Can You Off-Road With AWD?

Off-roading adventures can be exhilarating, relaxing, and fun when you have the right vehicle for the terrain. An All-Wheel-Drive (AWD) vehicle is supposed to be able to go places a front-wheel-drive vehicle cannot, but can they go off-road and on trails or even the beach?

AWD vehicles, not to be confused with 4WD vehicles, can go off-road because the varying power sent to all the wheels gives you better traction when you need it most. But that doesn’t mean you should go off-road. If your car doesn’t have the clearance, you should stay on the road.

Are you looking to take your AWD off-road? Stick around to see if your car makes the cut!

What is the Difference Between AWD and 4WD?

Many times, AWD and 4WD are used interchangeably when people talk about their vehicle’s capabilities. But they are not the same thing because of how the wheels get their power when needed.

While the 4WD sends maximum power to all wheels equallyOpens in a new tab., the AWD sends varying power to the wheels as required, depending on the terrain.

A 4WD vehicle has more power and traction to handle rough trails and is the original off-road driving system. An AWD vehicle is more suited to winter driving on the road rather than going off-road. Although you can take an AWD off-road, it’s not what it was created for.

Pros and Cons of AWD

AWD cars are more user-friendly and automated compared to 4WD vehicles. They send power to the wheels gripping while diverting power away from the wheels that are slipping. But they are not as efficient in extreme off-roadOpens in a new tab. conditions.

Pros of AWD:

  • The AWD is more efficient for all road conditions and provides traction when needed.
  • It gives a sportier feel to more vehicles and creates an increased grip when you need it.
  • The AWD is always on, meaning that you don’t have to think about turning it on like you would a 4WD.

Cons of AWD:

  • You get worse gas mileage because the AWD is always on.
  • Extreme off-road conditions may be too much for the vehicle to handle, as it won’t give you the power you need to all wheels equally.
  • The weight and complexity of your vehicle are increased, which means that the engine needs to work harder in extreme conditions.

Pros and Cons of 4WD

4WD vehicles are the original off-road carsOpens in a new tab. and usually come in SUVs and trucks. You can choose when to turn on the 4WD or have it in 2WD through a switch or lever, so it is not being used full-time, which may help with fuel conservation.

Pros of 4WD:

  • You have better traction in all off-road conditions.
  • 4WD vehicles are made more rugged so that you can go more places away from civilization.
  • It can be turned off when you are on the road to save fuel.

Cons of 4WD:

  • Not every situation calls for 4WD, making it difficult to know when you should use it.
  • When it is on, more fuel is used.
  • It may add more weight to your vehicle.

What Is an AWD Good For?

While people do take their AWD vehicles off-road successfully, AWD was designed to handle more extreme road conditions like gravel, packed dirt, rain, ice, and snow. AWD vehicles can go off-road when the surface is packed down or mostly flat with little debris.

They are best for drivers who stay mainly on the road but want a little peace of mind to handle what the weather and on-road terrain gives them. 

Where Can You Take an AWD Off-Road?

While 4WD vehicles can go almost anywhere, AWD vehicles need a more level terrain, because they are not as ruggedly built. You can take AWD to the beachOpens in a new tab., well-worn trails in the mountainsOpens in a new tab., or other trails that don’t have many obstacles. If you can’t clear the curb’s face with your car, then you shouldn’t take it off-roading.

You also want to make sure that your AWD engine can handle the stress that off-roading creates. If you have a small motor under 2.0 liters, your car may not make it up rough mountain trails or through sandy beaches.

You will know if your vehicle can’t make it if it struggles to get up a steep hill when you are on the road.

Not All AWD Vehicles Can Go Off-Road

Just because you have an AWD vehicle does not mean you should take it off-road. Many sports utility vehicles are more of a crossover to an urban vehicleOpens in a new tab., which means most SUVs look more rugged than they are.

The clearance underneath the car may not be high enough to clear the bumps or rocks that you may encounter off-road. The suspension and wheelbases of most AWD vehicles are not made for off-roading.

Another reason why not all AWD cars can go off-road is that the engine is not made for the rough ride that off-roading puts it through.

AWD Vehicles to Keep On the Road

Several AWD vehicles are not suited to off-road journeysOpens in a new tab. like they are advertised and should be kept on the road, so you don’t damage your car.

  • Lincoln Navigator. While the Lincoln Navigator was designed to go off-road when it came on the market, it was redesigned several times to provide comfort and luxury. But these features make it useless for off-road journeys.
  • Dodge Journey. The crossover from car to SUV rendered this vehicle useless for off-road capabilities because it is still more of a passenger car. The platform is based on the Jeep Patriot, which is also an on-road capable vehicle.
  • Ford Explorer. While the Explorer sounds like it would be great for off-roading in the name, it is a terrible choice for taking off-road because it is derived from a crossover design rather than the rugged SUV it was known for in the 1990s.
  • Jeep Cherokee. While the original Jeep Cherokee was great for off-roading, the current model is often considered suited for driving on the road by Jeep enthusiasts. The last Cherokee that was suited for off-roading was made in 2001. Enthusiasts wanted a trail-rated vehicle, but that is not what they got. That being said, it remains entirely capable for the weekend traveler.
  • Kia Sorento. Kia has other models that can go off-road better, such as the Sportage, but the Sorento is not suited for trails or flat surfaces, because it is a crossover. Many crossover vehicles cannot go off-road very well.

AWD Vehicles to Take Off-Road

There are some AWD vehicles that you can take on your off-roadingOpens in a new tab. adventures, and if you have one of these, you’re set to go.

  • Lexus LX. The Lexus LX is based on a truck frame, which makes it rugged enough to go up a rough mountain trail, or down the sandy beach.
  • GMC Yukon. The Yukon has a large V-8 engine that can go just about anywhere you want to go, while the ground clearance makes it possible to go over just about any debris you come across.


It is technically possible to go off-road with an AWD vehicle, but whether you should or not depends on several factors.

If your vehicle’s wheelbase is large, you will be able to handle rough terrain, but if it is smaller, it might be more difficult to get through.

If your engine is too small to get up a steep hill on-road, it probably won’t handle mountainous terrain. And if your car’s ground clearance is too low, it’s best to keep your vehicle on the road where it belongs.

AWD vehicles can go off-road, but you need to be wise enough to realize its limitations before you go anywhere off-road with it.

Jeremy Hoxie

Born and raised in beautiful Northern Michigan, I've have spent two decades enjoying everything the outdoors has to offer. When not working on RigForge, I spend my time Overlanding and tackling off-road trails while sharing my experiences and testing gear along the way. My current rig is a 2013 Jeep JKU Moab.

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