Why Is All-Wheel Drive Not Good For Off-Roading?


All-wheel drive, or AWD,  is an enjoyable function in some cars that can distribute power to all four wheels. This allows AWD cars to handle slippery roads. AWD cars are efficient in bad weather conditions, like rain or snow, because they help the driver have better control and keep the car on course. AWD is not to be confused with 4WD, as they have commonalities and also some distinct differences. You will usually find AWD on sedan-like cars. 4WD is built into off-roading vehicles. 

Why is All-wheel drive not good for off-roading? AWD vehicles are not good for offroading because the All-wheel drive system cannot be manually turned on or off, but the computer decides when to send power to the front or rear tires instead of the driver.  AWD vehicles do not have high and low gearing options in their drive system, making them inferior for off-roading situations. 

  AWD is a popular feature on many street cars like the Subaru WRX, BMWs, and Audis. Many people like the AWD feature because it makes it easier to drive on slick roads, and in many cases, increases the launching ability of sportier cars.  AWD may give you better traction on icy roads, but when on unpaved and uneven trails, AWD isn’t nearly as effective as a 4WD system. In this article, we will continue to dive deeper into why AWD isn’t as effective and why you should stick with 4WD (also known as four-wheel drive) when you want to go off-roading. 

Why All-Wheel Drive Vehicles Are Not Ideal For Off-Roading

AWD can be a great feature on a vehicle but may not be what you want for off-roading. When off-roading, AWD is a poor substitute for 4WD. AWD was specifically designed to give street cars more traction while conserving fuel economy, which it does very well. AWD works for paved and man-made roads but doesn’t quite cut it for bumpy, rocky, off-roading trails. Unlike 4WD, AWD doesn’t have a “low” gear, so it’s unable to produce high levels of torque while moving uphill. 

Being unable to turn AWD on and off is the biggest reason it isn’t effective for off-roading. When off-roading, you may reach a muddy incline or a rocky section where you may want power and torque in all the wheels for the entire stretch of the road. AWD can’t give you that. AWD only turns on the moment the car thinks it is needed, and by the time it finally engages, it might be too late. You might have already started to slip back down a hill. 

An AWD car’s computer is designed to engage AWD when more traction is needed. That means if you are coming up on a section of trail where it would be useful to have 4WD, your car isn’t going to know what to do. All your vehicle knows is when your tires start to slip. If AWD doesn’t engage until your tires slip, you could already be sliding backward down a hill. Once you gain momentum going down a hill, it can be much more difficult to correct the mistake or stop the vehicle.

Difference Between All-Wheel Drive And Four-Wheel Drive When Offroading

It took a long time before I understood the differences between AWD and 4WD. AWD is helpful for cars driven on paved roads, while 4WD is beneficial for off-road vehicles. There are a few differences, but at the base of it all, both AWD and 4WD give power to all four wheels providing better control and traction. 

First and foremost, as I mentioned earlier, AWD cannot be turned on or off manually and 4WD can. This is important in off-roading situations because you may see upcoming terrain that could use 4WD and activate it. If you have AWD and you see troubling terrain further ahead, there is nothing you can do about it. When activating 4WD in most older vehicles, you stop and put the vehicle in neutral. This can be annoying, but 4WD still gives you control of turning it on or off.

Another difference between 4WD and AWD is that 4WD has selectable gear ratios while AWD does not. With 4WD, there is 4WD high and 4WD low. 4WD high is when you need more traction but not necessarily more torque. 4WD high allows you to travel at higher speeds as well. For instance, if you were hauling a trailer and going through some flat muddy terrain, you could put your vehicle into 4WD high to get more traction and get through the mud with more control. 

4WD low is going to be used for a steep incline. If you going up a muddy hill or one full of big rocks and ruts, I would suggest switching to 4WD low. This means you are going to have more torque and traction going up any hills. When using 4WD low, you can’t go very fast. Going fast while in 4WD low can wear out the transfer case and cause problems with both the transmission and differentials. 4WD low is going to allow you to get over complex terrain.  

AWD, on the other hand, doesn’t have gears. There isn’t AWD drive high or low. AWD is not going to be able to give you the torque needed to climb up steep hills. This is the main reason that AWD isn’t as good for off-roading as you would hope because off-road, you often have to go up some steep inclines. A helpful fact is that AWD vehicles can be driven at any speed without having to worry about wearing the AWD out.  

Additionally, 4WD is not good for your fuel economy when compared to AWD. 4WD requires a lot of power and its design greatly decreases a vehicle’s fuel economy. Most off-road vehicles don’t get great gas mileage, and when you have 4WD, it becomes worse. AWD is turned off by the computer, so it doesn’t negatively affect the fuel economy of the car. This is why most street cars have AWD instead of 4WD because it still gives the car great gas mileage. 

Can All-Wheel drive Vehicles Still Complete Most Trails?

Given that a vehicle has enough clearance and good enough suspension to off-road, AWD should be able to complete simple off-roading trails. Even though AWD isn’t the most effective for off-roading, it can still help in lots of cases. If you are driving on any flat terrain, then AWD is going to be able to help. Remember that AWD will always be a safer alternative than a 2WD vehicle. 

If you’re interested in going off-roading in a 2WD vehicle, check out our article here.

AWD may kick in at some points and help with traction to a certain degree. Having other accessories like good tires, a lift kit, and a suspension system may have a much larger positive impact on your vehicle’s off-roading abilities than the AWD. Overall, AWD doesn’t necessarily have negative effects on a vehicle’s off-roading ability. For these reasons AWD vehicles, if correctly equipped, should be able to complete simple off-roading trails. 

Tips For Offroading With An All-Wheel Drive Vehicle

My best tip for going off-roading with an AWD vehicle is to be prepared. Preparing yourself with the right emergency equipment like shovels, spare tires, and car jacks will always be critical. AWD vehicles can get stuck easier than 4WD vehicles, and you need to be prepared when that happens. Preparing yourself with ways to get out of trouble when off-roading with AWD vehicles is necessary. 

Things like satellite phones and survival kits may be life-saving if you get into a situation where you can’t get unstuck. Make sure you familiarize yourself with the trail by using maps and forums so you don’t go in blindly. While getting stuck is a big possibility with AWD vehicles, there are things that you can do to try to avoid it. Modifying your vehicle by adding a good set of tires, a winch, and even a lift kit can help your vehicle handle the rough terrain and allow you to make it through more difficult sections. 

Another key to this whole equation with AWD and 4WD is learning what type of ABS and traction control systems your vehicle has. To learn more about off-roading with ABS, check out our full article here.

Amanda Cannon

Amanda has an ever growing knowledge of cars with her education beginning when she was a little girl. She was frequently seen working on cars with her dad and today can be seen working on a 1966 Bronco, 1968 Firebird, and modifying her 2022 Bronco.

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