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If you're in the market for a new truck, one of the factors you're likely considering is whether or not to get a truck with 2-wheel drive (2WD) or a truck that's equipped with 4-wheel drive (4WD). Virtually all modern pickup trucks are available with either a 4WD or 2WD option.
So, which pickup truck should you pick - a 4WD or a 2WD?
If you plan on going off-roading, hauling or towing a heavy weight, driving on snowy/icy roads, or doing a lot of uphill and downhill driving - or any combination of these - you definitely need a 4WD. Otherwise, for flat terrain driving on asphalt in fine weather, a 2WD should suffice.
Why is that? Keep reading to see what makes 4WD such an attractive feature in pickup trucks. No, it's not just off-roading. Far from it. Off-roading fanatics are better off with a Wrangler Jeep or a similar off-roading toy. While 4WD gives a truck the ability to drive on difficult terrain (quite well, actually!), the reasons for getting a 4X4 truck are far more practical.
First, we need to see what these terms even mean. What is the actual difference between 2WD and 4WD? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of each method?
What Is Two-Wheel Drive (2WD)?
Two-wheel drive is the setup in trucks and other vehicles that provide power directly to only two of the wheels. This may be front wheels or back wheels (in modern vehicles it's usually the front wheels).
This power comes from the vehicle’s engine through the drivetrain. Our post about gas vs. diesel engines has a detailed explanation of how a truck's engine works. As a quick recap for our needs, here this is the basic structure -
- Cylinders within the engine rotate as a result of a controlled explosion created by using gasoline or diesel.
- The rotation movement goes from the cylinders to a part that's called a crankshaft.
- The crankshaft then connects - using the transmission and driveshaft - to the vehicle's wheels, making them turn as well.
In most sedans, SUVs, and some trucks, the power from the crankshaft goes to a single pair of wheels. These vehicles are 2WD vehicles. Only two wheels actually get power from the drivetrain. The other two wheels just drag along, basically.
The Advantages of 2WD
The main advantage of a 2WD drivetrain is the price. Vehicles with a 2WD drivetrain are much cheaper than their 4WD counterparts.
2WD pickup trucks also weigh less. The additional metal needed to build a 4-wheel-drive system weighs quite a bit, so a 2WD version of the same model will have a lower curb weight number. The truck will still have the same build and engine, but it will have a higher towing and payload capacity due to the slightly decreased weight.
Let's look at Ram trucks. Ram's specification chart shows us that two Ram trucks that are identical except for their 2WD and 4WD drivetrains have different towing and payload capacities. The model with 2WD can haul 70 pounds more and tow 200 pounds more than its 4WD counterpart.
Weighing less also means better fuel efficiency. When comparing otherwise identical trucks, the 2WD version is always going to get better fuel economy.
What Is Four-Wheel Drive (4WD)?
Four-wheel drive is a power setting in which the four wheels of your truck receive equal amounts of force from the engine. 4WD can be part-time (sometimes called on-demand), which means you have to manually turn it on. It can also be full-time, where 4WD is always ready and kicks on automatically when needed.
Having power going to all 4 wheels means more control over the traction your truck gets. What does this mean exactly?
The easiest way to understand this is to describe an extreme situation where a vehicle's rear wheels are both up in the air. In a 2WD, the power from the engine goes only to these two wheels. If they are in the air, they get no traction with the ground whatsoever. The vehicle won't move. Those front wheels are just going to sit there on the ground, unable to move on their own.
Now, with a 4WD, even if your rear wheels lost contact with the ground, you can still propel the vehicle forward (or even backward) because those wheels can also receive power from the drivetrain. They do have traction after all, so they can move the vehicle.
Many modern vehicles use four-wheel drive, including most trucks on the market. Rugged vehicles like construction trucks have had 4WD available since the 1970s. Heavy-duty and medium-duty trucks from brands like Ram, General Motors, and Ford are known for their off-roading capabilities.
Of course, four-wheel drive vehicles have a natural home in the arena of road racing, where drivers are often traversing difficult conditions like sand and mud. Fun fact: The first recorded instance of a race vehicle with four-wheel drive was in 1903 with the Spyker 60 HP.
The advantages of 4WD
The 4WD drive gives you better driving capabilities where traction may be an issue. Remember the truck with its wheels up in the air? Well, although that can actually happen when off-roading, a more likely scenario is that of losing traction in your front wheels over an icy road surface.
If roads get slick because of rain or ice or if there are several inches of snow on the ground, a 2WD truck isn’t going to get you through those conditions the same way a 4WD truck would. Once it loses traction in its rear wheels, it has no control over its front wheels and it could skid and lose control, which can lead to an accident.
4WD vehicles are designed to handle snow and ice (as well as sand, mud, and water), so they won’t slide around even if there’s a pretty significant snowstorm outside.
Traction is also an issue when you're towing heavy weights uphill or downhill. With a 4WD, all four wheels work against gravity to keep you going in the direction you want.
Read more in our thorough guide about when you should use 4WD and when you shouldn't.
Which trucks have 2WD and which have 4WD?
Let's take a quick look at some popular truck models to see which are available which what drivetrain.
A common misconception is that every pickup truck on the road is equipped with 4WD. This isn't the case, however. As a matter of fact, 2WD is generally the default drivetrain on modern trucks, with 4WD being an additional option.
For this reason, any truck can be purchased in either a 2WD or 4WD configuration. Any truck on the market - from mid-size to one ton - is available in either 2WD or 4WD. This includes trucks like the Chevy Colorado, Silverado 1500, Silverado 2500 HD, and Silverado 3500 HD, the Ford F-150, and the Ram 1500 trucks are offered in either 2WD or 4WD configurations.
Truck manufacturers have figured out that pickup owners have different preferences in this area, so they've created lineups that cater to everyone's needs.
Which Truck Should You Choose?
There are some factors you’ll have to keep in mind as you consider whether you’re going to get a truck with two-wheel or four-wheel drive.
What do you need that truck for?
First, we'll state the obvious.
If you're thinking of doing this -
then getting a 4WD goes without saying.
Your next consideration is the type of loads you need your truck to haul or tow.
Next, what kind of terrain do you expect to use the truck on? Clearly, if you're going off-roading, you're going to need 4WD, no question about it. However, even if you're sticking to paved roads - will the road often be muddy or icy? Are you going to be driving uphill or downhill a lot?
As a side note, if snow is a rare occurrence, there's nothing wrong with sticking to 2WD and using chains. To avoid slipping in a 2WD truck, these folks on the GM trucks forum recommend using studs or chains on your tires. Just be aware that most states have laws about when you should use chains - and also when you should not.
The needs of a soccer dad from Los Angeles will be vastly different from a contractor in Aspen who needs to drive the Colorado mountain passes once a week to get materials from Denver.
Generally speaking -
Driving uphill or downhill a lot? You need a 4WD.
Frequent snow, ice, or mud? You need a 4WD.
Towing/hauling heavy weights? You will probably benefit from a 4WD.
As a final note, don't feel pressured into purchasing a 4WD pickup truck if you don't need one. If you know that you won't find yourself in a situation where 4WD will be required, there's nothing wrong with enjoying the higher payload and towing capacities and better fuel economy of a 2WD truck.
What do you think? Do you have any experience with either type of truck? We'd love to hear your opinion so please do leave us a comment! You may find these posts interesting as well -
There's so much more, too! If you're considering a new purchase, make sure you check out this page about buying a pickup truck.