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Do all SUVs have four-wheel drive?

We explain the difference between SUV, 4WD and AWD.

Do all SUVs have four-wheel drive (4WD)?

  • Not all SUVs are 4WDs
  • The term “four-wheel drive” is not synonymous with “SUV”
  • Mainly off-road SUVs have four-by-four capabilities
  • On-road SUVs are more likely to have all-wheel or even two-wheel drive

The answer to the question “are all SUVs 4WDs?“ is pretty simple: No. Not all sport utility vehicles have four-wheel drive. However, once we dig a little deeper, the issue becomes more complicated. After all, in many parts of the world, the term “four-wheel drive” is used interchangeably with the name SUV, at least colloquially. Depending on context, this catch-all category can cover anything from urban crossover SUVs and battery-powered e-hybrids to performance luxury SUVs, including many models that don’t actually have four-by-four capabilities. Let’s take a closer look at the terminology, before clarifying which type of drive is suited to different driving conditions.

What is an SUV, what is 4WD, what is AWD?

An SUV, a 4WD powertrain, an AWD powertrain

SUV, 4WD and all-wheel-drive (AWD) defined: What is an SUV?

Within the car industry, SUV has become the term most widely used to refer to a category of cars that broadly look like off-road vehicles, particularly due to high ground clearance and typically, hatchback look. They often share other characteristics, like spaciousness, suitability for towing and hauling, as well as off-roading abilities and four-wheel drive. However, the more popular SUVs become, the broader the category definition, and the more likely that a car described as an SUV isn’t a four-wheel drive suitable for off-road adventures. Many have full- or partial AWD, others are even two-wheel drives intended only for on-road driving.
Find out more about what makes SUVs so popular here.


What is 4WD?

As the name indicates, four-wheel drive (aka. 4WD/four-by-four/4×4) doesn’t necessarily refer to a vehicle category, but to a specific drivetrain configuration. The drivetrain system transfers engine power to all four wheels, ensuring traction even on challenging, uneven and shifting terrain. It is typically found in the archetypal off-road SUVs that probably come to mind when you think of adventurous all-terrain driving, like the Toyota Land Cruiser, Jeep Wrangler, Mercedes-Benz G-Class, or the original Land Rover Defender. SUVs with a full-time 4WD system that can’t be switched off are only suitable for drivers who rarely, if ever, drive on paved roads. For everyone else, there’s part-time 4WD, which can be switched on and off manually, as needed.


What is AWD?

All-wheel drive systems are often confused with four-wheel drive, but they function differently and have other advantages and applications. Technically, an AWD drivetrain automatically and electronically distributes power to all wheels as needed. There are full-time and part-time systems , but the latter are also controlled electronically and activated depending on the driving situation, so no manual intervention is necessary. All-wheel drive vehicles are a much broader category than 4WDs, and are not limited to SUVs. While four-wheel drives excel in off-road conditions, but aren’t particularly useful in many other scenarios, all-wheel drives improve grip and offer traction control in all BUT truly challenging off-road conditions. If you are looking for an on-road car that will enhance the performance of your winter tires in slippery conditions and can handle the odd gravel track, then this is your best choice.

A woman driving an SUV in the city

Crossover SUVs for city driving are less likely to have a four-wheel drive system

What’s the difference between an SUV, a 4WD and an AWD?

Returning to our original question, not all SUVs have a four-wheel drive system, but most four-wheel drive vehicles fall within the SUV category. You could probably say that the full-blooded, go-anywhere, do-anything 4x4 off-road adventure wagon is the platonic ideal of an SUV. However, the SUV category has long outgrown its original definition, so today’s car-based, hybrid, crossover, and luxury SUVs are much more likely to have all-wheel drive. Unless you are actually venturing way off the beaten path and driving on seriously challenging terrain, you probably don’t need a 4WD, but AWD can significantly improve the control and grip of your tires, even when driving on dry pavement.

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