What Does 4x4 Mean on a Truck?

Thom Blackett | April 7, 2020

If you’ve ever shopped for a new pickup, you’ve likely encountered a variety of acronyms referencing seemingly different drive systems. Whether rear-wheel drive (RWD), four-wheel drive (4WD), or all-wheel drive (AWD), it’s helpful to understand what these terms mean and, more importantly, which best suits your specific requirements.

what 4x4 means on a truck

What Does 4x2 Mean on a Truck?

In their most basic form, pickup trucks are offered in a RWD, or 4x2, configuration, where a driveshaft transfers torque from the engine to the rear wheels. The truck may have a limited-slip rear differential that controls power distribution between the left and right tires, but under no circumstances are the front wheels used for anything other than steering.

If you live in an area with a mild climate and never travel over anything rougher than a bumpy dirt road, a 4x2 truck might very well be the perfect fit. It offers all of the utility one demands from a pickup, and a 4x2 truck is more affordable to buy and maintain. Typically, a 4x2 version of a pickup truck also offers maximum payload and towing capacity.

For those reasons, utility companies, contractors, and people who often tow or haul plenty of weight favor RWD.

What Does 4x4 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 4x4 (synonymous with 4WD) truck really shines.

These vehicles are 4x2 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 4x4 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 true 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.

What Do 4-Hi and 4-Lo Mean?

Adding a bit more confusion to the mix is a 4WD truck’s high (4-Hi) and low (4-Lo) ranges.

For extra grunt when stuck in mud or plowing through deep snow, shifting the transfer case into 4-Lo (or 4L) will pair the engine’s torque with a lower gear ratio. The result is slow-moving tires with lots of power. When in 4-Hi (4H), the drivetrain employs a higher gear ratio, making it suitable for normal driving and highway speeds.

FWD vs. AWD

Except for oddball examples from history, like the Dodge Rampage or Volkswagen Rabbit Pickup, the idea of a front-wheel-drive (FWD) truck hadn’t often crossed the minds of automakers or buyers. That changed when Honda debuted the latest Ridgeline.

Based on the company’s Pilot crossover SUV platform, the Ridgeline is available with FWD or AWD. In both cases, engine power is normally sent to the front wheels, much like a 4WD truck operates in RWD by default. However, the Ridgeline AWD models feature a bevy of sensors and an electronic rear differential that, together, can direct up to 70 percent of the engine’s torque to the rear wheels when necessary.

A transfer case and a driver-activated low-range setting are the key differences between AWD and 4WD. Instead of 4-Lo, the Honda Ridgeline AWD offers a selection of traction control driving modes called Normal, Snow, Mud, and Sand. The driver can also manually lock power distribution in a 50:50 split between the front and rear wheels, but only at low speeds.

Since AWD works largely behind the scenes, it is preferred by people who desire a vehicle that automatically provides confident handling whether the road ahead is dry or covered in a foot of snow. And though it weighs about the same as a comparable Toyota Tacoma, the Honda Ridgeline delivers better fuel economy. The trade-offs are reduced off-roading capability and the ability of the driver to dictate exactly how and when all four wheels operate.

Pros and Cons of 4x2 and 4x4

When shopping for a truck, a 4x2 version is typically better at towing and hauling, costs less, and gets better gas mileage. The drivetrain is less complex, too, meaning maintenance and repair costs are likely lower.

Compared to 4x2 trucks, 4x4s deliver greater traction, better off-road capability, and often higher ground clearance, but the extra parts they feature drive up the sticker price, increase maintenance costs, and negatively impact fuel economy.

What’s Next

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