4WD Vs. 2WD Trucks (Which Should You Choose?)

While most pickup trucks have 4-wheel-drive, not all of them do. You can buy a pickup truck that’s 2WD or even find models with “on demand” 4WD where you have to manually switch on the 4WD system.

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 pros and cons 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 sedans it’s usually the front wheels).

This power comes from the vehicle’s engine through the drivetrain. My post about gas engines vs. diesel ones 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, thanks to 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 gears system – to the vehicle’s wheels, making them turn as well.

In most sedans, many SUV’s and some trucks, the power from the crankshaft goes to a single pair of wheels. Essentially, that’s a 2-wheel-drive. Only two wheels actually get power and rotate as fast as the engine let’s them. The other two – usually the rear wheels – just drag along, basically.

The Advantages of 2WD

The main advantage to a 2WD drivetain is price. With a drivetrain that only needs to move one pair of wheels, these trucks are cheaper than their 4WD counterparts.

2WD pickup trucks also weigh less. The additional metal needed to build a 4-wheel-drive weighs quite a lot so a 2WD of the same model will have a lower curb weight number. The truck will still have the same build and engine, so it will be as strong and possibly even a little bit stronger in terms of payload and towing capability. Simply because it has more “room” left for extra weight.

Weighing less also means better fuel efficiency. When not towing or hauling, a 2WD truck is going to need much less gas to get going on the road.

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 do I mean?

The easiest way to understand this is to describe an extreme situation where a vehicle’s front 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 silly rear wheels are just going to sit there on the ground, unable to move on their own.

Now, with a 4WD, even if your front wheels lost contact with the ground, you can still propel the vehicle forward (or backward for that matter) because you’re sending power from the engine to them as well. They do have traction after all, so now that you can move them, they can move the vehicle.

Many modern vehicles use four-wheel drive, including most trucks on the market. Construction vehicles 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’s 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 front wheels, it has no control over its rear wheels and it could skid and lose control.

4WD vehicles are designed to handle snow and ice (as well as sand, mud, and water), so they won’t slide or buckle 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?

To be honest, I used to think pickup trucks had to have 4-wheel-drive. I know now that it’s a misconception. My only consolation is that reading online, at least I can see this is a common misconception. Let’s take a quick look at some popular truck models to see which are available which what drivetrain.

Generally speaking, midsize trucks like the Chevy Colorado or the Honda Ridgeline are available both in 2WD and 4WD options.

In the half ton class, you can also choose between 2WD and 4WD drivetrains. That’s the case in the F-150 (except for the F-150 Raptor – Ford’s offroading specialist) or the Ram 1500 .

Moving to the heavy duty section, you’ll see that Chevrolet offers Silverado 2500HD and 3500HD trucks are offered in 4X4 configurations then in 2WD. With Ford things are different though. All of Ford’s heavy duty trucks, from F-250 through to F-450 have 4WD drivetrains.

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, I’ll state the obvious.

If you’re thinking of doing this –

4wd in mud

Getting a 4WD goes without saying.

Back to us non-off-roading people.

Your first 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 road, 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 icey? Are you going to be driving uphill or downhill a lot?

By the way, if snow is a rare occurrence, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to WD2 and using chains. To avoid slipping in a 2WD truck, these posters 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 or mud a lot? You need a 4WD.

Towing/hauling heavy weights? You will probably benefit from a 4WD.

What do you think? Do you have any experience with either type of truck? I’d love to hear your opinion so please do leave me a comment!

Additional Reading

You may find these posts interesting as well –

What is a dually truck and do you need one?

The 7 types of pickup trucks you need to know about

7 Crucial Pickup Truck Off-Road Tips

Taking Your Toyota Tundra Off Road? Here’s What You Need to Know

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 for

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. This is just an article of many to make people think they have to buy a 4×4! This article does not discuss the most important necessity an AWD or 4×4, or FWD and especially rear wheel drive in a truck needs, is tires! New Tires! Winter tires! He mentions nothing about the newer technology in the tire manufacturing as well. Check out the Bridgestone Blizzacks! He doesn’t tell you to add at least 500lbs or 600lbs over your axles and lower your tire pressure down and your skill to drive off road and in inclimate weather! 4×4’s are for sissy’s! A real 2WD afficianado knows how to get up icy hills and go pretty much anywhere a regular 4×4 can. Plus he doesn’t talk about a locker or any information on what other items you should take.with you when going anywhere even with a 4×4! A shovel and a tow strap and some sand for traction which is needed even with a 4×4! So many people think because it is a 4×4 they do not need to put any weight over the axles and lower the tire pressure. Then they are stuck out in the middle of nowhere and no cell reception! Plus most people who buy 4×4’ and AWD are buying them purely out of fear! Car salesmen love to play on your fees and so would love you to finance a $20k to $60k or even $150k or $250k if you are dumb enough to finance a house on 4 wheels! You can buy a nice RV bus for that to live in! If you have skill of driving in the snow and ice you don’t need it! Slow down and take your foot off the gas! Plus you don’t even need chains anymore with the new tire technology and the newer 2WD trucks have a limited/slip axle and Advancetrac/Lockertrac and stability control and Electronic Roll Stablizing technology, so their traction is vastly improved to get up steep hills with ice and snow, even at a complete stop! We just had a crazy winter here in Seatlle and I live 600ft above sea level. Guess what I drove all over and had a great time in the snow and black ice! A villified evil killing 2WD!!! I don’t buy this expensive 4×4 bullshit! If you know how to drive anything in the snow and ice and you have a good amount of experience you can get through what a 4×4 can. I have done it! Even in cars and Vanagons and 18 wheelers and double clutches! Bias ply tires and retreads. Save yourself the money and either buy a FWD wagon or car and put Blizzacks on it for winter and a good tire for spring and summer and fall. If you want to climb rocks and crawl then you should have been born a spider! Plus the off road crews with their need of a 12 ft ladder to get into their monster gasaholic trucks are ruining salmon beds and plowing down undergrowth and wildflowers and instead of hiking to their spot why not ruin the forest or desert by getting there. We are an impatient and an instant gratification consumer driven society! So go minimal and your pocket book will thank you. Remember all these fancy gadgets and electronic on the fly 4×4 shifting and all the other electronic additives are going to cost you a bundle to fix! Yes by all means go buy the $150k new Raptor or the $250k Shelby 4×4 that is about a block long. Oh, and you need 10 cyclinders too! One more tip to this pro 4x4er. Autosocks! Invented in Norway and now all the 18 wheelers are not chaining up they are socking up! Just put 2 Autosocks on the outside rear back tires on the tractor and you’re gone through snow and ice and black ice! Do your research a bit better please. You rear wheels up in the air and no traction cracked me up! Why that happens is because of no weight over the axles! So the tires in any drive car are not going to get traction period! All you were describing is what I have done thousands of times when stuck in deep mud or snow burms! You rock it out! Sticks are the best for this! Just a 2WD owner and proud of it!

  2. 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.

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