created, the Land Rover. The Land Rover was first introduced at the Amsterdam motor show. The Land Rover was one of the most used vehicles in the U.S. army during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Around April, 1958, Land Rover created a new and improved version of the Land Rover. This upgrade was due to a woman named Batra Wilkes, she complained to her husband that the Land Rover was not female-friendly. She wanted to be more comfortable, and she wanted fewer sharp edges. Land Rover created the series two in that woman’s favor. It featured a larger rear window to improve visibility, and rounded corner lights. The windows were made from non-scratch glass, and the doors had external handles with locks. Land Rover and jeep have been competing on the best cross-country vehicle for many years, they both have their flaws and good parts, but Land Rover has revolutionized the luxury off-road vehicle ever since the Range Rover. In 2011, Land Rover released the Land Rover Evoque, the Evoque featured all-wheel drive and a two liter turbo engine under the hood. The engine produced 240 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. It has a six-speed automatic transmission, it has the same setup as the Volvo XC 60. The Evoque has revolutionized all-wheel drive. It was tested in the desert, and on trails by James May, a cohost of an automobile show called Top Gear, and it passed with flying colors. The Evoque was able to keep up with dune buggies somewhat during the test. The Evoque has adjustable suspension, and has sport mode to get through the harder terrains. There are many other SUV’s that have amazing all-wheel drive systems such as the Jeep Wrangler, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, and the Mercedes G-class SUV. The all-wheel drive system is sometimes even used on sports cars and hyper cars like Lamborghini, Porsche, Audi, and ford. All-wheel drive vehicle is the best choice for an off-road adventure, or simply trying to get unstuck from a situation, like snow, mud, or ice. All-wheel drive is not only used on SUV’s and pickup trucks, but it is also used on sedans, hatchbacks, wagons, and even minivans. Ever since the 1900s, all-wheel drive has evolved, and turned into the best off-road alternate to the less affective rear-wheel drive. There are two different types of all-wheel drive. One of them is called full-time all-wheel drive. Full-time all-wheel drive can be used on all surfaces including dry pavement. The other type of all-wheel drive is automatic all-wheel drive. Automatic all-wheel drive was created as a stability enhancing system. Automatic all-wheel drive can be used on all surfaces including pavement, just like full-time all-wheel drive. It automatically turns on only during stability threatening conditions. And two wheels are powered when it is not on, unlike the full-time all-wheel drive, when all four wheels are powered all of the time. . Ever since the 1900s, all-wheel drive has evolved, and turned into the best off-road alternate to the less affective rear-wheel drive

Paul brant
August 22, 2015 - 10:02

I've got all wheel drive Ford kuga with warning light on dash all whee drive malfunction read fault saying low pump pressure pump OK oil and filter changed wiring look OK any suggestions please many thanks paul

Ron Thomas
August 16, 2015 - 16:06

Got a 97 Subaru Forester Legacy with 2.5L
It seems to stay in 4x4 drive making it difficult to turn into tight places. Put fuse in tow
circuit and now it drives fine and easier to turn. Any suggestion on fixing this issue. Checked entire front end and fluid levels. Replaced all axles,Ball joints,Ty=Rods (Inner and Outer} Checked rack in pinion run out. Not sure where to go from there..


Nina Tafuri
March 11, 2015 - 19:14

suv 2006 Rainier....has AWD seems ever time I turn either way it jerks itself into the space. is there a way I can turn it off?

w williamson
December 26, 2014 - 17:51

its snowing when do i use my four wheel drive on my suzuki vitary

Craig Shaffer
December 19, 2014 - 16:22

Where does my Pacifica fall as far as all wheel drive.

November 29, 2014 - 04:16

where does my jeep cherokee sport 2014 fall on these four types of AWD? do i need to set it to AWD when neede? thanks

mike coffee
November 22, 2014 - 15:50

Is the 2010 santa fe gls an automatic awd with normal front wheel dr.

November 09, 2014 - 19:12

engine dies on my all wheel drive can I tow it home 20 miles with out hurting transmission

Reply to tomy2gunn
November 11, 2014 - 15:22

You can, if you keep all four wheels on the ground and spinning. Towing with one axle lifted off is possible only on certain models, please refer to the owner's manual

Hakim Akbary
May 02, 2014 - 16:58


Today it was displayed "low range" on the odometer of my Jeep Hummer H2. Is it something bad? Do I need to repair it? How can I switch back to normal condition? It will be a great help if you answer me.

Appreciated in advance.

Reply to Hakim Akbary
Friar Zucchini
June 29, 2014 - 07:53

Low-range is a good thing off-road, but bad on-road. It provides extra power but only at very low speeds.

Reply to Hakim Akbary
September 09, 2014 - 14:42

Hummer is made by GMC not Jeep/Chrysler. Low range 4wd is a gear ratio in your transfer case if it was engaged you wouldn't be able to drive over 15-20mph. I suspect you ahve a dummy light that is messed up if your still driving at highway speeds. Hakim you clearly know little about a highly capable off-road vehicle. my suggestion is sell it and buy a subaru

March 22, 2014 - 11:10

to those with the sensor problem replace it with the EXR extreme sensor (9'9)

Reply to hayden
September 03, 2014 - 18:24

Hi, my car knowledge is almost nil. I always relied on my Landrover dealer where I bought my Freelander 1. I now live abroad where language is a difficulty. The mechanic tells me my 4 wheel drive not working as needs sensor and the slipping clutch needs replacing. Spares very expensive here and want to order from UK but not sure what I should order!

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