The Main Benefit Of Driving A Four-Wheel-Drive Vehicle

Benefits of Driving a 4WD vehicle
Benefits of Driving a 4WD Vehicle

I’ve owned a few Four-wheel-drive, All Wheel Drive and 2 Wheel drive vehicles in my life. I’ve owned Petrol, Diesel, Manual, Auto(Standard), Normally aspirated as well as forced induction Turbocharged variants of them. One thing is for sure, and that is the 4WD holds many advantages and benefits over a 2WD. This article will discuss the many benefits as well as the disadvantages of a Four Wheel Drive (4WD) vehicle.

What is the main benefit of driving a Four Wheel Drive Vehicle? Four-Wheel Drives offer superior traction in challenging on-road and off-road conditions such as mud, snow, ice, sand, rocks, steep uneven hills, challenging surfaces and many other low traction terrains. A 4WD makes remote travel possible allowing you to conquer challenging and technical terrain with confidence. 4WD affords you the opportunity to experience history, wildlife, culture, and unique scenery. 4WD makes driving on rough and slippery terrain safer because it sends power to all 4 wheels which increases traction by spreading the load across all wheels.

Now that we know what a Four Wheel Drive has to offer, let’s discuss the advantages of owning a 4WD in more detail. It’s not just all positive with 4WD vehicles and if you are in the market for a 4WD vehicle, you might want to read further. Being informed about the potential advantages and disadvantages of owning a 4WD will help you make an educated, well-informed decision which will make your choice heaps easier when deciding which 4WD will best suit your needs. If you would like to know more about the Advantages of a 4WD, continue reading…

Four-Wheel Drive Advantages

My Land Rover LR3 TDV6 and my Mate Pierre in his Toyota Hilux D4D 3.0 Turbo.
We did a multi-day beach trip on the West Coast through thick sand, mud and ruts with ease.

Most vehicles that are produced for off-road applications are either equipped with a Permanent 4WD system or non-permanent 4WD system. These vehicles are purpose-built and can easily cover rough uneven terrain where two wheels can easily lose contact with the ground surface and leave you stranded. When axles are locked and all 4 wheels are engaged in 4H the traction greatly improves and the vehicle can drive out of that tricky situation.

Let’s explore some of the advantages first

  • Four-wheel drives offer superior grip and traction over a variety of surfaces.
  • Power is also utilized better since all 4 wheels are propelled in 4WD giving you a more sure-footed and confident feel.
  • When conquering challenging terrains such as mud, snow, rocks and other difficult driving environments the 4WD comes into its own by maintaining traction under a variety of low traction surfaces.
  • The additional weight the body on frame chassis brings is actually a grip advantage when going off-road.

(I wrote an article about the pros and cons of a body on frame vs monocoque chassis. You can read it here)

Advanced 4WD Technology
4WD vehicles have evolved drastically over the years and manufacture like Land Rover and Jeep have spearheaded the technical evolution of this segment. For example, Land Rover has the Terrain response systems incorporated into their luxury SUV Four Wheel Drives. This is a highly sophisticated electronic system that controls the behavior of the vehicle over various surfaces. This gives the driver much more options to set the vehicle up perfectly for the specific terrain he is driving on. This system can make a novice off-road driver look like a pro since the intelligent software makes all the correct throttle, ride height and other traction adjustments for you, at a simple flick of a button.

  • 4WD advanced traction affords it the ability to climb out steep uneven hills and slippery mountain tracks a 2WD could never attempt. 
  • Power is sent to all 4 wheels which gives a 4WD a huge advantage over a Two Wheel Drive derivative.
  • The 4WD capability drastically decreases the risk of the vehicle becoming temporary immobile … aka stuck, since differentials can be locked for added grip during slippery, uneven, cross-axle terrain allowing you to drive out.
  • Cornering is also superior as the power is equally transferred to all wheels allowing the load to be reduced on each wheel
  • Engine compression braking is improved as it works in conjunction with the 4WD drive-train allowing you to descend loose slippery surfaces with ease and in full control. 
  • Most modern 4WD’s have technology like hill descent control and hill climb assist as standard.

If you live in a part of the world that receives regular thick snowfall during winter, an AWD or 4WD will be perfectly suited for those conditions.  They offer the following advantages in snow and ice-clad roads.

(I wrote an article about the differences between AWD and 4WD and which is a better option for snow conditions. You can read it here)

  1. In a 4WD you have more confidence to travel on low traction surfaces like snow and ice
  2. Because power is transmitted evenly across all 4 wheels the amount of grip you have on snow is double that of a 2WD
  3. 4WD is more balanced and sure-footed on slippery roads since power is distributed evenly.
  4. You can confidently pull-off from a standstill without spinning your wheels
  5. The higher driving position allows you better visibility over traffic
  6. High ground clearance offers a good vantage point to spot danger up ahead
  7. The excellent ground clearance allows you to drive over instead of through thick snow with ease.
  8. 4WD offers excellent straight-line stability due to the superior grip offered on multiple surfaces
  9. Offers a sense of safety and confidence to explore uncharted territory more comfortably

Four-Wheel Drive Disadvantages

Four-wheel drives are not the holy grail of the motor world unfortunately and it all comes with a trade-off. Below are some of the disadvantages I’ve noted 4WD’s to have over conventional two-wheel drives

  • Heavy body on frame chassis results in higher fuel consumption
  • The body on Frame construction is not as safe as monocoque SUV’s (Although the safety of Ladder Frame Utes has greatly improved in the last few years)
  • Hi center of gravity negatively affects your overall MPG and results in higher wind noise inside the cabin
  • Bigger longer vehicles are not easy to maneuver and parking in shopping mall lots, as well as city driving, can be tricky in areas where roads are narrow
  • Bigger vehicles take longer to stop
  • More components to service make for increased service costs
  • More expensive purchase price over 2WD vehicles
  • Higher maintenance costs as they are purpose-built and some require specialized components and tools to repair
  • Ladder frame 4WD’s do not offer good on-road handling in terms of body roll and cornering dynamics.

All Wheel Drive Advantages and Disadvantages

AWD AdvantagesAWD Disadvantages
The vehicles traction is governed and managed automatically Most modern AWD Cannot drive in 2H if a drive shaft breaks, leaving you stranded.
AWD requires less driver input
to maintain traction across a
variety of road surfaces.
More expensive to repair
Can drive across a mixed traction
surface such as half snow and
dry tarmac roads
More drive-line components to
service resulting in higher service 
costs
Permanently engaged in 4H mode for superior tractionMore sophisticated drive-line
systems which increase the initial
purchase cost
Many manufactures allow the
driver torque splitting options
by manually flicking a button
Much better control and traction
over 2WD front and rear wheel
vehicles in snow and other low
traction surfaces
More even tire wear compared to
rear and front wheel drive vehicles
Gives you more confidence to
drive faster (55-65+ MPH) in a
variety of conditions without
concerns of damaging the
drive-train system.

How Does AWD Work?

This system is permanently in 4H mode and cannot be changed to 2H where only the rear wheels are propelled. Some manufacturers incorporate a center diff-lock function which allows the driver to manually lock the front and rear driveshafts in place to propel as a single unit. Most traditional AWD does not have Low Range (4Lo) functionality. AWD is usually managed by a computerized system which controls the power split ratios. Power is fed to each wheel and certain vehicle AWD systems allow power splits to be adjusted on the fly by the driver i.e. 50/50% or 70/30% split etc.

Other AWD systems function automatically and adjust the power splits once the computer senses traction is lost on either front or rear axles. Manufacturers make use of various torque splitting methods such as torsion splits, viscous coupling or electronic clutch mechanisms etc. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

What is better 4WD or AWD?

A Four Wheel Drive (4WD) is optimized and designed for challenging driving conditions like rock-climbing, fording deep rivers, and conquering steep hills with loose, low traction surfaces.  The fact is that many 4WD owners seldom need this extreme capability that a 4WD offers unless you are a serious off-road enthusiast. 

With that being said, in many cases, an AWD vehicle does not have the high ground clearance offered by a 4WD UTE or SUV. This means when snow conditions get really bad your AWD might not have enough clearance to plow through thick snow and you might find yourself bogged. There is very little benefit of all four your wheels turning without enough traction or ground clearance to clear the obstacle.  

When Should I Use 4WD?

4 Wheel Drive Mode is a very powerful function of a 4WD and allows you to accomplish feats no 2WD ever could. You engage 4WD to get you through soft sand, over tall sand dunes, up steep hills and down difficult mountain tracks. It will even get you through deep mud or snow, and it’ll help you drive over boulders and deep ruts with ease. Use it wisely and your 4WD will, not only take you to many amazing places, but also bring you back home safely. The lower 4-Lo gears improve your 4×4’s capabilities because it uses the vehicles engine braking, which helps to control your progress and speed going downhill. This allows for more controlled handling without placing all the stress on the brakes alone.

Each and every off-road situation or obstacle needs to be carefully calculated and assessed by you before you decide to tackle it. However, a good rule of thumb is always to judge the speed vs the difficulty you are required to succeed. Always remember “As slow as possible and as fast and necessary”, no more, no less. Generally, if you cannot engage 4-Hi 2nd or 3rd gear to cross an obstacle or if you feel the obstacle will place too much mechanical stress on your vehicle then you are better off engaging 4-lo and rather take it slow and steady by utilizing maximum torque.

Engage 4WD mode under the following conditions:

  • Loose beach sand
  • Thick mud
  • High Sand Dunes
  • Steep loose Inclines
  • Long tricky declines
  • Deep River crossings.

Is AWD or 4WD better in Snow?

For snow driving conditions an AWD with good winter tires should perform just as well as a 4WD since most modern AWD have advanced electronic traction aids to assist the driver. These electronic aids manage and automatically adjust the torque split accordingly, thus making them very capable in snow and ice driving conditions, with less driver input required. Many traditional 4WD vehicles are more basic since they are better suited for heavy off-road conditions where complex vehicle electronics are not favored. Modern 4WD Utes and SUV’s are, however, becoming more sophisticated and incorporate various electronic aids (standard since 2012) to assist the 4WD system in snow, mud and other challenging driving conditions. The key to safe snow driving is to adjust your driving style accordingly and fit winter tires for good traction in snowy conditions.

Differences between 2 Wheel Drive and 4 Wheel Drive

2WD
Two-wheel drive is when the vehicle is propelled by only 2 wheels. This can be either the two front or the two rear wheels. A two-wheel-drive vehicle can be in the form of a front-wheel-drive or a rear-wheel-drive vehicle. Two-wheel drive vehicles have no center differential or transfer box or diff lockers or low range. Many modern 2 Wheel drive vehicles have ESP and Traction control to maintain traction on roads. A two-wheel-drive car’s engine can be mounted in the front or in the rear of the vehicle. If it is a front-mounted engine and it is a front-wheel-drive (eg, Toyota Corolla) then there will be no drive-shaft but rather front side shafts. However, if it is a front-mounted engine and rear-wheel drive (eg. BMW Sedan) then it will have a rear differential and a drive-shaft. Most sports cars are rear-mounted engines and rear-wheel drive.

4WD
Four Wheel Drive means the vehicle is propelled by all 4 wheels when it is in 4H mode. Usually, 4WD vehicles are driven in 2H which propels the rear wheels only. 4H is only meant to be engaged under low traction surfaces and never on dry roads or the highway. Power is sent to all 4 wheels by means of the transfer box which is situated in the middle of the vehicle. A front and the rear driveshaft is connected from the transfer box to the front and rear differentials. Some SUV’s are permanent 4WD which means they are permanently in 4H. This means power is constantly sent to all 4 wheels and it cannot be turned off. The transfer box has a center differential which allows the front and rear driveshaft to rotate at different speeds when cornering to compensate for the difference in path lengths that the inner and outer wheels travel while cornering.

Does 4WD help you Stop?

No 4WD does not help you stop. In fact, 4WD might take longer to stop than a 2WD vehicle since it weighs more due to the additional drive train components and extra differentials. A 4WD will have better engine breaking compression when descending steep hills in 4H over a 2WD since all 4 wheels have traction and make use of the drive train to assist the vehicle to maintain traction while descending.

Is it Worth Getting 4WD?

If you live in parts of the world that experiences heavy snow during winter or where you often have to travel on gravel roads then you should strongly consider getting a 4WD. They are safer and more sure-footed than a similar vehicle in 2WD. 4WD will give you that additional functionality to travel to remote places where traction is low and surfaces are slippery and uneven. It will also assist you if you get bogged in snow or mud. A 4WD is more expensive to purchase due to the extra functionality and built-in technology. It is also more costly to repair when it breaks. Servicing and maintaining a 4WD is not much more than a 2WD under normal circumstances. Also, 4WD use more fuel due to extra weight, ride height and drive train components.
You need to assess your situation and determine if a 4WD is the correct option for your application.

Conclusion

There are multiple reasons why a Four Wheel Drive is beneficial to own. Increased safety under challenging driving conditions being the main benefit. It does, however, comes at a price since the initial purchase price is higher than a 2WD of the same make. Also, you will get less MPG with a 4WD than a 2WD so you’ll pay at the pumps.

Maintenance costs are higher and it could be a bit challenging to maneuver around shopping mall parking lots. IT, however, does open up opportunities to explore this beautiful planet with confidence by allowing traction in otherwise undrivable conditions. It gives you a sense of adventure and allows you the confidence to drive anywhere at any season of the year.

However, If you never leave the city and are not an outdoors person, don’t bother! You are better off with a 2WD, but boy are you missing out on life!!!

Happy 4 Wheeling and remember, safety first!!!

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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