When it comes to rotating tires, you may follow the old rule of thumb that the “drive wheels” wear out their tires faster, and so you should “rotate” them to keep the wear even. An example of this would be on a front-wheel drive vehicle, the front two tires will wear out faster than the rear wheels. The opposite is the case with rear-wheel drive vehicles, the rear tires will wear down faster than the front.

Following this logic, since all of the wheels on an ‘all-wheel-drive’ are the drive wheels, do the tires need to be rotated at all? The short answer is ‘yes’, but we’re going to take a minute to look at why that is.

Even with all wheel drive, your vehicle’s tires are not going to wear out evenly. The main purpose of rotating tires is to keep the wear as even as possible, after all.

What causes this uneven wear?

There are several factors that will cause the tires on an all wheel drive vehicle to not wear evenly, one of the simplest being weight. The majority of vehicles sold in the U.S. have the majority of the drivetrain nearest to the front of the vehicle. Naturally, this makes the front of the vehicle heavier, and so more strain is put on the front tires just by weight alone.

Not all AWD is created equal.

When it comes to all wheel drive, there are two major types. These types could be defines as “full-time” and “part-time” all wheel drive. The difference between the two is as the name implies, the former functions constantly while the other only activates when needed. In a full-time all wheel drive system, all four wheels are constantly given power to always provide the best traction.

Part-time all wheel drive, on the other hand, is only activated when it is needed, or selected by the driver in some instances. With this system of all-wheel drive, the vehicle operates like a front or rear-wheel drive vehicle would normally, which one depending on your specific make and model. Then, when the vehicle detects loss of traction in one of the drive wheels, it sends power to the auxiliary wheels to maintain the vehicle’s overall traction. This version of all wheel drive tends to put less train on the vehicle’s components, and slightly increases fuel efficiency.

Is four-wheel drive the same as All-wheel drive?

All-wheel drive and four-wheel drive serve a similar function, both drivetrains provide power to all four wheels, however the way they do so is fairly different. Four wheel drive constantly provides equal power to all four wheels, all the time. This makes it ideal for off-road and more heavy-duty tasks. However, it is not ideal for most every day driving, as all the wheels want to rotate at the same rate, and while cornering the wheels will want to travel at different rates. As a result, in most modern four wheel drive vehicles, the four wheel drive (or 4×4) can be turned off to make for better road-going. Having 4×4 on constantly can wear out your tires more quickly than normal.

Conversely, all-wheel drive sends power to the wheels as it is needed. This means, if your vehicle detects loss of traction in one of the wheels, it will stop sending as much power to that wheel and give more to tires that have traction. An example of this is driving on an icy road, if your vehicle goes over a patch of ice on the right side of the vehicle and those two tires lose traction, the vehicle will send power to the left side of the vehicle to maintain speed.

How about those fancy electric cars?

All-wheel drive systems in many electric vehicles are unique. Each wheel often has its own motor, not necessarily having a mechanical connection to the other wheels. Each wheel determines how much power it needs for the best traction, giving the vehicle as optimal grip on the road as possible.

Is 4WD or AWD better?

There is no clear winner between all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive. Each has its own pros and cons. Taking a quick glance, 4WD is a much older, and often more reliable system. However, 4WD systems add a lot of weight to a vehicle, and hurt fuel economy as a result. Conversely, AWD cars tend to be better for most day-to-day use, albeit add a good bit of complexity to the vehicle. Both are going to help you get and keep traction while driving, but you will have to discern which of the two is best for your needs.

Vehicle alignment plays a big role in tread wear.

Without you knowing it, your vehicle’s alignment may be off- most are, if only slightly. I highly recommend owning a tread depth meter. They are inexpensive and the easiest way to both tell when your tires need rotated, and if your alignment may be off. If the tread on one tire is lower than the rest of your tires (assuming they are the same age) this is a sign your car is out of alignment. I depth difference of less than 1mm is normal, but anything greater than that there is a good chance your alignment is askew. Most alignment issues are minor, but it is something you should keep an eye on.

How should you rotate tires on an AWD car?

Rotating tires on an AWD, or a 4WD, car is no different than any other vehicle. Take the two tires with the most tread and put them where your tires experience the most tread. An example of this is if your vehicle is a part-time all wheel drive system, with constant front-wheel drive, the tires on the front of your car are going to experience the most wear. So, measure your tread depths, and put the two with the most tread on the front of the vehicle.

Should you just have a professional rotate my tires?

That depends on the tools and workspace you have available, along with how comfortable you are doing that kind of work to your own vehicle. I think rotating your own tires is a great way to save money and make sure it’s done right, but if you don’t know how to even change a tire, this may not be where you want to start. On top of this, most places will rotate your tires fairly inexpensively, and it doesn’t have to be done very often, maybe once every other oil change. Some dealerships will even rotate your tires for free, either as part of a service plan or just for purchasing a vehicle from them.

Should you replace all four of my tires on an AWD vehicle?

You need to replace all four tires at the same time on AWD vehicles to minimize wear on your vehicle’s drivetrain. Having a tire with a lower tread depth means the overall circumference of the tire is smaller than a tire with more tread. This means the tire with the less tread is rotating faster than the tire with more tread. Since the all-wheel drive system’s job is to make sure all of the wheels are rotating at the same speed when travelling in a straight line, having mismatched tires causes strain on the AWD system, as well as the tires themselves.

All-wheel drive seems like a lot of maintenance, is it worth it?

All wheel drive vehicles are more expensive (about $2,000 more than a non-AWD car when purchased new) to both purchase and maintain. However, for many people who live in colder climates, on gravel roads, or live in a region where having as much traction as possible is well worth the investment. I personally live in Iowa, where we often have snow 6 months of the year. My most recent vehicle purchase is my first AWD car, and I don’t think I’ll buy anything else again.  If you’ve never driven an AWD or 4WD vehicle in snow and are thinking about purchasing one, I highly recommend taking one for a test drive.

Do AWD cars make good daily drivers?

AWD (and 4WD cars than can disable the 4×4) make great daily drivers, not just winter cars. If you live in the southern united states, or anywhere that rarely has difficult to travel roads, an AWD car probably isn’t a worthwhile investment. You may have a non-awd car you enjoy; many people in that situation purchase an inexpensive AWD vehicle for when roads get bad in the winter. I personally daily-drive an AWD vehicle and have had no issues with it. If you live anywhere with snowy winters or gets a large amount of rain, daily driving an AWD car is a great idea.

Perhaps this is more information than you bargained for when researching tire rotations on AWD cars. Regardless, I hope you found this information useful!