What Does 4×4 Mean?

Most modern vehicles operate in either two-wheel-drive (4×2) or four-wheel-drive (4×4) mode. With two-wheel drive, only one axle receives 100 per cent of the vehicle’s torque power (it could be the front or rear, depending on the vehicle type). 

What does 4×4 mean? With four-wheel-drive mode, the vehicle delivers torque to both axles and all four wheels in one of several different ratios. 

However, the Seoul 2000 FISITA World Automotive Congress notes that no global terminology for these mechanisms exists. Instead, marketers use terms like all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive to describe the features of the vehicle rather than technical or engineering capabilities.

4×4, also known as 4-by-4 or four-wheel drive, refers to a system where a vehicle’s engine power is sent to all four wheels evenly so that they are all moving at the same speed. 

Made famous by the classic Willys Jeep, this type of setup is popular with outdoor and off-roading enthusiasts and is common on trucks and SUVs.

When it comes to how a vehicle moves its wheels, there are plenty of options: front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive. The 4×4 option often gets grouped in with all-wheel drive, though the two systems differ.

In a true 4WD system, the front axle and rear axle travel at identical speeds – this means that all four wheels are rotating at the same speed. 

This is ideal when travelling over very rough or uneven terrain at slow speeds, such as rock-crawling. But it does not work as well when travelling around corners. 

When a vehicle turns, the outside wheels are travelling at a different rotational speed than the inside wheels. 

If you are turning a four-wheel-drive vehicle, you will undoubtedly notice the wheels skip as the outside wheels try to play catch up with the inside wheels, particularly on dry pavement.

In an AWD car, on the other hand, the system allows the engine to send more power to the axle or wheel that are not slipping, meaning that they can travel at different speeds. 

For this reason, many modern all-wheel-drive systems are often referred to as electronic all-wheel drive. 

This means that an all-wheel-drive car can maintain traction with all four wheels around corners and at higher speeds than a traditional 4×4 system.

Whereas AWD cars are always in AWD mode, a four-wheel-drive vehicle usually has an on-demand system that requires the driver to engage the four-wheel-drive system. 

When not in four-wheel drive, the vehicle stays in two-wheel drive mode (the usually rear-wheel drive for a truck or SUV). 

Four-wheel drive vehicles often have two sets of four-wheel-drive gear ranges: 4 low, for lower speeds and climbing grades off-road, and four high, for higher speeds or on-road use.

If you own or are thinking of buying a 4×4, then you’ll have undoubtedly noticed that there are several ranges available to you. Unless you’re a car enthusiast or have some experience driving off-road you probably won’t understand what these ranges do, or even what they mean.

To help give you the best understanding of your 4×4, here is a simple and straightforward explanation of ranges and gear ratios:

If you own or are thinking of buying a 4×4, then you’ll have undoubtedly noticed that there are several ranges available to you. Unless you’re a car enthusiast or have some experience driving off-road you probably won’t understand what these ranges do, or even what they mean.

To help give you the best understanding of your 4×4, here is a simple and straightforward explanation of ranges and gear ratios:

What Does 4×4 Mean?

Generally-speaking, AWD, 4×4, or 4WD all refer to the drivetrain being set up to transfer engine power to all four wheels, but these terms are not interchangeable. 

Engine power goes through the transmission to a transfer case, which then transfers power to the front and rear axles, that is, all four wheels. 4×4 refers to a four-wheeled vehicle with four wheels powered, so a 6×6 Unimog would be a six-wheeled vehicle with six wheels powered, while a 6×4 Unimog would be a six-wheeled vehicle with only four wheels powered.

Benefits Of 4×4

Four wheels driving the vehicle has some major benefits when it comes to traction. On loose road surfaces, such as mud, gravel, sand, or rain, it is easier to maintain traction and forward momentum, as well as directional stability, with four wheels pulling. Even if one or two tires lose traction, the other tires can still pull. 

On the highway, four wheels driving makes cars especially manoeuvrable, and even sports cars use this technology to give their cars that extra boost in driving performance.

Keep this in mind when you see a 4×2 pickup truck, which is a four-wheeled vehicle with just two wheels powered, typically the rear, which would make it a rear-wheel-drive (RWD) pickup truck. 

The best way to describe the difference between AWD and 4WD is the centre differential or lack thereof, but let’s start with the differential.

What’s The Differential?

In each driven axle, a set of differential gears allows for the wheels to turn at different speeds. 

Driving straight ahead, the differential gears drive both the left and right wheels at the same speed. When going around a turn, however, the wheel on the outside of the turn will turn faster than the wheel on the inside of the turn. 

The differential gear allows for this. Otherwise, the tires would squeal around the turn, since one of them would have to skid to go the same speed as the other.

There are three kinds of differentials, open, limited-slip, and locking. Open differentials will allow one wheel to spin free if that tire loses traction, so no engine power will go to the opposite wheel, even if that tire as traction. 

A limited-slip differential is designed to prevent this from occurring, but not 100%. It is still open enough to allow for regular road travel. 

A locking differential is a kind of like eliminating the differential. In low-traction conditions, locking the differential sends the same amount of engine power to both wheels. Driving on the road with the differential locked, however, would lead to binding and scuffing around corners.

What Does Awd, Mean?

All-wheel drive or full-time four-wheel drive refers to a 4×4 drivetrain that cannot be disengaged. It is always working, but how? We already know that there are two differentials in a 4×4, one in each axle, both front and rear. 

When going around a turn, the front wheels go faster than the rear wheels, which is why, in an AWD transfer case, there is a third differential. As we learned, the differential allows for speed and power differences, in this case, between the front and rear axles. 

The centre differential is typical of the limited-slip type, which helps to maintain traction in very bad conditions while allowing for everyday driving on normal road surfaces.

The front and rear differentials in AWD cars may be open, limited-slip, or locking, depending on vehicle type and options. Some AWD vehicles, designed for off-road use, feature locking front, rear, and centre differentials for maximum off-road traction, which is typically engaged electrically.

What Does 4wd Mean?

This type of 4×4 drivetrain, 4WD, does not have a centre differential, but it can also be engaged or disengaged, via shift lever or buttons. 

The transfer case in a 4WD vehicle does not allow for differences in speed or engine power between the front and rear axles, which can lead to binding and scuffing when on good road surfaces.

Off-roading, however, is where you appreciate no slippage in the 4WD drivetrain, as long as you have the right differentials in the front and rear axles. Differentials in 4WD vehicles can also be of the open, limited-slip, and locking type. 

A locking differential offers maximum traction, while an open differential can result in zero traction, depending on how bad the road is. A limited-slip differential offers a good balance between the two, making for smooth on-road handling and acceptable off-road traction.

Awd Vs. 4wd

When comparing 4×4 vehicles, perhaps the best thing to keep in mind is what you will be using the vehicle for. 

If you plan on doing serious off-roading, or the roads you regularly travel are barely recognizable as roads, then you could opt for a 4WD vehicle, as long as you learn how to use 

it. Make sure to look for a model with at least limited-slip differentials, but a better option will be locking differentials.

Several 4WD vehicles come fully equipped with locking differentials, but there are aftermarket options, as well, for the serious off-road enthusiast. 

Some examples of popular cars with 4WD capabilities include the Nissan X-Trail and Honda CR-V and Toyota Premio.

On the other hand, for most drivers, commuting to work and school or taking the family to market, AWD cars offer traction and safety that you don’t have to think about. 

You don’t have to remember to engage the system to make it work, because it’s always engaged. 

If you need more traction, some models offer locking differentials, which require nothing more than pressing a button. Just remember to press the button again to disengage the system when you get back onto a good road.

Four Wheel Drive Ranges

Most vehicles come with two options when it comes to ranges 4Hi (or 4 High) and 4Lo (or 4 Low). 

There are very significant differences between these two ranges, with each designed for specific situations in order to give you the best performance for the terrain and obstacles you are faced with.

What Is 4hi?

This range is perfect for snow, dirt roads and off-road trails – this ratio helps to give you better traction, allowing you to get going, maintain forward movement and reduce the risk of slipping or having the wheels spin out.

Often these vehicles will also have automatic traction control to reduce the risk of slipping wheels further, while a slip differential works to prevent the wheels from spinning out.

What Is 4lo?

Unlike 4Hi, 4Lo works to create a huge amount of torque from the engine – however, this will significantly reduce the speed that the vehicle can achieve. 

This range does not work to create more traction, in fact, with more torque you can suffer from a loss in traction which is why this is not a good choice for snow, ice or mud.

Ideally, this range is used for towing heavy trailers or drivers who need to tackle difficult off-road terrain when more torque is required – steep hills and obstacles.  

Four Wheel Drive (4wd) Vs All Wheel Drive (Awd)

When buying a new car you will probably see a lot of terms thrown about, popular ones in this market are 4WD and AWD – but these are not the same. So what’s the difference?

A 4WD vehicle’s power goes from the transmission into a transfer case that splits the power between the front and rear axles to achieve maximum torque. 

While this is great for things like scaling steep banks, driving in snow and climbing over rock piles, it does have a few weak points. For example, most of these systems can’t be used in all conditions, and they do add complexity to the vehicle.

AWD is a newer concept and is much more complicated. Unlike 4WD, you find this type of transmission in everything from an Audi R8 to a Volvo XC90. 

One of the biggest differences with the AWD system is that it is in place all the time, delivering power to wheels with the most traction by automatically splitting the power between the front and rear axles using the centre differential and to individual wheels through the front and rear differential.

An AWD vehicle works brilliantly in slippery situations, like wet roads and snow, but it isn’t as robust as 4WD and isn’t capable of the same level of off-roading. 

But if you’re looking for a safe family vehicle with great traction in difficult weather conditions rather than an out-and-out off-roader, then this could be a good solution for your needs.

What Does 4×4 Mean On A Truck?

Of course, many people live in areas that see a fair bit of snow during the year or travel off-road for work or pleasure. 

In those situations, having as much traction as possible is critical, and that’s where a 4×4 (synonymous with 4WD) truck shines.

These vehicles are 4×2 by default, but with the help of a transfer case and additional differentials, they allow the driver to direct power to all four wheels consistently or as needed. 

Part- and full-time 4×4 setups are available, though automakers’ marketing terms can make them difficult to define.

What’s The Difference Between Part-time And Full-time 4wd?

In some vehicles, the driver may need to shift a lever inside the cab and, especially on older models, manually lock hubs in the front wheels to engage the 4WD system. Power is thereby delivered to all wheels equally.

This is great in low-grip scenarios, but when turning on dry pavement, the wheels cannot rotate independently, in turn causing the system to bind. 

The same holds for an electronic part-time 4WD system that’s activated with a simple touch of a button from the comfort of the cab. Because of this drivetrain binding, the driver must actively engage or disengage the system depending on road conditions.

Most modern trucks offer an automatic setting (also referred to as 4A or Auto), which is essentially what you’ll get in a truck marketed with full-time or permanent 4WD. As the name implies, this system is always activated and requires no driver input. The difference lies in the transfer case and differentials, which can distribute torque to all four wheels in varying amounts and prevent the binding associated with part-time 4WD.

For examples of each, the Toyota Tundra, one of the most reliable trucks you can buy, offers an electronically controlled part-time 4WD system. 

The Chevrolet Silverado 1500 features an Autotrac 2-speed transfer case with 2-Hi, 4-Hi, 4-Lo, and Auto, that last setting a fully automatic mode that activates 4WD without driver action.

Four-wheel Drive (4wd)

As mentioned before, the four-wheel drive (4WD) is a vehicle drivetrain system that directly powers all four wheels. 4WD is generally made for off-road driving and, normally speaking, four wheels have two times the traction of 2. 

Four-wheel drive is often paired with locked differentials for best off-road efficiency. Without getting too technical, locked differentials simply mean that the two wheels on the same axle are locked together, even if one has traction and the other does not. 

This is specifically handy to restore traction in snowy conditions, rocky surfaces, or when stuck in the mud. In general, 4WD is a wonderful option available on 4×4 vehicles and many outdoor leisure SUVs. It is very easy to turn on or turn off, relying on the circumstance.

All-wheel Drive (Awd)

AWD is similar to 4WD in that the engine supplies power with the drivetrain to all four wheels. Usually speaking. 

Nonetheless, AWD is made for speed and handling, as opposed to off-road scenarios. It is, in general, a smarter form of 4×4 innovation. AWD is regularly keeping track of the traction of all four tires and sending more or less power to each wheel depending on what it needs. 

This technology is called ‘Torque Vectoring’. Also, when it concerns high-end vehicle performance, some ranges of AWD are designed to send added power to the back tires to enhance acceleration, or likewise lower rear-wheel power when turning on slick roadways.

Though it could apply to any car, truck or SUV, 4×4 usually represents more traditional 4WD vehicles, and especially off-road-capable ones — as opposed to light-duty all-wheel-drive cars intended for snow or mild off-pavement use. 

If you hear someone say, “You’re going to need a 4×4 to get up that mountain trail,” he or she is probably talking about a pickup, a Jeep or a UTV, not a Nissan Altima with all-wheel drive.

As explained in AWD Vs. 4WD: What’s the difference?, sometimes the meanings of terms are blurred by marketing and other forms of misuse, and even definitions once ironclad seldom is anymore. 

So it’s not out of the question that you’ll see 4×4 and 4×2 as driver-selectable modes on a given vehicle. Generally speaking, though, we still use 4×4 to represent a vehicle, not a set with a specific set of properties exclusive to, say, part-time 4WD.

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