What’s the Difference Between All-Wheel Drive and Four-Wheel Drive?

iStock/PeopleImages
iStock/PeopleImages

As the weather turns nasty, you may start to think more about your car’s transmission—particularly, its ability to get you up and down muddy, snowy, or icy roads. While you may know that two-wheel drive isn’t the best option for driving in harsh weather, other terms are more confusing. Like, for instance, all-wheel drive versus four-wheel drive. Don’t all cars have four wheels (at least when it comes to sedans, SUVs, and other consumer vehicles)? As Jalopnik explains, the difference between all-wheel drive (AWD) and four-wheel drive (4WD) is more than just semantics—and which type you need depends heavily on the kind of driving you do on a regular basis.

When a car manufacturer specifies something as two-, four-, or all-wheel drive, the company is referring to the tires that receive power from the engine. With two-wheel drive, the engine powers either the front axle or the back axle of the car, meaning that the engine is moving only the front tires or the back tires. The other axle is just rolling along. When four-wheel drive (sometimes referred to as 4x4) is engaged, meanwhile, the engine rotates all four wheels. This helps give the car extra traction on slippery surfaces like sand, ice, and gravel—so that even if one set of wheels can’t get traction on a slippery surface, the other wheels might be able to.

The key word there is “engaged.” Traditionally, four-wheel drive means that your car can drive with all four wheels, but you have to manually choose that option. The rest of the time, you’re in two-wheel drive mode. As Ray Magliozzi of NPR’s "Car Talk" once explained to a listener, four-wheel drive is “designed to be engaged when you're already stuck, or in a specific situation where you know you might get stuck—like in snow, sand, or mud. It’s not designed for normal road use, and must be disengaged before you drive on dry, paved roads.”

In all-wheel drive, meanwhile, the car figures out what kind of traction you need all on its own. It has sensors that figure out how much power should go to each wheel to give you the best traction without any input on your part. This is a useful feature for driving in a variety of different conditions, while a dedicated four-wheel drive mode might be better for serious off-roading.

Be warned: There are downsides to all that extra traction. A car’s engine has to work harder to power all four wheels. Those engines are also heavier, which itself takes more power to move. As a result, four-wheel or all-wheel drive cars usually use significantly more fuel than your typical two-wheel drive model.

There are other caveats to this explanation: Full-time four-wheel drive cars do exist, but they differ slightly from all-wheel drive vehicles because of how the two axles of the car move in relation to each other. In four-wheel drive, the front and rear wheels are locked together so they spin at the same rate; in all-wheel drive, the wheels aren’t locked like this—different amounts of power go to the different wheels as needed.

All this said, even if you live somewhere with snowy winters, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should spring for all-wheel drive. If you’re driving a lot in inclement weather—say, if you live in South Dakota or Wyoming rather than sunny Southern California—winter tires may actually be a lot more important than which wheels the engine is powering. Need proof? Watch the video comparison here.

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What is a Polar Vortex?

Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you’ve turned on the news or stepped outside lately, you're familiar with the record-breaking cold that is blanketing a lot of North America. According to The Washington Post, a mass of bone-chilling air over Canada—a polar vortex—split into three parts at the beginning of 2019, and one is making its way to the eastern U.S. Polar vortexes can push frigid air straight from the arctic tundra into more temperate regions. But just what is this weather phenomenon?

How does a polar vortex form?

Polar vortexes are basically arctic hurricanes or cyclones. NASA defines them as “a whirling and persistent large area of low pressure, found typically over both North and South poles.” A winter phenomenon, vortexes develop as the sun sets over the pole and temperatures cool, and occur in the middle and upper troposphere and the stratosphere (roughly, between six and 31 miles above the Earth’s surface).

Where will a polar vortex hit?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the vortexes move in a counterclockwise direction. Typically, they dip down over Canada, but according to NBC News, polar vortexes can move into the contiguous U.S. due to warm weather over Greenland or Alaska—which forces denser cold air south—or other weather patterns.

Polar vortexes aren't rare—in fact, arctic winds do sometimes dip down into the eastern U.S.—but sometimes the sheer size of the area affected is much greater than normal.

How cold is a polar vortex?

So cold that frozen sharks have been known to wash up on Cape Cod beaches. So cold that animal keepers at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada once decided to bring its group of king penguins indoors for warmth (the species lives on islands north of Antarctica and the birds aren't used to extreme cold.) Even parts of Alabama and other regions in the Deep South have seen single-digit temperatures and wind chills below zero.

But thankfully, this type of arctic freeze doesn't stick around forever: Temperatures will gradually warm up.

In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King, Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

Some three decades after he earned his doctorate, in 1989, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article was originally published in 2013.

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