What Is Four Wheel Drive?

What Is Four Wheel Drive?

Four-wheel drive, also called 4x4 or 4WD, refers to a two-axle vehicle drivetrain capable of providing torque to all of its wheels simultaneously. Most cars use their engine to power two wheels, either at the front of the car or the back. However, four wheel drive cars send the engine’s power to all four wheels. You'll have more grip when accelerating, for a start; you're less likely to get stuck on slippery surfaces; and these systems also help when towing.

There are 3 main types of four-wheel drive: selectable four-wheel drive, permanent all-wheel drive/four-wheel drive, and intelligent all-wheel drive/four-wheel drive. The first is the least sophisticated option available because it’s not designed to be used on the road and only works at slow speeds. You use a lever or dial to select four-wheel drive when you’re on a slippery or rough surface and need to remember to switch it off when you’re back on tarmac. Permanent all-wheel drive is not as efficient as it is constantly on, and the last option continuously varies the amount of power going to each wheel to maximise fuel efficiency, grip and performance.

4x4s have better grip which is beneficial when off-roading or accelerating. For example if your two wheel drive car produces 100hp, there will be 50hp being sent to each wheel. That power can very quickly overwhelm the two powered wheels and you'll begin to experience wheel spin. In a four-wheel-drive car, the engine produces the same amount of power, but this is split between four wheels. So your 100hp car will be sending just 25hp to each wheel.

In the snow and ice, the real contender is tyres. A two-wheel drive car with winter tyres is likely to have more grip than a four-wheel drive car on standard tyres. A four-wheel drive car with winter tyres is the ultimate choice.

Many people use four-wheel drive cars to go off-roading, where they drive on uneven surfaces such as sand, riverbeds, gravel, snow, mud, and rocks. 4x4s are essential for this given the elevated grip and acceleration. They can also continue to drive whilst only one wheel is touching the ground as may be the case on rugged terrain and the car can be left dangling in the air.

All this sounds great - four-wheel drive cars are even better at towing. But there are unfortunately some cons to 4x4s which you should weigh up when deciding if four wheel drive is for you. These cars are usually less fuel efficient and heavier, models are more expensive, and the four-wheel drive makes little difference when turning corners.

You might be wondering: what’s the difference between 4WD (four-wheel drive) and AWD (all-wheel drive)? It used to be the case that a 4WD car was one that you would switch manually from two-wheel drive to four-wheel drive mode. An AWD car was one that was constantly in four-wheel drive mode. That’s no longer the case though. Manufacturers use both terms interchangeably, so you need to look a bit closer to work out which type of four-wheel drive car you’re looking at.

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