Traction Control Vs Awd Vs 4wd Explained! 

Traction control, AWD, and 4WD help with vehicle handling and traction with distinct working principles. Traction control maintains traction using the TCM and ABS system whereas AWD and 4WD split engine power at wheels to maintain required traction.  

Driving on dry pavement and on wet roads are completely two different stories in terms of vehicle handling and control. And we understand it can be confusing to figure out who does what among all these systems; all wheel drive AWD, four wheel drive 4WD, and traction control. 

We are here to help with that and will compare Traction control vs AWD vs 4WD.

To get a more in-depth understanding of these systems and how they compete against each other, keep reading. 

What Is Traction Control?

Traction control is an active safety feature available in almost all modern vehicles to maintain proper traction. It is a compulsory requirement for all cars built from 2011 onwards. 

How Does A Traction Control Work? 

In a traction control system, there are four-wheel speed sensors and a traction control module. The traction control system works together with the anti-lock braking (ABS) system. 

When a wheel is losing traction, it will spin faster than other wheels. The wheel speed sensors measure wheel speed and send this data to the traction control module (TCM). TCM then compares all the speeds and analyses which wheel is losing traction. 

After analyzing the data, ECU sends signals to ABS. Then the ABS system is engaged and the brake will be applied to the wheel that is losing traction. The wheel won’t stop rotating though, since that will result in locking. The ABS system will just slow down the wheel spin. 

Another method of traction control is after analyzing data from wheel speed sensors, the ECU cuts down the engine’s power from the affected wheel. This can be done by ignition delay, reducing fuel delivery, or closing the throttle.  

This way traction control maintains traction to counteract tire slipping or over-spinning. This system ensures proper grip on the tires when the road is wet or slippery. Traction control with the ABS system prevents skidding as well. 

Moreover, when a car is trying to accelerate or trying to run on a slippery uphill road, you need more traction in your tires. Traction control is engaged when a vehicle starts to slip. It shields against understeer and oversteer as well. 


Traction control ensures proper grip on the tires that are slipping or spinning.  

What Is All-Wheel Drive (AWD)? 

All-wheel drive or AWD is a drivetrain system that powers all four wheels of a vehicle. But unlike the 4WD, the power is not equally distributed. So, what does all-wheel drive do?

AWD ensures improved traction and stability on adverse road conditions by distributing power to all four wheels using a central differential. 

How Does AWD Work?

A vehicle with all wheel drive AWD system works using wheel speed sensors and a center differential. There are various types of differentials used in AWD 

  1. Open Differential
  2. Limited Slip Differential
  3. Electronically Controlled LSD 

After getting the data from the sensors, the ECU detects the wheel that is losing traction. The engine power goes through transmission, then to the center differential. The differential then regulates the power sent to different wheels and sends extra power to the affected wheel. 

Now, there are different types of AWD systems that split the engine power in distinct ways. The available AWD systems are; 

  1. Symmetrical 
  2. On-demand 
  3. Torque-vectoring 

But all of the AWDs split the power from the engine and deliver it to all the wheels. The amount of power in all wheels is not equal to one another. The power each wheel receives depends on the road conditions and the AWD design. 

AWDs are good for on-road driving under wet or slippery road conditions. They can be used in mild off-roading only. Overall, AWD has improved handling, acceleration, and on-road performance.

AWD in Car


AWD drivetrain splits the power from the engine and transfers it to all the wheels. It is an intelligent system. 

What Is Four-Wheel Drive (4WD)? 

Four-wheel drive (4wd) also known as 4×4 is a drivetrain system that sends power to all four wheels of a vehicle using a transfer case. With a 4WD system, a driver can engage low range and high range for different situations. 

How Does a 4WD Work?

A 4WD system has one front and one rear differential, a transfer case, and a locking hub. All these components are used to transmit equal power from the engine to all four wheels. 

The front and rear differentials are open differentials mounted on the front and rear axles. These differentials are designed in a way that they divide power equally between two wheels. 

The transfer case in the 4WD locks the front and rear driveshafts together. So all four wheels get the same amount of power and rotate at the same speed. The amount of torque they receive is also the same for all four wheels. 

In a 4wd vehicle, drivers can shift between an RWD and a 4×4 depending on the scenario. The low-range mode allows for more torque and traction while the high-range mode delivers improved acceleration. 

4wd is designed for off-road driving and now is the standard drivetrain for almost all off-road vehicles. The equally transferred power to all four wheels means each wheel has more grip and this helps to navigate rough terrain. 

jeep in forest


4wd sends engine power equally to all four wheels of a vehicle and provides impressive grip on rough surfaces. 

Traction Control Vs All-Wheel Drive Vs Four-Wheel Drive

Now we will look at these three control mechanisms and compare them based on various specifications such as power delivery, assisting handling, price, etc. 

Control Type/ Spec Traction Control AWD4WD 
Maintain Traction By ECU and ABS By automatic Power Distribution By Equal Power Distribution 
Power Delivery Not Applicable All Wheels4 wheels (Equally) 
Vehicle Handling Good on Highway, snow, slippery roadGood on Highway, snow, slippery road, mild off-roading Good on rough terrain, snow, slippery road, off-roading 
Off-Road Performance Not Good Good Excellent
On Snow Performance Moderate ExcellentGood 
Highway Performance Better Good Good 
Components Used ECUCentral Differential Transfer Case 
Special Features Simple, does not require additional hardware Intelligent system Best drivetrain for Off-road driving 
Issues Not good while off-roading More servicing cost Heavier Drivetrain 
Price Cheapest Most Expensive Expensive 

Here, at a glance, you can see the overall comparison between traction control, AWD and 4WD.  

Maintain Traction 

You will get improved traction on your wheels with traction control, AWD, and 4WD. However, the way they maintain traction is different. For traction control, it uses sensors to detect which tire is slipping and then cuts down the power of that wheel through the ECU or applies brakes using the ABS system. 

However, vehicles with AWD and 4WD have traction by splitting engine power and sending it to all four wheels. Traction control sufficiently regulates traction for on-road driving but does not work so well on rough terrains. 

Because when you are in a sticky situation, you don’t need the traction-losing wheel to stop spinning or locking in. In that scenario, adding power to that specific wheel will allow you to get out of that situation. 

Power Delivery 

4WD and AWD essentially are two drivetrains whereas traction control is a control module that you can turn on or off. These two powertrains are designed to deliver power to all wheels, but traction control does not do that. 

AWD transmits a specific amount of power to a wheel losing traction whereas 4WD sends the same amount of power to all four wheels. You can turn your 4WD into 2WD or FWD mode as well. Most of the time vehicles with AWD run like a 2WD vehicle since rarely all four wheels need power delivery on road. 

Vehicle Handling

In a rough, wet, or slippery road all three types; traction control, AWD, and 4WD assist with handling the vehicle. Traction control prevents slipping and skidding in wet and slippery conditions by applying brakes or cutting power from the affected wheel. 

Vehicles with the 4WD system are great at handling off-road conditions since all wheels get an equal amount of power and torque. This is especially helpful when climbing uphill or pulling heavy loads on rocky tracks. 

In an AWD system, the wheels receive different amounts of torque through a system of differentials and clutch packs. This power distribution optimizes traction in adverse road conditions such as rain, mud, snow, and ice.

Off-road Performance 

For off-road performance, among these three, 4WD performs the best. Traction control needs to be turned off while off-roading since it will stop the wheel from spinning. Similarly, with an AWD system, you can only do mild off-roading. 

In an AWD system, power is distributed to all four wheels, but it is done automatically and there is typically no manual control over how much torque is sent to each wheel.

On the other hand, a four-wheel drive (4WD) system usually allows the driver to manually control the distribution of torque to the wheels. 

This can be useful in rough terrain, as the driver can direct more torque to the wheels with better traction. 4WD systems are generally more robust and durable than AWD systems and are therefore better suited for off-roading and other demanding driving conditions. 

This is the reason why you will see popular vehicles like the jeep wrangler, Gladiator, and Ford F-150 run on 4WD. 

On Snow Performance 

Awd and 4wd provide more stability and control while driving on snow than the traction control. This is because the traction control can stop the wheel from spinning but cannot provide torque to get out of the snow when stuck. 

Between 4wd and Awd, the all-wheel drive system is better for snow driving. This is because, in all-wheel drive, different wheels can spin at different speeds while having power from the engine. But 4wd will have the same power on all wheels which is not optimal for snow driving. 

Highway Performance 

The traction control system is sufficient for highway driving in both dry and wet conditions. You can drive an AWD system on the highway and it especially helps with turning at high speeds. 

AWD can also provide a performance advantage on highways by improving acceleration and handling. However, 4WD is not that good for pavement driving because of the locked transfer case. But with AWD and 4WD, you can shift to 2WD or RWD mode and drive on the highway. 

Components Used 

In a traction control system, there are a bunch of wheel speed sensors and a switch that works with the ECU to maintain traction to a certain wheel. AWD has a center differential that transfers engine power to the wheels.

For four-wheel drive, there is a transfer case to mesh the front and rear drive shafts. There are other components but this is the most important one that adds to the weight of the vehicle. 

Special Features 

Traction control is a fairly simple system that comes with almost all vehicles that provide sufficient performance in terms of vehicle handling. Also, for traction control, you don’t need a big added hardware that adds to the vehicle weight significantly. 

However, with AWD, you get an intelligent system that adapts to the situation and supplies the appropriate amount of power to the front and rear wheels. Then the special feature of 4WD is that it is the best drivetrain for getting out of a sticky situation. 


The issue with traction control is that it isn’t that good while driving off-road. Then the problem with AWD is that it requires more servicing costs because of having a complex mechanical system. 

Similarly, the 4wd drivetrain is quite heavy, and this will lead to increased fuel consumption.

Note that there might be so many issues related to these systems but the above-mentioned were worth mentioning.


Out of traction control, 4WD and AWD, traction control is the cheapest one. AWD is the most expensive one due to its intricate design and manufacturing difficulty. 


We cannot explicitly say which one out of traction control, 4WD and AWD are best. Because it all depends on a lot of external factors like weather, road conditions, vehicle type, etc. 


Should I Turn Off Traction Control In 4wd?

No, you should not turn off your traction control in 4wd. However, if you are driving off-road with chains, you should turn it off since it will help the vehicle maintain traction and progress through tough terrain.

Is AWD Good For Highway?

Yes, AWD on a regular highway is good because of its superior handling and traction maintenance. AWD specially performs well on wet or slippery roads that include highways. 

Can You Handbrake AWD?

Yes, you can handbrake an AWD. However, it is harmful to your vehicle. This is because pulling the handbrake to slow the rear wheels will damage the transmission and the transfer case. 

Bottom Line 

Hope this article helped you clear the confusion about Traction Control Vs Awd Vs 4wd. Now you can choose one of them for your car’s handling and stability depending on your driving condition.

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William Baldwin

This Is William Baldwin, The Founder & Managing Editor of this website. Me and my team share automotive tips, tricks, and news

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Talha Atta

Talha Atta, a Mechanical Engineer and experienced technical content writer and editor at with a passion for the automotive industry.