Can AWD Go Off-Road?


Off-roading can be an exciting possibility for anyone to get into, but knowing where to start, and what equipment to invest in can be difficult. In order to have success in off-roading, you need to have the right type of vehicle, and there are a lot of options out there, AWD being one of the most attractive, but not the traditional route, so it’s hard to know if it’s the right choice.

AWD vehicles can go off-road. AWD is similar enough to 4WD that it performs well in light off-road circumstances. However, the differences between the two are significant enough that the AWD vehicles are not well prepared for intense off-road excursions.

AWD vehicles are wonderful, and perfect for many circumstances. For more information on the good and bad of AWD, keep reading. I will also be covering the optimal conditions for off-roading in an AWD vehicle, to give you a better idea of what your vehicle can do.

What Makes a Good Off-Road Vehicle?

Most vehicles run on a two-wheel-drive system, which is perfectly fine for road travel but runs into problems off-road. If those two wheels end up on a low traction surface, the vehicle can’t move anywhere. In both 4WD and AWD, all four wheels on the vehicle receive power, which helps keep them from being trapped on a low friction surface.

Other features like weight, center of gravity, or ground clearance all influence off-road ability, but having power allocated to all four wheels alone makes a vehicle far more viable as an option for 4WD and AWD. This opens possible terrain to sand, boulders, gravel, and even shallow water crossing.

The problem is, AWD has a few disadvantages when compared with its cousin, 4WD, but to understand the differences and disadvantages, you have to understand how each system works.

AWD vs 4WD

Four-wheel drive is has been available longer than all wheel drive has, so we will start with an explanation of that system.

4WD vehicles function on roads the same way a two-wheel-drive vehicle functions. Power is directed through the driveshaft to the rear axel which transfers the energy to either wheel in the back, which propels the vehicle forward.

When 4WD is manually engaged, power is directed to both the front and rear axles, which provides power to all four wheels. The reason you can manually engage 4WD is that if it is turned on all the time, tension will build up in the driveshaft which can cause permanent damage to the vehicle.

An additional problem with 4WD is that the power directed to the axels will always take the path of least resistance because differentials in the axels allow power to be distributed unevenly.

This could reasonably lead to a driver being stuck with one wheel off the ground spinning while the others won’t turn. This is addressed by adding manual differential locks, which makes power be evenly distributed.

Differential locks can’t be constantly engaged because of that same tension which builds up and causes damage. A modern solution to all of these problems is AWD.

AWD is constantly engaged, so all four wheels are always capable of receiving power. Tension is not built up because the AWD system is governed by a computer that constantly adjusts the allocation of force to each tire. This same system addresses the problem of a spinning tire by controlling the amount of force each tire receives. One tire will never spin freely for long on an AWD system.

With that explanation, you may be thinking, “AWD sounds great! How could it be worse than 4WD?” The answer is twofold.

The first part is that having the ability to manually control your vehicle can be a huge advantage. In an AWD vehicle, you have very limited control over the way that your vehicle runs, whereas you have complete control in a 4WD. Not only is this useful, but many would say it makes the off-road experience more fun.

Second, and more importantly, 4WD vehicles have a four low function. Four low, or 4Low, allows the driveshaft to turn at a rate that is greater than the rate at which the wheels turn. This dramatically increases the torque output of the wheel. Torque is rotational force, so the amount of force propelling the vehicle forward increases.

Think of it in terms of bicycles–when you climb a hill on a bike you drop to a lower gear because it makes it easier to climb. AWD vehicles don’t have this ability, so you will never be able to conveniently up the torque that your vehicle is capable of producing.

Where Can You Take an AWD Vehicle Off-Road?

At this point, you may be wondering if AWD vehicles actually are any good for off-roading at all, and the answer is yes! You may be more limited in the options that you have, and you will need to be more careful than you might have otherwise been, but you can definitely take your AWD vehicle off-road.

I drove a Subaru Crosstrek for several years, which is an AWD vehicle with a CVT. During the time in which I had that vehicle, I did quite a bit of minor off-roading. My personal experience showed that my AWD vehicle handles dirt, gravel, sand, decently large rocks, and even shallow water crossings.

My experience with AWD off-roading has been great, but you don’t have to take my word for it because there are dozens of examples of people testing their AWD vehicles off-road. Below I’ve linked a video of two men comparing the off-road performance of a Jeep Wrangler, which has 4WD, and a Crosstrek with AWD.

In the video, they found that not only could the Crosstrek handle just about all the terrain that the Wrangler took on in the video, but it was established that on-road the Crosstrek was a far more comfortable experience.

While this example shows that AWD is a good option for basic off-roading, it doesn’t make AWD just as good an option as 4WD. Please don’t try to take your AWD vehicle on the Rubicon Trail. You won’t be able to make it through with AWD.

Trail Recommendations for AWD Vehicles

Black Canyon Trail: This trail is found in Arizona. There’s lots of beautiful land and wildlife to see, and the trail varies in difficulty from easy to moderate. Good ground clearance is important for this kind of off-roading, so don’t try this in an AWD sedan. Your SUV or crossover will be much better equipped for off-roading.

Hole in the Wall Road: This short trail is also rated moderate, but should be doable for an AWD vehicle with decent ground clearance. Near Death Valley, wildlife is more sparse than in other areas, but there is still a lot of beautiful scenery to experience on this trail.

Pioneertown to Big Bear: This trail is longer and rated easy all the way through. If you are new to off-roading and want to begin slowly, this trail may be the perfect starting point for you. This route is more about seeing nature than it is about technical driving skills.

Magruder Corridor: This very long trail is beautiful and scenic, and also rated easy. Once again, this would be an excellent, if long, introduction to the world of off-roading, and one that most AWD vehicles should have absolutely no problem with.

White Pocket: White pocket is another Arizona trail, this one rated easy. It’s short, and you will see the beautiful red rock landscape of this portion of Arizona. This trail comes highly recommended for beginners and is a great place for learning the ropes and becoming a better off-road driver.

It is important to remember that there are hundreds of off-road trails out there, even just in the United States. Not all of those will be available to those with AWD vehicles, but some are better than none. If none of these suggestions fit your needs or criteria as a fledgling off-road driver, it’s important that you have the tools you need to find trails.

My personal favorite is AllTrails, which contains a seemingly infinite number of trail possibilities. Off-road trails are marked OHV (off-highway vehicle) trails, and you can search with that criteria. Not all the trails that populate will be suitable for AWD, but if you look in the comments you will often find information on the best trails for AWD vehicles.

You can also search online for trails good for your vehicle, you’ll find many like you who want to get the most out of their AWD vehicle. Additionally, many US states have trail maps that you can find online to help you locate trails to drive.

AWD vehicles are a ton of fun and have more versatility than many people give them credit for. They may not have all the options that 4WD has, but they still offer a great deal of versatility. Enjoy your newfound freedom with your AWD vehicle and happy trails!

Will Turner

Will has an absolute passion for 4x4s and loves discovering all of the small details about each model. Will joined the Four Wheel Trends team in early 2021 and has been a valuable contributor ever since!

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