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.
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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 -
The 7 Types Of Pickup Trucks You Need To Know About
7 Crucial Pickup Truck Off-Road Tips
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.
Tuesday 29th of March 2022
I loved this . My husband is debating between a 2wd or 4wd and I had no idea what the hell it even matters or what the big deal is . This was so informational. Great article, for basic information. Thank you.
Saturday 18th of September 2021
Tell ya what Robert Brooks, double or nothing, you bring your 4wd to my region in winter and keep it in 2wd and see if you can follow me. For that matter, see if you can keep up. I run the same tires year round and the only thing I have to store is my winter weights, which I guarantee you can't find without me telling you what and where they are. I can't out do a 4wd, but I can usually out drive the owner as most who say it's a necessity don't possess the skill set necessary to see it merely as a luxury. Hell, I'll bet 90% can't drive a stick shift if their life depended on it! This is the problem with nanny systems (ABS, traction control, Lane watch, ect) instead of being there in the background, just in case, people have come to practically depend on them making more people learn less about the art of driving, proper handling, and emergency manuvers. Winter is coming and the talentless morons will let themselves be known as they sit in the ditch or median in their AWDs and 4x4s as I drive past, point, laugh, then turn around and offer to pull em out at $50 a pop.
Robert L Brooks
Monday 8th of February 2021
Ive had 2wd and 4wd and will take a 4wd everytime. Only 2wd owners will tell you that they can outdo a 4wd no problem. My standard response is follow me and and put a $100 on it. Not one has taken me up on it yet. Yes 4wd is more money to purchase and maintain. However carrying all the different equipment, extra tires and taking the time to install and uninstall and constantly adjust tire pressure isn't my idea of time well spent when I can stay in my truck and literally take 2 seconds to engage 4wd and keep going. Plus I run the same tires year round and dont have to store and maintain all those 2wd xtras. A modern 4wd rides, drives and gets better milage than the trucks of yore. You can say I have more money than sense, and maybe you're right who knows. Point is I'll be watching you pull over while I keep going. Cheers!
Friday 10th of April 2020
I’ve had an AWD and I must say I could tell the difference in the way the vehicle drives. It’s just better. You have better control of it. Im in Houston so I May need it for black ice once in a blue moon. But we mainly deal with flooding. I’m debating if it’s worth going for the 4WD on a Yukon xl
Wednesday 15th of April 2020
Thanks for leaving us a comment about your experience with AWD. The Yukon wouldn't be a bad choice for flood conditions since it sits much higher than most cars. We actually have a post about how flooding can affect vehicles - you can check it out here.
Tuesday 21st of May 2019
I feel both the author and first commentor are akin to a political debate. Neither side was explained was argued well, and filled with controversy. There are merits and demerits for all types of drivetrain systems.
You can ride a horse, camel, or donkey, what you choose should be suited towards your needs and preferences. You can get from A to B in a pinch with just about anything, but to say one or the other is irrelevant is absurd. There is no one-size-fits-all. Buy what you need. If the extra expense of a 4wd or awd system does not benefit you, sure get a 2wd. If you frequently find yourself in situations where 4wd/awd will offer a better experience, or is the only way to accomplish the task at hand, buy that.
Said another way, I can make it up and down my driveway rain or shine in 2wd. Ask my wife to consider momentum, load up some sandbags before she leaves, or stop and lower her tire pressure because it rained or snowed, and she will take her AWD system she doesn't even have to control, everytime.
Meanwhile, I'll be laughing at the guy with 2wd trying to pull a 7000 pound trailer out of the side yard after a good rain. Father in law's open dif 4wd f350 struggles with that, and our friends 2wd 2500hd can't get traction either. 4wd with a locking diff its like it's nothing.
That being said, if I lived in a concrete jungle like LA, I may save some money by opting for 2wd, but it sure would be a bummer not to have it that one time you get caught with you pants down. Have fun unhitching and driving how ever far you need to get sand.