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What is four-wheel drive?

Lots of cars have four-wheel drive these days. But what exactly is it? Here’s everything you need to know.

Graham King Cazoo

By Graham King

Updated: 26 January 2024

Every car on the road is either front-, rear- or four-wheel drive. Four-wheel drive is becoming increasingly popular and it’s entirely possible that the car you’re interested in buying has it. So you might be wondering exactly what four-wheel drive means and why it matters. Cazoo explains.

What does four-wheel drive mean?

Four-wheel drive means that all four of the car’s wheels receive power from the engine - they ‘drive’ the car. By contrast, in front-wheel drive cars only the front wheels receive power. In rear-wheel drive cars, the rear wheels receive power. The term four-wheel drive is often shortened to 4WD.

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How does four-wheel drive work?

There are many different types of four-wheel drive systems. The differences between them centre around how power is sent from the engine to the wheels, but they’re fundamentally the same in that there’s a mechanical connection between all four wheels and the engine.

Electric cars with four-wheel drive are a bit different because they don’t have an engine – they have a battery and an electric motor instead. Electric cars with four-wheel drive have one or more electric motors sending power to the wheels. The only physical connections between the motors and the battery are power cables.

There are also some hybrid cars that have a conventional engine powering the front wheels and an electric motor powering the rear wheels.

Is four-wheel drive always on?

Most modern four-wheel-drive cars are actually just two-wheel drive most of the time, with power going to either the front or rear wheels, depending on the car. Power is sent to all four wheels only when necessary – if a wheel starts spinning, for instance. In that case, the car detects the spinning wheel and sends power to a different wheel to counteract the spinning. It sounds complicated but it all happens automatically, in a fraction of a second, with no input from the driver.

Some cars with four-wheel drive allow you to select a ‘permanent’ four-wheel drive mode if the roads are slippery or you just want a bit of extra reassurance. It’s usually as simple as pushing a button or turning a dial on the dashboard.

What are the benefits of four-wheel drive?

Cars with four-wheel drive provide more traction than those with two-wheel drive. Traction is what keeps a car moving forwards. Traction is different to grip, which stops a car sliding or skidding when going around a corner. Cars with four-wheel drive have more traction because less power is being sent to each wheel compared with a two-wheel drive car - the ‘load’ is more spread out. That means the wheels receiving power are less likely to spin on a slippery surface.

Cars with four-wheel drive are very effective on slippery roads, whether caused by rain, mud, ice or snow. Setting off from a standstill in such conditions, a two-wheel drive car is more likely to spin its wheels, which can make it difficult to get going. The increased traction of four-wheel drive can make the difference.

While not infallible, four-wheel-drive cars are generally easier and safer to drive on slippery roads, giving a real feeling of security and reassurance. The extra traction also means cars with four-wheel drive cars are better for towing. And four-wheel drive is pretty much essential for serious off-road driving.

What kinds of cars are available with four-wheel-drive?

Four-wheel drive used to be the preserve of big, tough SUVs, but it’s now possible to find pretty much any type of car with four-wheel drive.

City cars such as the Fiat Panda, compact family hatchbacks such as the BMW 1 Series, big luxury saloons such as the Mercedes E-Class, MPVs such as the Ford S-MAX and sports cars such as the Porsche 911 are all available with four-wheel drive. Whatever type of car you need, you’ll probably be able to find one that has four-wheel drive.

Is 4x4 the same as four-wheel drive (4WD)?

Whereas 4x4 is generally used to describe a category of car with four-wheel drive and a traditional off-roader (or SUV) body style, four-wheel drive refers to the way a car is powered. So you can have a four-wheel drive sports car, convertible, MPV or coupe, but 4x4 is widely understood to refer to an SUV that has four-wheel drive.

Are there any downsides to four-wheel drive?

Four-wheel-drive cars are generally more expensive than an equivalent two-wheel drive car, whether you’re buying a new or used example. With new cars, the increase in cost is due to the extra components needed to send power to all four wheels. With used cars there’s also the fact that the four-wheel-drive version of a particular car is often more desirable than the two-wheel drive version.

It’s also usually the case that a car with four-wheel drive uses more fuel and produces higher CO2 emissions than an equivalent car with two-wheel drive, so costs more to run. This is because the four-wheel drive system adds extra weight and friction, so the car’s engine has to work harder.

Other names for four-wheel drive

Some carmakers that produce four-wheel-drive cars use the term 4WD, 4x4 or AWD (all-wheel drive) in the names of those cars, but many use a brand name for their four-wheel drive systems. Here’s a rundown of the key ones you might see when looking for your next car:

Audi – quattro


Mercedes – 4MATIC

MiniI – ALL4

Peugeot - Hybrid4

Seat – 4Control

Suzuki – 4Grip

Tesla – Dual Motor

Volkswagen – 4MOTION

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