Contrary to all logic, Four-Wheel Drive and All-Wheel Drive do not mean the same thing.
Despite the fact that the four wheels on a vehicle are all the wheels on a vehicle, there are significant differences between the two categories and these vehicles are meant for two very different drivers.
In this blog, we’ll tell you what “Four-Wheel Drive” actually means, how it works, and why you might need to be driving a Four-Wheel Drive vehicle.
What is Four-Wheel Drive? (4WD, 4×4, etc.)
Four-Wheel Drive vehicles are specifically designed to conquer poor or off-road conditions, such as:
- slippery hills
While most vehicles rely on sending torque (or, power) to just two wheels, Four-Wheel Drive vehicles allow all four wheels to receive torque from the engine at the same time. While this leads to poorer fuel economy and a heavier vehicle, the trade-off is being able to tackle even the most difficult conditions.
This means more traction, less slipping and sliding, and more control.
(Another note on the Idiocy of Auto Industry Naming Conventions: Four-Wheel Drive, 4WD, Four by Four, and 4×4 all–frustratingly–mean the same thing. They’re completely interchangeable. We know, it’s stupid.)
How Does Four-Wheel Drive Work?
The default setting of any Four-Wheel Drive vehicle is actually Two-Wheel Drive. For the majority of 4WD vehicles, Four-Wheel Drive is actually driver-activated.
In muddy, snowy, or rocky conditions, you can switch to four-wheel control in order to gain much needed extra traction. If Four-Wheel Drive was active all the time, the poor fuel economy would render it obsolete. Luckily, you get to decide when and where to take advantage of it.
Here’s how it works.
When the driver switches to Four-Wheel Drive, the power from the transmission gets sent to what’s called the transfer case. This splits the power (or transfers it) to both the front and rear axles so that you can get maximum torque out of all four wheels. This means double the surface area, double the traction, double the power and control.
What does this mean during slippery or off-road conditions?
Snow – It’s hard for a Two-Wheel Drive vehicle to push itself through snow because the traction available is limited. With only two wheels doing the work, there simply isn’t enough torque available once the wheels start slipping. With 4WD vehicles, you have twice the surface area and twice the power, making it twice as easy to avoid (or correct) snowy slides.
Off-Road – If you’re driving off-road, you’re probably going to run into situations that decrease traction (like driving through water or mud). Luckily, Four-Wheel Drive vehicles offer that extra boost of power and traction to allow you to drive through rivers, mud, and over big rocks. In short, they help get you out of trouble.
Do You Need a Four-Wheel Drive Vehicle?
The biggest difference between Four-Wheel Drive vehicles and All-Wheel Drive vehicles is this: 4WD is designed for people who know they’re going into poor driving conditions (like mud or rocks), and AWD vehicles are designed for people who have poor driving conditions thrust upon them (snow, ice, etc.).
If you’re the type of person who uses their vehicle for city driving, you probably don’t need a Four-Wheel Drive vehicle. But if you like to put yourself in more adventurous scenarios, Four-Wheel Drive is probably the way to go.
- Best possible traction in off-road conditions
- Can be turned off to improve fuel economy (because 4WD drains fuel economy when active)
- Proven, rugged technology
- Adds weight and complexity to your vehicle
- Can’t be used in all conditions
- More expensive than two wheel drive models
What’s your favorite 4WD vehicle? Where do you use it, and how does it help? Do you have any tips or tricks for new (or prospective) 4WD drivers?