Off-road vehicle

Which is better 4×4 or 4×2?

Shopping for a truck or SUV? You will likely have to decide between a 4×4 and 4×2. If you’re wondering why 4x4s often cost more than 4×2 versions of the same vehicle model, let the information below provide some insight on the difference between the two and what the advantages and disadvantages of buying one over the other would be.

Time and again, we are bugged by questions on what makes a 4×4 ride better, or even safer, than a 4×2.

The price difference is quite a lot, but through this article, we’d like to share some technical aspects that will tell us that the upgrade is quite worth it.

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Do you need a four-wheel drive?

It depends on where you are going or what you want to do with your vehicle. If you intend to use your vehicle for off-roading then, period, you do. The few off-roading scenarios where four-wheel drive isn’t required is if you’re building a 2wd high-speed Prerunner, dune buggy or 2wd rally car on purpose. Recreational off-roading isn’t also called ‘four-wheeling’ for no reason. If you use 2wd for ‘four-wheeling,’ then you’re asking for trouble and simply making life difficult for yourself.

SUVs and pickup trucks, if you’ve noticed, either come with two drivetrain options: a 4×2 or a 4×4. For some less discerning car buyers, that doesn’t really matter much because to them, and the vehicle looks the same with the other trim levels.

Drivetrain choices, however, have a large impact on how a vehicle performs. It also dictates a vehicle’s price tag and overall weight, among others. In short, a 4×2 vehicle and a 4×4 vehicle will each have both bright and dark sides. But before finding out about 4×2 vs 4×4 pros and cons, let us define what a drivetrain is.

Off-road vehicle

4×4 drivetrain

A 4×4 (aka four-wheel drive) delivers power and torque to all of the vehicle’s four wheels. Generally speaking, a 4×4 has a stouter chassis with bigger tires and more ground clearance than a 4×2. It is a common misconception that 4×4 means all four wheels are rotating at the same speed simultaneously, but the reality is far more complicated than that. When a 4×4 vehicle turns, the outside tires turn faster than the inside tires. The differential in the axle compensates for the longer distance travelled by the outside wheel compared to the inside ones.
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Pros of 4x4s

Since all wheels are powered, 4x4s offer exceptional control and maneuverability on off-road surfaces and other challenging terrains. They are much better than 4x2s when faced with mud, steep inclines, and even floods. Even in the most extreme road conditions, a 4×4 will be cruise over them easily, especially when using the right set of tires. Although they often have the payload or towing capacity that’s lower than a 4×2, their towing ability cannot be matched by a 4×2 when the vehicle is on a slippery or sharp incline.

Cons of 4x4s

A 4×4 SUV or truck typically has a more expensive price tag than their 4×2 counterparts, and they are also slightly less fuel-efficient. The added drivetrain components also make 4x4s harder to maintain and drive.

4×2 drivetrain

4×2 vehicles (aka two-wheel drives) can only send engine power to two wheels, either at the front or at the rear. They have a less complicated setup, and for that reason, they are often the much more readily available model almost all vehicle types that offer both 4×2 and 4×4 options.

Pros of a 4×2

As mentioned, 4x2s generally have a greater towing capacity than 4x4s because of the higher torque that such a setup permits. Additionally, due to their simpler construction and lower weight, many 4x2s offer lower fuel consumption as well as lower overall ownership costs than the 4×4 version of the same model. Also, 4x2s have a lower starting price, and the cost difference between the two can reach five digits in our local currency. Additionally, 4x2s offer improved handling because of the better distribution of weight across the vehicle.

Cons of a 4×2

The negatives of a 4×2 are negligible for people who live in the urban jungle. However, people that take on plenty of roads less travelled might find that a 4×2 falls short of their off-road requirements.

When shopping for an SUV or pickup truck, you need to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of both 4×4 and 4×2 version of each model. Likewise, you should also consider how those benefits relate to you as a vehicle user. Make sure to weigh your options carefully before finalizing your SUV or pickup truck purchase.

For traditionalists and off-roaders, four-wheel drive (4WD) means that both of a vehicle’s axles receive drive power via a 2-speed transfer case. The four-wheel-drive usually meant ‘go-anywhere’ and all-terrain capability. However, developments and consumer demands have developed products that have ‘four-wheel drive’ but aren’t all-terrain capable. These pavement-oriented four-wheel drives are called all-wheel drives. An all-wheel-drive vehicle (AWD) is designed with a driveline that also sends power to all four wheels (usually on a full-time basis) but only through a single-speed transfer case without low-range capability. Though some are truck-based, most all-wheel drives are car-based with emphasis on all-weather capability (rain, ice and snow), and on-pavement handling. Variants of the Toyota RAV4s and the Honda CRVs are all-wheel drives. The RAV4’s Dynamic Torque Control AWD the CRV’s Real Time AWD system remains front-wheel drive until slip is detected and power is sent to the rear wheels. A Porsche 911 Turbo also has all-wheel drive, but most of the driveline power is sent to the rear wheels rather than the front. For high-horsepower applications, this is better for traction because weight transfers to the rear during strong acceleration.

All-wheel-drive has its place, and it has its purpose but for those who wish to take their vehicles off-road and venture miles beyond the nearest Starbucks–four-wheel drive with a low-range transfer case is the only way to go. The main types of four-wheel-drive systems are Part-time and Full-time.

Part-time 4WD

This is the most common four-wheel-drive system. A part-time system is designed to be used off-pavement and on low-traction surfaces only. The part-time system lacks any mechanism that will allow speed differentiation between the front and rear axles. If a part-time system is used on dry pavement, driveline bind will result and cause some tire squeal, adverse handling, and increased driveline wear. Off-road, driveline bind is released by the low-traction situation.

Most modern part-time 4WD systems allow the driver to shift from two- to four-wheel drive while in motion. This is called ‘shift-on-the-fly.’

To provide a shift-on-the-fly function, many part-time 4WD systems use some sort of front-axle disconnect. The front axle disconnect normally forms part of the front differential assembly.

As part of a shift-on-the-fly four-wheel-drive system, the front axle disconnect serves two functions. First, in two-wheel-drive mode, the front wheels are disengaged from the driveline to lessen wear and tear, since the rotation of the front wheels does not drag the driveline.

Second, when shifting from two- to four-wheel drive “on the fly” (while moving), the front axle disconnect utilizes a synchro mechanism to match the front driveshaft speed with the rear driveshaft speed before engagement. This allows seamless shifts into and out of four-wheel drive while in motion (but usually below 100 kph).

The common drawback of the front axle disconnect system is complexity which can lead to less reliability. A front axle disconnect often utilizes some type of vacuum or electrical element to engage to a front drive shaft. This type of system can be less reliable than the simpler but obsolete manual-hub setup.
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Full-Time four-wheel drive (4WD)

A full-time 4WD vehicle provides drive power to both of its axles all the time-whether on or off the pavement. To differentiate full-time 4WD from all-wheel drive, full-time 4WD is understood to have a 2-speed transfer case with low-range. Full-time 4WD requires a centre differential to provide speed differentiation between the front and rear axles. While full-time 4WD provides increased traction at all times, it can also reduce fuel economy.

Automatic Four-Wheel Drive (A4WD)

This type of drive system automatically turns on 4WD when it needs it. This is achieved with monitors that sense different wheel speeds then engage 4WD. The Polaris Ranger Electric Vehicle has this kind of automatic system.

Shift on the Fly 4WD

This 4-Wheel-Drive system allows the driver to manual shift from 2WD to 4WD Hi without stopping first. These systems typically have a speed limit at which you can engage the system; typically it’s under 60 mph. OHVs that use an electronic actuator (like a push-button vs a shift lever) will only allow shifting to 4WD-Hi while under the rated speed, so pushing the button will not attempt to engage 4WD.

Vehicles with a shift lever may not know when they are going too fast to shift into 4WD Hi so doing this can cause damage. Consult your owners manual if you have an On the Fly 4WD system.

All-Wheel Drive (AWD)

An all-wheel-drive is a full-time single-speed 4WD system that will supply power to all four wheels. Each system has a different front-to-rear power delivery ratio.

Rear Two-Wheel Drive

Most North American automobiles throughout automotive history have been rear-wheel-drive automobiles. The rear-wheel-drive vehicle reigned supreme through the 1980s when automakers began switching to front-wheel drive as they made cars smaller. Rear-wheel-drive cars are usually bigger, like the luxury Mercedes-Benz or the Chevrolet Corvette. Virtually all SUVs have rear-wheel drive because it provides a better weight distribution — close to the optimum 50:50 ratio — than front-wheel drive does. It allows the front wheels to do the job of steering and the rear wheels to receive the engine’s power and propel the vehicle. However, a two-wheel-drive SUV is only good for pavement driving, since having all wheels driven is necessary to navigate rugged terrain.

Front Two-Wheel Drive

Although front-wheel-drive vehicles can trace their history to the 1920s, they didn’t fit Detroit Big Three’s concept of a powerful, well-proportioned car. The fuel shortages of 1973 and 1978 forced U.S. automakers to shift to smaller cars. This required building cars with front-wheel drive that put engine and transmission at the front of the car. It eliminated the driveshaft to the rear wheels. Makers of the compact crossover SUVs embraced the front-wheel-drive concept. Crossover SUVs employ passenger car frames and suspension systems, but ride high and have the look of truck-based SUVs. Compact SUVs like the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape are front-wheel drive SUVs.

Four-Wheel Drive

The engine of a four-wheel-drive SUV transmits the power to all four wheels via a two-speed transfer case and its drive axles. The most important aspect of the four-wheel drive is the transfer case’s ability to drop into a lower gear range, to allow the SUV to navigate through winding, uneven trails, rough desert terrain or heavy snow. Older SUV models often just featured a shift-on-the-fly or part-time four-wheel-drive system. This type of four-wheel drive allowed the driver to manually shift from two-wheel to four-wheel drive without stopping and while driving under 60 mph. Newer automatic versions shifted to four-wheel drive when conditions demanded it. Chevrolet Suburbans and Ford Explorers employ four-wheel drive.

All-Wheel Drive

All-wheel drive delivers power to all four wheels. It provides the SUV with better traction and stability, but that is about all it does. All-wheel-drive vehicles do not feature a reduction gear transfer case to shift the SUV into low gear to handle off-road conditions. It will not adequately climb trails or push itself out of soft sand.

Off-road performance

With its 4×4 ride height, ground clearance and wheel travel, a 4×2 High-Ride ute will make light work of the roughest worksites, back roads and bush tracks you’re likely to encounter and will take you further than any sedan or two-wheel drive soft-roader.

Some high-riding 4×2 utes, like the PXII Ford Ranger, come with an electronic locking differential which greatly increases off-road capability. Why? A conventional ‘open’ diff can easily get you stuck in the rough because when one driven wheel loses grip and starts to spin, all the power goes to that spinning wheel. With a fully locked diff, though, the two driven rear wheels are in effect connected by a solid axle, just like a go-kart. So that if one wheel comes off the ground, the other one just keeps powering along, which in most cases, with some thoughtful wheel placement, can drive you out of trouble.

Other high-riding 4×2 utes without locking diffs rely on the latest electronic traction control technology, which has made remarkable advances recently. Seasoned 4×4 testers have discovered that some 4x4s now display superior off-road performance when relying purely on traction control, with their locking rear diffs disengaged.

Towing

Some High-Ride 4×2 utes have the same towing capacities as their 4×4 cousins, but others don’t. For instance, our PXII Ford Ranger 4×2 Hi-Rider example has the same maximum braked towing capacity as its 4×4 sibling (3500 kg).

“If towing is important, make sure that a high-riding 4×2 has the towing capacity to meet your needs”.

However, the latest Toyota Hilux 4×2 Hi-Rider has a significant reduction of 700 kg in maximum braked towing capacity compared to its 4×4 equivalent (2800 kg vs 3500 kg). In the Isuzu D-Max, the disparity between 4×2 and 4×4 is even greater (2500 kg vs 3500 kg) or a full tonne less.

So if towing is an important part of your vehicle use for work or leisure, make sure that a high-riding 4×2 has the towing capacity to meet your needs.

Lighter weight = less fuel + higher payload

Losing the extra flab of a 4×4 transmission and extra diff and axles generally results in a reduction of around 100-150 kg in the kerb weights of high-riding 4×2 utes compared to their 4×4 siblings. That’s about 5-8 bags of builder’s cement, which is a lot of performance-sapping bulk to be lugging around if you don’t need it.

And that weight saving can result in a useful increase in the payload by roughly the same amount. Although the Ranger 4×2 Hi-Rider and 4×4 used in our examples share the same GVM of 3200 kg, the 4×2 offers an extra 95 kg of payload in reaching that figure. In the Mazda BT50 models, it’s an extra 103 kg. And although the GVM varies for our two Hilux versions, the 4×2 still tops the 4×4’s peak payload by 75 kg.

The lighter kerb weight also results in superior fuel economy, although it must be said that great progress has been made in reducing this deficit. For example, where a disparity of up to 1.0 litre/100 km existed between 4×2 Hi-Rider and 4×4 models in the original PX Ranger line, Ford claims that its latest PXII models (manuals) have reduced this to only 0.1 litre/100 km. That’s progress.

What do we have?

Well, most pickups like Rangers, Navaras, Stradas and Hiluxes have part-time 4wd. Nothing bad about this since this is an efficient and cost-effective system. Land Rovers and some Land Cruisers (LC200 and Prado) have full-time systems.

If you’re not an off-roader and simply want to get from point A to point B, then you don’t need four-wheel drive, and a 2wd will suffice. Four-wheel drive has its disadvantages under normal road use. The system adds weight, decreases fuel economy and increases maintenance costs. All that hardware adds more places to leak oil and is heavy.

And, if you’re simply buying a car and not a pickup or SUV, then a 2wd drivetrain makes for a stronger argument. In 95% of places where cars can drive on, 2wd is enough. That number goes up to 99% in the Philippines because we neither have ice nor snow. Unless you’re buying a Subaru, there aren’t many all-wheel drive (AWD) options for cars unless you’re talking about Porsche 911 Turbos, Nissan GT-Rs, E63 AMGs and the like. These cars need AWD to get way over 500hp to the ground for sling-shot acceleration.

With modern 2wds now having limited-slip differentials and traction control, the four-wheel-drive becomes less necessary unless your idea of fun is really ‘four-wheeling’. Posing is a different story.

If you want the look and ruggedness of a 4×4 ute but don’t have a need for its extreme off-road capability, a 4×2 High-Ride is a no-brainer. And just think of all the extra tools, camping equipment or factory accessories you’ll be able to buy with all the money saved!

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