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.
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.
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 –
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.
So, 4WD vs 2WD Trucks – What will we choose?
Having researched this, our choice is clear. For our needs, it’ll have to be a 4WD vehicle.
Our plan is to go on the road towing an average sized RV across the US and Canada. I may have zero experience with towing, but I do happen to have a lot of experience in driving in various areas of North America. Clearly, towing anything up or down a mountain pass and/or in the snow is going to be easier – and much safer – with a strong 4WD truck.
I can absolutely see why it wouldn’t necessarily be a good choice for others. If you’re driving a truck on asphalt roads with no major altitude changes, and without having to deal with rough road conditions, a 2WD can be a perfectly legitimate choice. Even towing, by the way.
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!