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Alphabet Soup: 4×4 vs 4WD vs AWD Where’s the Differential?

Four wheel drive, all wheel drive, 4WD, AWD, full-time, part-time, 4Hi, 4Lo, 4×4. There are many names and just as many ways of motivating every wheel a vehicle has on the ground. What’s the difference between four-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive? In one word: Marketing. Want to know more? Click past the jump as we dive in the most controversial topic since “Dodge vs Chevy.”

Motivating four wheels in a car isn’t new, we’ve been doing it for over 110 years. If you thought this was a recent affectation, you’re not crazy. Over the last 30 years there has been an explosion in the number of vehicles powering a quartet of tires. There has also been a similar explosion in the number of ways we power four wheels. At the same time the way systems are designed, marketed and used have converged and with them the terms AWD and 4WD have have practically merged. Of course, the SAE does have a definition “an all-wheel-drive vehicle is one that has an on-demand feature that occasionally sends power to the non-primary powered wheels.” But what that means has changed a great deal over time.


The Good Old Days

Let’s set the way-back-machine to 1970. Trucks and “Jeeps” had 4WD aka 4×4 systems. The system had to be engaged manually once you were on a loose surface because they “locked” the inputs of the front and rear differentials together making turning difficult on high traction surfaces. Engaging AWD on pavement could result in damage to the systems, or at the very least strange road manners. These systems were found on vehicles that would otherwise be RWD like trucks and truck-based “things.” Frequently the transfer case featured a reduction gear for more severe situations.

Then came the 1970 Land Rover Range Rover (above), the self-proclaimed “first mass-produced vehicle with full-time AWD.” (Note they didn’t call it 4WD until later.) The system used a lockable center differential that allowed the front and rear axles to spin at different rates on pavement allowing the system to be engaged at all times. The system was designed with off-roading in mind, so the transfer case had a low range like like the rugged truck based systems at the time in addition to the full-lock feature.

Then came the AMC Eagle. AMC jammed a new NP119 transfer case made by New Process Gear behind a Chrysler transmission. The unit featured a viscus coupling to the front axle that would allow power to flow to both axles simultaneously while still allowing them to turn at different rates. But this AMC wasn’t a truck, didn’t have a low-range and had an independent front suspension. Not knowing what to call it, AMC called it 4×4. So much for standards.


Then Audi released the Quattro in 1980, but despite featuring a manually lockable center differential, Audi chose to call it “all-wheel-drive” or AWD. (Later Quattros were automatic.) The AWD vs 4WD differentiation was born. Soon everyone was getting into the four-wheel-motivation game but nobody agreed what to call the systems. In 1982 Fiat introduced the world to the first four-wheel-motivated vehicle with a transverse engine layout and a transaxle (the Fiat Panda 4×4). It was the start of a revolution. Some car companies followed Audi’s suit and referred to car systems as AWD while the  Toyota Tercel, Dodge Colt and others sported 4WD or 4×4 labels. This was the start of the “that’s not four-wheel-drive, that’s all-wheel-drive” argument.

By the ’90s SUVs started to roam the land. The box-on-frame creatures borrowed their drivetrains from  truck parts bins and brought with them 4×4 and 4WD monikers. (And a bevy of full-time and part-time systems.) Meanwhile, the proliferation of AWD systems exploded and we soon started seeing them in everything from Chrysler minivans to the Porsche 993. Despite the proliferation, the industry had more-or-less settled on calling longitudinal “truck” systems 4WD/4×4 and “car” systems (especially transverse systems) AWD.


The 21st Century

Crossovers happened. In truth the crossover was born in the 20th century, but the era of the “modern crossover” dawned within the last 15 years. In 1995, crossovers were a microscopic segment composed of jacked-up station wagons. By 2005 the non-truck utility vehicles accounted for more than 50% of the segment. At the dawn of the 2014 model year there are few “traditional” SUVs left, especially in the volume mid-sized segment. Those that remain account for a minority of sales.

Back to the marketing. Now, more than ever, the lines between truck and car are being blurred by marketing speak. Ford calls their Explorer AWD while Nissan is claiming the Pathfinder had 4WD and Chrysler says the Jeep Patriot is a 4×4. The truth is all three drivetrains operate on the same general design as that 1982 Fiat Panda: the transverse AWD system. The system Fiat called “4×4” in the 1980s is now thought of as “AWD” by Fiat in this decade. What gives?


The Current State of Affairs

This brings us to the present. Now that we know the AWD vs 4WD vs 4×4 battle is a war of marketing speak, and we have a bit of history under our belts. Let’s talk about how AWD systems work. Why? Because it’s more important to know how the systems work than what they are called. Let’s go over them one by one. Since I’m not a graphic artist I’ll toss in a rough power-flow diagram to show how each system works.


Part time locking systems with a longitudinal layout

In the picture above we have a traditional “truck” system, the one that some people will call a “real 4×4.” There is no center differential so the system shouldn’t be used on-pavement because the front and rear axles cannot spin at different speeds. The system has to be engaged by the user in some manner, either with a lever or a button. Most systems use a chain drive to connect the front and rear axles so power flow is (in theory) locked 50/50 front/rear. If one rear wheel is freely spinning, the front wheels will still have grip. If one front wheel and one rear wheel freely spin, the vehicle won’t move. To solve that problem the systems usually include some form of locking or limited slip differential in the rear or both rear and front axles. The systems are typically very rugged and if the system employs fully-locking axles on the front and rear power is exactly 25/25/25/25 percent wheel to wheel and if three wheels lost traction the remaining wheel can consume all 100% of available power. Some systems integrate a low-ratio reduction gear into the transfer case.


Full time systems with a longitudinal layout

Based on the part-time systems we just talked about, Land Rover was the first company to use an existing idea to improve their new luxury off-roader and added a center differential after the reduction gear. This system became all the rage after AMC brought it to the mainstream in 1979 for the 1980 Eagle. These systems can take a variety of different forms. The “center differential” can be a simple open unit, a limited slip, a Torsen that apportions power unequally (i.e. 75% rear, 25% front unless slip occurs) or a simple viscous coupling which isn’t technically a differential at all. Each type of stem has benefits and drawbacks depending on your application. Open diffs apportion power equally, but if the front or rear wheels loose traction the car can’t send power to the other axle. Limited slip systems (including manual or auto-locking units) can connect the front and rear together, thus operating like a part-time system when the unit is fully engaged. If the system engaged on pavement however you can get a “binding” feel in tight turns. Torsen units are primarily used in performance oriented systems like high-performance variants of SUVs where you want added traction but a decidedly RWD bias.

You’ll find full-time systems of some description in the current Audi Q7, Jeep Grand Cherokee/Wrangler, Mercedes ML/GL/GLK/G, BMW X1/X3/X5/X6, GM’s full-size SUVs, Dodge Durango, Infiniti EX/FX, Land Rover LR4/Range Rover/Range Rover Sport, Lexus GX/LX, Nissan Armada, Porsche Cayenne, Volkswagen Touareg, Subaru Forester/Tribeca/Outback/XV, Toyota FJ/Land Cruiser/4 Runner/Sequoia.

Is that a long list? Yes. However that a complete list (insofar as I know) of SUVs currently sold on our shores with this type of a system. Why did I bother to list them all? Because it shows how few of this type of system there really are in the utility vehicle segment. Just a few years ago this number was higher and the market share of this system was higher still.


Subaru and Audi you ask? Yes indeed. Audi’s longitudinal systems and Subaru’s AWD systems claim to be different or superior to the competition, but in reality the only difference is that they merge the center and front differentials into the transmission housing resulting in a space savings, but not necessarily a weight savings. (Mercedes claims 4Matic will take a scant 150lb toll in 2014, 50lbs lighter than Quattro.) This also means that the Subaru systems share design elements with traditional rugged body-on-frame SUVs, something that Subaru owners seem to rarely know but might want to brag about.


Transverse engine based systems

British Motor Corporation popularized transverse engine front-wheel-drive systems in 1959 with the launch of the original Mini. The drivetrain layout has been so popular that the same basic design is used by 16 of the top 20 best-selling vehicles in America. (Everything but the full-size pickups on the top-20 list.) This drivetrain layout represented a challenge to AWD development, so it wasn’t until 1982 that Steyr-Daimler-Puch produced a four-wheel motivation system based on a transaxle. (For that Fiat Panda.)

What’s a transaxle? Excellent question. A transaxle is a transmission that integrates a front differential into its casing. That’s an important thing to keep in mind because the transaxle is why FWD layouts are preferred for fuel economy. In a transverse transaxle the power doesn’t have to “turn” 90 degrees to spin the front wheels. HOWEVER, in a transverse transaxle based AWD system, the power has to make two 90 degree turns on its way to the rear wheels. First power leaves the transmission, then heads to an angle gear which sends it to the back. Then power flows to the rear differential which turns power 90 degrees to the wheels. This is part of the reason that transverse full-time systems that always send power to the rear are [in general] just as efficient as longitudinal “RWD based” AWD systems. (This is why most of them disconnect the rear wheels whenever possible.)


While there are exceptions to this rule, 99% of transverse FWD systems have a fundamental difference from longitudinal systems because of the integrated front differential. Instead of creating a purpose built AWD transaxle, what car makers do is just extend the power output of the transmission (before the differential) out of the transmission case and into the angle gear that sends power to the back. (See the diagram above.) This means that the input to the front and rear differentials are tied, just like a part-time locking system that we discussed above. To keep the system from binding and improve fuel economy a clutch pack or a viscus coupling is placed between the angle gear and the rear differential. This allows the rear wheels to be uncoupled, but does nothing about the front wheels. Systems like this are incapable of sending more than 50% of the power to the rear unless the front wheels have zero traction. Acura’s SH-AWD system takes things one step further and uses an “acceleration device” aft of the clutch pack to make the rear wheels spin faster than the front wheels thereby giving the vehicle a slight rear “bias” even when the front wheels have traction.

Transverse systems come in many different flavors so it’s important to know what you’re buying before you sign on the line. Some systems on the market are “slip-and-grip” systems like the Honda CR-V which won’t lock the center clutch pack unless front wheel slip occurs. Then we have systems like the Ford Explorer which usually sends some power to the rear, locks the coupling during hard acceleration and varies it depending on vehicle dynamics. The Honda Ridgeline allows the center coupling to be locked in first gear while Jeep’s Patriot allows the center coupling to be almost fully locked at all speeds.


2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk

Perhaps the ultimate hybrid and head scratcher will be the 2014 Jeep Cherokee. Chrysler has yet to release complete details about the system, but what we can glean from the spec sheets and interviews is a system that meets all the criteria of a “traditional” 4×4/4WD system but has a functional layout similar to the systems “real” off-roaders would laugh and point at. We have a 9-speed automatic, nothing unusual there, but next we get something new for a transverse vehicle: a 56:1 (I4) or 47:1 (V6) reduction gear positioned after the transmission but infront of the differentials. (That’s lower than the Grand Cherokee and not too far off the 71:1 in the Wrangler.) Like the other systems, inputs for the front and rear diffs are mechanically tied and a clutch pack is used to connect or disconnect the rear axle from the transmission. Unlike many of the systems however, the 2014 Cherokee can fully lock the center coupling and Jeep tossed in an electronic locking rear differential.

I’ll close by posing a question: If my 2001 GMC Envoy (GMT360 SUV) with its two-speed transfer case and locking center differential can be considered a 4WD/4×4 vehicle. What is the Cherokee? AWD or 4WD? With 4-Low range and a locking rear differential it meets all the traditional requirements, but under the hood you’ll find a four-cylinder or V6 engine sitting sideways. This author’s humble opinion is that the name doesn’t matter if the vehicle does what you expect of it. That Cherokee? We’ll have to wait and see but I suspect it will be as capable as a Grand Cherokee mostly thanks to a substantially lighter curb weight.

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