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Four-Wheel Drive Explained

A red Jeep Wrangler Rubicon powers through mud.

If you live in a region that gets ice and snow or you’re an avid off-roader, four-wheel drive (4WD) is a feature that can support you when you’re behind the wheel. Let’s take a closer look at what this component has to offer.

Four-Wheel Drive Basics

A 4WD system sends torque to all four of a vehicle’s wheels. This system is typically found in trucks and body-on-frame SUVs. On the other hand, all-wheel drive (AWD) is another technology that shares many similarities but typically uses a center differential to convey the engine’s torque between the two axles while 4WD relies on a transfer case. In addition, 4WD systems tend to be sturdier than those labeled as all-wheel drive.

How Does It Work?Black Jeep in winter weather

With power going to all four wheels, improved traction is key in challenging situations. For example, the added grip can help free your vehicle from deep mud or a snowbank. And it can give your SUV or truck better footing when you’re traveling on an unpaved surface.

Many 4WD systems allow the driver to choose between low and high ranges. The low range is intended to provide maximum traction in off-road environments. The high range is typically an ideal match if you’re traveling on a road that’s slick with snow or ice.

Full- or Part-Time?

You can choose when you want to use 4WD. With a full-time system, power is sent to all wheels on an ongoing basis. Some full-time systems allow the driver to decide how power is divided between the front and rear axles.

With part-time, the default setting sends power to two wheels, and engaging the 4WD system requires action on the part of the driver. This can take the form of sliding a lever or pushing a button. A part-time system typically uses locking hubs to disengage the wheels from the axle when 4WD is not in use.

Fuel Considerations

Keep in mind that when it’s activated, a 4WD system typically requires more fuel than a standard powertrain. The extra fuel provides the power necessary to help the gears and driveshaft function as needed. That means if you have a part-time system that allows you to deactivate, it’s a good idea to turn it off when not in use. It will definitely save you money at the gas pump.

This system isn’t necessary for all drivers. But if you face rough weather or regularly travel off-road, getting a vehicle that’s equipped with 4WD may be an excellent idea.

Check out all the four-wheel-drive products available on NAPAOnline, or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on 4-wheel drive, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA Auto Parts store.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.


Warren Clarke View All

I'm a writer and editor who's a regular contributor with the New York Daily News and Carfax, and my content has appeared in over 20 publications. I've written content that covers industries such as automotive, medical, insurance, healthcare, real estate, plumbing, pest control, dental and hospitality.

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