Many people think that the terms 4x4 and all wheel drive are interchangeable. In popular parlance you can usually get away with referring to either term in relation to a category of vehicle. But in truth, these are two distinct systems, with the latter being effectively the successor to the former.
The world of transportation took a distinct step forward during the 1980s when a method of applying direct power to all four wheels was first introduced into the mainstream market. Up until then drivers had to rely on either front wheel drive or rear wheel drive systems, both of which could be problematic under difficult driving conditions. When you are able to "manage" all four wheels rather than allowing two of them to be neutral, you have much more control.
The original four-wheel-drive system became widely known as 4x4. Here, you use a mechanical gadget known as a transfer case and this system has been in widespread use for decades when it comes to propelling off-road vehicles. In the lower range vehicles, you have to shift into four-wheel-drive mode by using a manual lever which is normally mounted next to the gearshift. In higher end vehicles, this is handled electronically. The older 4x4 vehicles were also quite utilitarian. They were designed for off-road driving and had low gearing in order to capitalise on available traction. Often times these vehicles were not known for their outright performance or handling.
Conversely, all wheel drive or AWD is a more sophisticated solution. Here, a trans-axle will power the vehicle's front wheels with a separate shaft relaying power to the rear wheels. Sophisticated technology today takes a lot of the guesswork away from the driver in relation to these all wheel drive systems. You don't even have to engage the system, as it is usually active all the time. When traction is lost on one wheel, the on-board computer will amend the amount of power being delivered to the other wheels to compensate. In fact, it's very difficult to tell that you are driving an all wheel drive car of the modern era as they handle like two wheel drive cars.
There is lot of flexibility here and the type of car that you drive will be engineered according to its likely use. For example, if you buy a super car or exotic vehicle it will be configured for performance in relation to the way that the power is delivered. Typically, more power is given to the rear wheels in the four-wheel-drive performance car in order to give better acceleration.
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