Does 4×4 Use More Fuel?

When you want a 4×4 truck, you know that you’re not going to get the same fuel economy as a little light-duty crossover. 

When your truck has a big, hardy frame to handle heavy payloads and big trailers; an extra-sturdy suspension to handle challenging off-road conditions; and power running to all four wheels, gas mileage will suffer. 

What’s more, most of today’s true four-wheel-drive vehicles are big, presenting another fuel-efficiency hurdle.

The good news is, today’s advanced powertrains are turning even some 4×4 trucks into fuel-sippers. While promised electric trucks aren’t available yet, more trucks are employing diesel engines — which provide the dual benefit of excellent fuel efficiency and towing-friendly torque. 

Others have also improved their gas mileage by reducing weight, adding speeds to their transmissions, and tweaking their gasoline engines for enhanced efficiency. For today’s article, we’ve rounded up the ten most fuel-efficient 4×4 trucks: six pickups and four highly capable four-wheel-drive SUVs. Let’s get started.

How many times have you had someone say to you their 4WD is only getting 500km out of a tank of fuel? What does that mean to you? 

How big is the fuel tank, and how far are they running it down? What size engine, tyres, and driving habits do they have? Were they doing 90km/h on flat ground, or sitting on 110km/h up and down hills on cruise control? 

Fuel economy varies wildly depending on where and how you are driving. You can easily monitor your fuel economy every time you fill up; it takes a few seconds to do!

It is very useful to keep an eye on your fuel economy, as you can plan your fuel stops for future 4WD trips, ensure the vehicle is running as it should and understand how different conditions can change your fuel consumption.

Is Your Speedometer Correct?

The first thing you should do is ensure that your speedometer is correct. If you have changed tyre sizes, there’s a good chance it won’t be! If your speedo is not correct, your trip meter won’t be either.

You can do this one of two ways; drive along with a GPS at 100km on the speedometer and see what the GPS says (less accurate), or drive 100km on the vehicles trip meter, and see how many km you have done according to the GPS.

There will be a difference if you have changed tyre sizes as the bigger the tyre, the fewer revolutions per kilometre it will do, compared to the original tyres on the vehicle. This puts your speedo out. 

For people that have gone from 265’s to 285’s (or 31’s to 33’s) your speedo is usually out by 5 – 10%. Fitting bigger tyres to your 4WD usually results in worse fuel economy. How much, is dependant on many factors; see the link for more information.

For our 80 series, 100km on the trip meter is about 105km – it’s out by 5% due to the larger diameter tyres.

Once you understand the difference in your speedo, you can work your fuel economy out every time you fill-up. Simply remember to add 5% of your trip meter to the reading, and you can get an accurate economy figure.

Buying A Diesel Vs Petrol For Your Next 4wd

One of the biggest decisions when buying your next 4wd will be… Petrol or Diesel? There’s a lot of hype around 4wding that says a “proper” 4wd must have a diesel engine. 

Before you jump in and throw down your hard-earned cash, there are some good arguments for having a petrol engine. Let’s see some unbiased comparisons and discuss the pro’s and con’s in the age-old Petrol VS Diesel debate…

Although many diehard 4wders and long time diesel owners will disagree, there are advantages and disadvantages to both fuel types. 

There’s no definitive answer on which one is the best, but at the end of the day, this article will help you make up your mind on what’s right for you and your budget.

Purchasing A 4wd

The first thing you’ll notice when comparing diesel 4wd’s with petrol 4wd’s is that the diesel will often cost you an extra $1,000-$3,000 premium on top of the regular petrol model price. 

This is before a turbocharged model is thrown into the arena! Both used and new markets see a radical price difference with the petrol engine always being slightly cheaper. This is due to the additional manufacturing costs of diesel engines. 

The extra complexity of turbocharger systems also adds to the purchase cost. Types of diesel often hold their value longer in a used car market, and this is something to consider for the long term.

Power & Performance

It is common for people to think that the diesel model will be slower than the petrol vehicle. This is mostly true when the two vehicles are pitted against one another in a straight line. 

A turbo model vehicle will have a lot better performance, but it is to be noted that the downside of turbo lag often makes a vehicle feel sluggish to drive around town.

Newer turbo engines are becoming more and more powerful and can often keep up with the performance of petrol vehicles, and this is something to consider.

The biggest advantage comes when off-road. In a diesel vehicle, you will have plenty of low rev torque. This means when you are crawling over rocks and obstacles, it is very difficult to stall. A petrol vehicle will often require much higher revs to maintain momentum uphill and over obstacles.

For sand and beach driving, these differences often fade, and both types of vehicles will have similar performance.

Engine Braking

The diesel engine has another distinct advantage off-road. The design of a diesel engine means that it sucks in air unrestricted at all times. The amount of fuel injected into the engine is what determines how much power/rpm the engine makes.

A petrol engine requires a constant fuel/air mix, and a throttle butterfly plate regulates the amount of air in the intake.

When using engine compression to help downhill braking, the compression ratio of 20:1 for most types of diesel compared to 9:1 of most petrol engines, the diesel offers far greater resistance to an increase in RPM. 

This resistance is caused by the large amounts of air being drawn in by the diesel engine while idling/crawling down a hill or descent.

The petrol engine will have its intake butterfly closed and will not draw very much air during downhill engine braking. This is why a petrol engine will tend to run away when compared to diesel.

Vehicle Maintenance

Diesel vehicles require far more frequent maintenance than a petrol-engined vehicle. Typically types of diesel should have their oil changed every 5,000 km and an oil filter every 10,000 km. 

The maintenance and repair of a diesel engine can be costly when things like turbocharger seals start leaking, or the diesel fuel pump requires replacing.

The cost of these regular services will eventually outweigh the less frequent petrol services.

When off-road, the diesel engine has more parts that can potentially break or break down. A petrol engine requires less spare parts to be carried and can often be repaired enough to get to the nearest service centre for a proper fix. 

That being said, if an alternator breaks down in a fuel-injected petrol engine, you won’t make it very far off the battery alone. Diesel will continue running without its alternator no problem.

Fuel Economy

The diesel is the outright winner in this category. With an average of 20-50% better economy, it will easily go further on one tank of gas. 

This range may help you in the outback of Australia where it could be a long drive between petrol stations!

Diesel is a safer fuel, given its lower volatility. For example, petrol can be ignited almost 20m away from an uncapped tank because of its vapour trail. This can be problematic when refuelling a vehicle next to a campfire.

Exhaust Temperature

Once again, due to the diesel’s design, its exhaust temperature is around 200 degrees Celsius lower than a petrol engine. While in on-road driving this isn’t much of a problem, off-road it has lead to major catastrophes. 

A typical problem in outback Aussie 4WDriving is the dry spinifex type grass that grows in the middle of tracks. 

This gets caught up in all areas, especially exhausts, and has been the cause of many fires. Many a 4WD has been lost this way. Diesel is not immune to this problem, but petrol is at a far higher risk due to its hotter exhaust temperature.

Water Rating

4WDrives and water crossings tend to go hand in hand and its no surprise that a diesel shines again. 

Provided that water does not get into the air intake (or fuel tank), a diesel will operate underwater. When a petrol engine is subjected to this torture, it will invariably fail due to the electrics shorting out. Typically the sparkplug leads will short out, or the distributor will fail.

However, while petrol tends to stall before any damage is done, a diesel will suffer major internal damage if water gets into the air intake. 

With its 20:1 compression ratio, only a very small amount of water will cause the dramatic failure of a diesel engine.

Petrol is not so prone to this as it does not draw in as much air (hence less water) and only has a 9:1 compression. Thus any water that is drawn in isn’t subjected to as high a compression.

In practice, a diesel engine comes through most water crossings easily where a petrol engine often splutters its way through with intermittent shorting of the electrics. A well-prepared petrol engine will minimise this, but not eliminate it.

Most Fuel-efficient 4×4 Trucks And Suvs

Chevrolet Colorado

We’re back to diesel for the next most efficient pickup truck: the mid-size Chevrolet Colorado (and its mechanical twin, the GMC Canyon). 

With the optional 2.8-litre Duramax turbodiesel four-cylinder engine, which makes 181 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque, Colorado reaches EPA scores of 19 mpg city, 28 mpg highway, and 22 mpg combined with four-wheel-drive. It also edges out the competing Ford Ranger for maximum towing capacity, at 7,600 lbs (again, with four-wheel-drive).

Colorado’s conventional gas-powered engines — a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder and 3.6-litre V6 — aren’t efficiency standouts but remain competitive in the mid-size pickup class. The EPA rates them at 21 mpg and 19 mpg, respectively, with 4WD. Colorado’s comfortable cabin and smooth ride further its appeal.

Chevrolet Silverado 1500

When equipped with its optional Duramax turbodiesel inline six-cylinder engine, the 2020 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 (and its mechanical twin, the GMC Sierra 1500) is the most fuel-efficient 4×4 pickup truck in America. 

This engine makes 277 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque and achieves an EPA-estimated 23 mpg in the city, 29 mpg on the highway, and 25 mpg overall on a four-wheel-drive Silverado. 

That’s better than Chevy’s Impala sedan or the more powerful version of its Equinox compact crossover — and from a full-size pickup truck that can tow more than 9,000 pounds and seat five adults in spacious comfort.

Other Silverado engines are fairly thrifty, too, thanks to eight- and 10-speed automatic transmissions and extensive weight loss during a recent redesign. 

The 4WD Silverado manages a still-great 20 mpg in mixed driving with its available 2.7-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine and, even more impressively, up to 19 mpg with its 5.3-litre V8.

Ford F-150

Next in our roundup of the most fuel-efficient 4×4 trucks is the third big name from the full-size half-ton pickup class. 

That’s the F-150, part of the best-selling F-Series line. And it’s also available with a 3.0-litre turbodiesel V6 engine that helps it deliver remarkable fuel efficiency for its size. In this case, the F-150’s 3.0-liter Power Stroke engine makes 250 hp and 440 lb-ft of torque, while achieving up to 21 mpg in the city, 28 mpg on the highway, and 24 mpg overall with four-wheel-drive.

Aside from the diesel, the F-150 famously brought aluminium body panels and small-displacement turbocharged engines to the full-size pickup segment. These “EcoBoost” motors include a 2.7-litre V6 capable of 20 mpg in mixed driving with 4WD and a 3.5-litre V6 with up to 19 mpg in mixed driving with 4WD.

Ford Ranger

The most fuel-efficient 4×4 pickup truck with a non-diesel engine is another EcoBoost Ford: the mid-size Ranger, which is sold only with a 2.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder. 

This engine produces a hearty 270 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque and scores EPA ratings of 20 mpg in the city, 24 mpg on the highway, and 22 mpg combined with four-wheel-drive — all on affordable, easy-to-find regular-grade gasoline. 

It also manages a best-in-class payload of up to 1,860 pounds and can tow up to 7,500 pounds, depending on the configuration.

The Ranger recently returned to the U.S. market after a seven-year hiatus, and it’s bigger, more capable, and more high-tech than its predecessor, though much smaller than an F-150 or its half-ton competitors. 

Although the new Ranger costs more than before and doesn’t have the class’s smoothest on-road driving manners, its powerful yet fuel-efficient engine is a clear standout.

Ram 1500

The 2020 RAM 1500 EcoDiesel slips in just behind the competing Silverado on the spec sheet. This 3.0-litre V6 makes 260 hp and 480 lb-ft of torque while managing EPA estimates of 21 mpg in the city, 29 mpg on the highway, and 24 mpg overall with four-wheel-drive. 

Blame the Ram’s extra weight compared to the Silverado, though it went to a good cause — an extra-smooth ride and extra-lavish cabin.

The Ram EcoDiesel can also out-tow its competitors, at least in the right configuration, with stellar ratings of up to 12,560 pounds. (Most trim levels max out in the still-impressive 9,000s.) 

If you’d rather stick to standard gasoline, you can also get the 4×4 Ram with a 21-mpg 3.6-litre V6 or a 5.7-litre V8 capable of up to 19 mpg in mixed driving.

There is a myth that driving on a wet surface in 4×4 high range is safer. Not only will this use lots more fuel, but it is also not good for the vehicle to travel constantly at the low speeds that low range permits you to drive at. The only time it is advisable is if the road is extremely wet and speeds are reduced dramatically.

Tyre pressure plays a major role in fuel consumption, and drivers should pay particular attention to ensuring the pressures are correct for the work the vehicle is doing. The softer the tyres, the higher the rolling resistance, and that can affect the consumption by as much as 10%.

While a roof rack may add to the aesthetic appeal of your vehicle, it is deadly in terms of consumption. If you held a plank with the same dimension as the leading edge of the roof rack out of the window at speed, it would be ripped out of your hands. 

Each crossbar adds resistance squared so, if you double the speed, the resistance is 4x greater! Rather stick to the basic rule – if you do not need one, do not fit one!

When travelling with a fully laden vehicle, the tyre pressures again come into play and it vital to ensure they are correctly inflated, and you are in the right gear for the terrain to minimise fuel use as much as possible.      

Add-ons such as winches and bull bars or roll bars all affect fuel consumption as they add mass to the vehicle and affect the aerodynamics by increasing the wind resistance – and do remember that every kilogram of weight you add to your 4×4, reduces the load capacity by that amount.

Your loading capacity has to include all accessories, including the weight of the bigger tyres than those originally specified, plus the weight of the fuel, water, your equipment, and the passengers. It is illegal to overload your vehicle, and it could cause you problems in the case of an insurance claim.

Maximising fuel consumption while driving a 4×4 has to be a conscious decision by the driver, backed up by doing the simple things right every time the vehicle is started. The savings achieved might not be immediately noticeable but will add up over time.

Now, you have to decide what’s important – modifications, where and how you drive or fuel economy. You can’t have a decked-out 4WD and the best possible fuel economy; it’s one or the other.

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