4×4 vs 4×2 Off-road Capabilities (+Fuel Consumption)

Have you ever wondered how capable a 4×2 is compared to a 4×4 and if it really is worth forking out the extra dough for that extra short lever or 4×4 dial? Is 4×4 overrated or merely a sales gimmick, and how often would you use the said functionality? How does 4×4 engineering affect your vehicle’s fuel consumption? These are some of the questions you might ask if you are in the market for an off-road-ready vehicle or, you might already own a 4×2 and are thinking about expanding your travels into more remote, challenging conditions and would simply like to know if a 4×2 has adequate off-road capabilities.

Simply put, a 4×2 can venture on uneven gravel tracks with small obstacles, however, it can never safely venture where a 4×4 can. Even with upgraded tires, suspension and rear diff lockers on a 4×2, you will risk major damage and a breakdown with your prised possession when attempting to drive any challenging 4×4 tracks only with limited 4×2 capabilities.

But why is this the case? What makes the 4×4 so much more off-road capable than the 4×2? Why ever drive a 4×2, and what was the intended use of the 4×2 when designed by vehicle manufacturers?

If you’d like to know more about the 4×4 vs the 4×2 then read on…

4×2 Off-road Capabilities

There is a saying in the 4×4 communities that goes, “real life begins where the tar road ends”. Well, what exactly does that mean? Well, to me it means once I leave the tarmac and hit the gravel/dirt roads, I immediately engage 4×4 H and enjoy the beautiful natural surroundings without worrying too much about my vehicle’s abilities to keep me safe.

Why do you engage 4×4 when it’s only a gravel/dirt road? Simply because YOU CAN! Meaning, your vehicle has the engineering built in to be able to drive on these roads with slightly less risk of losing traction. You might not need it, but you have it, so use it.

With that being said, a 4×2 obviously does not have this engineering built-in because the vehicle is propelled only by the rear wheels. There are quite a few components missing in a 4×2 compared to a 4×4. These components mean the difference between only having traction on your rear wheels vs all 4 wheels at any given time.

So what is the engineering difference between a 4×4 and a 2×4? Below is a list of the main components:

  1. Transfer case
  2. Front Driveshaft
  3. Front diff lockers (optional)
  4. Front traction control (optional)
  5. Centre diff lock

Now, this might not sound like a lot of engineering but it makes a heck of a difference when the going gets rough, believe me.

In 4×4 mode, you have power being split between the front and the rear 50/50%. The power will be sent to the wheels with the least resistance at any given point. The diffs in the front and rear will in turn split and manage that transfer of power to each wheel. So in 4WD mode, you have the front wheels pulling while the rear wheels are pushing, thus creating a very stable driving experience on uneven, dirt, muddy or snowy roads.

What’s the catch? Well, the only downside is a slight increase in fuel consumption once 4WD is engaged, however, it’s a small price to pay for your safety and off-road capability.

Next, we’ll investigate if you can attempt to off-road with a 4×2 under certain conditions.

Can I off-road in a 4×2?

So we’ve established the 4×4 has a very big advantage over its 4×2 counterparts. They are more stable and offer more traction on dirt, sand, snow, and rocks over a 4×2 of the same make and model. Assuming we are comparing apples with apples.

With that being said, I would strongly advise owners of 4×2 to stick to gravel/dirt roads and improve safety slightly by immediately lowering your tire pressure and adjusting your driving style accordingly. Avoid all thick sand like beaches or dunes at all cost as you won’t get very far even with the fattest tires deflated to 0.8 bar.

As for rock crawling, that’s just a complete no-go since you need the front to pull you up and over large obstacles while the rear pushes. When there are cross axle obstacles that even challenge a 4×4 with open diffs, the 4×2 won’t make it very far, even in the most skilled of hands.

So is it all doom and gloom with your 4×2? Does it not hold any trump cards over the 4×4?

To find out where the 4×2 is superior read further

4×2 vs 4×4 pros and cons

So we’ve established engineering differences, off-road capabilities, and safety. Is there any area a 4×2 is better than a 4×4? The answer is yes.

See a 4×2 is a lot lighter than a 4×4 since it lacks quite a few beefy components like drive shafts, transfer cases, and diffs. That means they usually have a higher towing capacity to a 4×4 and that translates directly into improved fuel consumption too.

So if you need the vehicle to carry a load or tow a trailer or caravan, the 4×2 is your best option, especially if your plan is never to venture off the beaten track.

And at the rate of fuel increases these days, I’d say that’s a pretty substantial advantage.

Is 4×2 good in snow

It’s pretty safe to say a 4×2 can suffice in snow however where it could be exposed is on icey roads where it becomes slick and super slippery. Your driving technique on snow plays a major role here.

There are a few things you need to consider when driving in snow with a 4×2 for example:

1. Engine braking

2. Tires

3. When to use your rear locker (if fitted with one)

4. Stopping Distance

5. Weight in the rear

6. Incline Parking

let’s delve into the above in more detail

Engine Braking

So engine breaking can really assist you if used correctly. Avoid abrupt clutch engagement and release especially on inclines and declines where the vehicle weight is drastically shifted. If you are too aggressive on the clutch you could break loose the rear of your 4×2 resulting in sideways skidding.

Tires

Tires play such a massive role in snow driving irrespective if you drive a 4×2, 4×4 or AWD vehicle. Understanding how temperature affects your tires’ performance is crucial. Remember an All-season tire will never ever perform as well as a winter-only rubber. The all-season tires in anything below 15F become like smooth airplane tires in soft thick snow offering very little traction. That’s simply because of the rubber compound and the tread block design that offers very little grip in snow and icy roads.

That’s where your winter only tires are far superior because they are constructed of a softer rubber compound which is more pliable at much lower temperatures. The deeply siped tread blocks and softer rubber compound is what offers superior traction in snow. So a 4×2 with winter only or snow tires can actually outperform a 4×4 with All-terrain all-season tires.

4×2 Rear Locker

So what about a rear locker on a 4×2, will that improve your traction? The answer is yes and no. See, when you engage the rear locker, you essentially connect the rear driveshafts to operate as a single unit. This means the locker keeps both wheels turning at the same rate of speed. This is good when you are trying to get unstuck or if you are driving in a straight line. \

However, when you are cornering you definitely DO NOT want your rear locker engaged. This is because the rotational speed of the inside wheel taking a corner is vastly slower to the outer wheel in the same corner and with a locker engaged, traction will be broken causing slippage or drifting. Now if you have a winter-only tire that offers superior grip, you could seriously damage something, like a rear driveshaft, snap a u-joint or break a side-shaft.

Stopping Distance

So we’ve established that the most important component which will determine how fast you will stop, or accelerate is ultimately your tires. However, increasing your stopping distance will greatly increase your safety and avoid skidding. Using engine braking in conjunction with your foot brake will allow the vehicle to come to a gradual stop, and is your best approach. Violent stomping on the brakes or aggressive releasing of the clutch should be avoided at all costs. Always make sure you keep enough distance between your 4×2 and the vehicle ahead.

Weight in the Rear

So physics plays a major role when we drive a 4×2 with light or unladen rear. This is because it becomes easier for the rear to lose traction on a bend since the rear is propelling the vehicle forward and traction can easily be lost when there is little weight to keep the rubber onto the ground. Especially when pulling off, the back end of an unladen 4×2 truck will want to swing around on you, so be careful.

To counter this we can simply add weight to the rear tray. It will slow down your acceleration but improve traction. Other factors to keep in mind with a laden rear tray of your 4×2 is stopping distance and lateral traction. You would do well to find a wide-open space to mimic skidding by inducing drifting to see at what point traction is lost. This will give you a better idea of your 4×2’s traction and its breaking points.

Incline Parking

Parking on an incline or decline with your 4×2 is risky and not advised. If you get stuck in that position, backing out becomes a real challenge. If you need to back out on an incline the rear locking diff helps a lot if you’re losing traction. You want to avoid any wheel spinning, so once traction is lost stop and retry. Locking the diff and accelerating slowly usually does the trick.

Which is better 4×4 or 4×2

So this begs the question then, which is better a 4×4 or a 4×2? The straight answer is, it depends on what your application is. If you require a truck to load heavy cargo then opt for a 4×2. If you need to drive off-road and venture off the beaten track on tough slippery low traction terrain then get a 4×4.

If you need to tow a horsebox, trailer or heavy caravan and want the maximum towing capacity available, look at getting a 4×2 instead.

Need something spacious for traveling a long distance, get a 4×2. If you are more concerned about the fuel consumption, get a 4×2. 

Will you be driving through thick snow and icy roads, id say if you can afford it, get the 4×4 and I would opt for a permanent 4×4 instead of a part-time 4×4 since you can drive on the tarmac where conditions will vary between slippery and high traction with more ease and peace of mind.

Horses for courses, that’s all it is.

Conclusion

We’ve covered the engineering differences between 4×4 and 4×2, their off-road capabilities as well as the intended uses. There is nothing as the one is better than the other, however, a 4×4 does offer you more options in terms of driving ability and ruggedness. They are engineered to handle challenging terrains better with heavy loads.

If fuel consumption, cost of ownership, purchase price and towing is your priority then I’d say settle for a 4×2.

Your 4×4 will inevitably cost you more on the initial purchase, will have higher running costs and will be slightly thirstier at the pumps. The 4×4, on the other hand, does offer you more functionality and retains its resale value better.

You as the purchaser simply need to know what your requirements of the vehicle are and what your intended use is. Make sure you are honest with yourself when making this decision since it can turn out to be a very expensive mistake if you choose wrong, either way.

Jade C.

4-Wheel drives and off-road driving techniques has been my passion for over 20 years. Here we strive to provide the most accurate, up-to-date, information about the functionality, common faults and latest technology built into most 4 Wheel Drives.

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