Toyota uses a sophisticated AWD system that sends the engine’s power to four wheels simultaneously. Even in non-optimal conditions, your Toyota combines safety with vehicle control and fuel efficiency.

This is a stellar feature, yet like any other function, it doesn’t always work correctly. In some situations, your Toyota’s all-wheel (AWD) system may malfunction. Below, we’ll discuss the common causes, safety concerns, and how to fix your AWD system malfunction.

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How to Tell If You Have an AWD System Malfunction

It’s pretty obvious when you have an AWD system issue on a Toyota. You’ll see a big warning message pop up on your multi-information display to inform you of the error. This is the display on your dashboard between the tachometer and speedometer.

This warning message will read:
AWD System Malfunction
2WD Mode Engaged
Visit Your Dealer

awd system malfunction warning message toyota rav4
AWD System Malfunction. 2WD Mode Engaged. Visit Your Dealer.

This message is the most common indicator that there is something wrong with your all-wheel drive system. Your car has built-in electronics to detect when it is not working properly, then it produces this message to warn you about it.

When you see this warning, it also means that the AWD system is disabled electronically. This is done to prevent further damage to the system. Since AWD is disabled in this case, that means you’ll be operating in two-wheel drive (2WD). This means only your front two wheels are getting power to drive your car forward.

As a driver, you didn’t necessarily do anything specific to trigger this message. However, you’ll need to take action to resolve the error and ensure you can use all-wheel drive in the future.

Causes of an AWD System Malfunction

Many drivers see this error message pop up randomly. This message can occur after an event that has nothing to do with AWD.

Here are a couple of commonly reported causes for this error outside of an actual AWD system issue:

If you have recently had either one of these events occur, then you can feel at ease that this is likely the cause. There may not actually be anything wrong with your AWD system itself.

If neither of these causes apply, we recommend taking your vehicle to a local mechanic to ensure you can get any issue diagnosed promptly.

Resolving the Error Message

Some Toyota owners report that a loose gas cap can cause check engine lights and warnings to appear, but this doesn’t always resolve an AWD malfunction warning.

More likely than not, you’ll need to visit a mechanic or Toyota dealer to understand the cause of the malfunction. Unfortunately, an AWD System Malfunction isn’t typically something you can fix on your own.

To get started on diagnosing the issue, I have some recommendations depending on what warning lights you see on your dashboard.

You’ll want to look for your “check engine” light. It looks like this:

rav4 check engine light

If your “check engine” light is on: Get your engine error codes checked by your local mechanic, auto parts store, or Toyota dealer. The AWD system is automatically disabled whenever the check engine light turns on, so there may not be anything wrong with your AWD system. You can also check the error codes yourself with an ODB2 scanner.

If your “check engine” light is not on: This may be more complicated to solve. Take your vehicle to your Toyota dealership so they can diagnose the issue.

Is It Safe to Drive with an AWD System Malfunction?

Whenever a malfunction light or warning comes on, it’s natural to be concerned about the safety of your vehicle. Can you continue to drive? If so, for how long? Would it be best to stop at the next mechanic you see?

When it comes to an AWD system malfunction, it is normally safe to drive with the warning showing. However, you must use increased caution while operating your vehicle.

The AWD warning indicates that the system is malfunctioning, and thus, your car disables it entirely as a precaution. Therefore, your front wheels are the only wheels powering and driving the vehicle. This is more dangerous when you’re in slick conditions like rain or snow. Use caution as your vehicle will handle differently than expected.

Although it remains safe to drive your vehicle while AWD is disabled, get the problem diagnosed and fixed as soon as possible. You’re still operating a vehicle in a compromised state.

Use the following information to determine when it’s safest to drive a vehicle in 2WD (since your AWD is disabled).

2WD is safe on:

  • City streets
  • Dry pavement
  • Clear roads

2WD is potentially unsafe* on:

  • Snow-covered roads
  • Ice-covered roads
  • Gravel

*It’s true that there are many 2WD vehicles on the road that drive in these “potentially unsafe” conditions. However, it’s most important to know that your vehicle will behave much differently in these scenarios if your AWD system is malfunctioning.

The Bottom Line

AWD is a key feature of most Toyota vehicles. However, there are some instances in which you may see the “System Malfunction” warning appear. If this is the case, don’t panic! It simply means you’re operating in two-wheel drive (2WD), which is standard for many vehicles.

Stick to city streets, dry pavement, and clear roads for best results. When you can, visit a mechanic or Toyota dealership to get answers about what’s causing the malfunction. If you use increased caution, you should still have a perfectly safe driving experience. 

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  • Jonathan Buckley

    Jonathan runs and owns a 2021 Toyota RAV4 LE. He started RAV4 Resource, as well as other automotive websites, to help people understand their vehicles by answering frequently asked questions, addressing common problems, and providing general information to help people get the most out of their vehicle.

  • Brian Jones

    Brian Jones had worked as an ASE Certified Master Technician for several decades before opening his own used car dealership outside of Dallas, Texas. Toyota models, such as the RAV4, Corolla, Camry, Tundra, Highlander and Sienna, continue to be some of the top-selling vehicles at his car dealership. Aside from running the dealership, he also writes for some of the top auto publications, such as Motor1. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling the country with his family and can also be found tinkering around with older pickup trucks.

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  1. Sue feerino says:

    How do I reset AWD warning light rav4 2014

    1. Hi Sue,

      First, start by making sure that your gas cap is tightened. It’s possible that this may fix the warning, but you’ll need to wait some time to see if the warning disappears (check it again tomorrow).

      Is your engine light on as well?

    2. Myra Macfie says:

      My AWD malfunction showed for several days and now it is off. Why does this happen?

      1. Hi Myra,

        Was your check engine light on as well? If so, it could’ve been something temporary such as your gas cap being loose.

        If you check engine light was NOT on, it could’ve been a strange temporary error. I would not worry about it. But if it happens again, check with your local mechanic or Toyota dealer.

  2. My car has been having these alert messages pop up everyday once a day while driving. The car seems to be driving fine, once I begin to pull over all messages go away and the car continues like nothing happened. It has been doing this for about a week now. It has been to the shop 3 times and everything comes back fine and reset. I am at a loss at what is happening and what to do. Any suggestions?

    The messages start with:

    1. Hi Nicole,

      First, check your brake fluid to make sure it is not low.

      Based on my research, some people resolved this by cleaning their ABS wheel speed sensors. If that works, let me know! I am curious.

  3. Clyde Garland says:

    That’s exactly what is displayed on the dash and the motor turns over but doesn’t start