What Does 4WD Mean On A Car?

The safety and efficiency of your vehicle often depend on its driving system. Cars driving systems have evolved as different manufacturers cater to various driving needs and conditions over time. Hence, anyone looking to acquire a vehicle now has several driving systems to choose from; 2WD, 4WD, and AWD.

One of the more popular systems is the 4WD(four-wheel drive) which traces its history to military vehicles used around the Second World War. This article answers the question  ”what does 4WD mean on a car”? Sit back and have a 5mins read.

What Does 4WD Mean On A Car?

To fully appreciate the meaning of 4WD on a car, we need to describe what it is.

what does 4x4 mean

The 4WD system is designed for tough driving conditions where at least one of the car’s tires has to go through a complete loss of traction. These conditions include negotiating deep water or driving off-road with low-traction surfaces.

4WD systems are designed to provide equal amounts of power to the front and rear axles simultaneously. This way, torque is provided via front, rear, center differentials, transfer cases, and couplings.

Once upon a time, 4WD vehicles were the most ungainly kinds of vehicles with high ground clearance, cumbersome tires, a fortified underbody, and the trademark tow hooks.

That has changed though. 4WD manufacturing has evolved to the point where even some of the classier car models now feature the 4WD system that allows them to function with complete traction regardless of the driving conditions.

The 4WD systems often require the driver to shift in and out of it using any lever, button, or knob. The 4WD system features low and high-range settings that allow the driver to navigate various driving situations.

High-range 4WD: This setting allows you to move at an average speed. It is excellent for the highway or driving on level roads.

Low-range 4WD: This is the setting to use for more severe driving conditions like when driving through sandy, snowy, mud areas, negotiating rocky terrain, or going up or down steep hills. It is the best 4WD setting for driving with all the traction and power your 4WD can provide.

How Does 4WD Work?

The 4WD system delivers torque to all the vehicle wheels, increasing traction when necessary, especially on rugged terrain. You could easily shift in and out of it using any lever, button, or knob.

When you engage your vehicle’s 4WD system, the front and rear driveshafts lock together. This is affected by the vehicle’s differentials. These differentials (center, front, and rear) interact with the front and rear driveshafts to equally divide the amount of power delivered to each wheel.

The interaction causes the front and rear axles to turn at the same speed. So all the wheels of the vehicle can move (push and pull) simultaneously. You can adjust the differentials to deliver the amount of power needed to the wheels based on the demands of the driving conditions.

what is 4wd

Types of 4WD

Different car manufacturers provide various types of 4WD depending on the vehicle’s model. Here are some of the kinds of 4WD you’d find in cars.

Full-Time 4WD

As the name suggests, this 4WD system is designed for all the vehicle wheels to receive power all the time. With this version of the 4WD, the vehicle’s drivetrain structure delivers power equally to the vehicle wheels. However, there are some variants of this system that divide the torque to the wheels that need it at each point in time.

Full-time 4WD offers maximum traction despite the driving conditions since that is the vehicle’s default setting. That is why it is now primarily found in cars solely designed for off-road duties.

Part-time 4WD

With this type of 4WD, the driver decides when to use 4WD, and in some vehicles, the driver can lock the differentials when driving in extremely severe conditions. This locking action provides increased traction and allows the driver to shift between 2WD and 4WD while in motion. The part-time 4WD is mostly found in trucks and SUVs that are designed for really extreme conditions. However, it is not a great option for dry or smooth roads.

Automatic 4WD

This is the latest variant of the 4WD system that allows the vehicle to automatically switch between 2WD and 4WD depending on the condition of the road.

Pros of 4WD

  • Increased power
  • Improved traction and grip
  • Better control in severe conditions
  • Ability to handle a vehicle in various driving situations
  • Ability to move between driving systems

Cons of 4WD

  • It is expensive
  • Less fuel-efficient
  • Increased braking distance

Having seen how 4WD works, let’s compare 4WD Vs 2WD.  As the name suggests, a 2WD (two-wheel drive) vehicle is one where only two wheels receive power from the engine. There are two types of 2WD, which are front and rear-wheel-drive.  When the engine powers the front wheels it is known as the front-wheel-drive. When the engine powers the rear wheels it is known as the rear-wheel-drive.

They are cheaper, lighter, and more fuel-efficient than 4WD vehicles. On the flip side, they have less power and are not built for all terrains.

Let’s compare 4WD vs AWD to see their differences. With the AWD (All-Wheel Drive) engine power is sent to the vehicle wheels with the most traction at any point in time. Vehicles with AWD are built with computers that measure the grip and speed of the vehicle wheels to ascertain where the power should be sent to.

Ever wondered about AWD vs 4WD in the snow? The AWD is great for most regular snow conditions. However, if you have to drive during more severe snow conditions the 4WD vehicle is your best bet.

Do You Need 4WD

It all depends on the condition of the roads that you ply regularly. It is a great idea to have a 4WD vehicle if you have to drive under severe conditions like extreme weather conditions, snowy and rocky terrain. They are also great for towing tons of cargo. Here are some situations where you might need a  4WD vehicle:

  • When you need to tow heavy cargo at slow speeds.
  • When you need to go down slopes while towing heavy cargo.
  • When you have to negotiate steep inclines and declines.
  • When you need to negotiate snowing, muddy, or sandy terrain.


Q: Which Is Better AWD or 4WD?

It depends on several factors. Some of the factors include the purpose of the vehicle, your driving style, the terrain you ply, your budget, your geographical location, and the weather conditions around you.

AWD vehicles are best suited for speed and improved control while 4WD is designed for off-roading. So the best vehicle systems depending on your driving needs and conditions.

Q: What Is the Difference Between 4×4 and 4WD?

Both terms are often used interchangeably because of the similarity in their operations. What is a 4×4 car? Like with 4WD, all the wheels of a 4×4 car receive power when it moves. But the thing is all 4×4 vehicles have 4WD, although not all 4WD vehicles have a 4×4 system.

The difference is in the drivetrain system. The drivetrain setup in 4×4 vehicles is AWD while the drivetrain set up in 4WD vehicles is designed to deliver torque simultaneously.

Q: Is 4WD High Or Low Better?

It depends on the driving situation. Both 4WD settings are designed for different situations. The 4WD high is best for driving where low traction is required. 4WD low is best where torque multiplication is needed.

Q: Does 4WD Mode Use More Gas?

Yes. The 4WD car involves the use of several drivetrain components. 4WD vehicles also come with extra differentials, transfer cases, and drive shafts. The extra weight makes the vehicle heavier and increases fuel consumption since the vehicle has to work harder.

Q: Is It Bad To Drive In 4WD?

Driving in 4WD is often best in off-road or severe driving conditions. You should avoid driving in 4WD  when moving along the level, smooth, dry roads, because you are likely to damage your drivetrain. It is not bad to drive in 4WD but it is best to do so when the situation demands it.

Q: Is 4WD Safer Than 2WD?

Not necessarily. The safety of the driving system depends on the road being plied and the condition. Driving in the 2WD mode in conditions where traction is required can be dangerous. On the flip side, driving in 4WD on smooth, dry roads is also not a good idea.

Final Words

In summary, what does 4WD mean on a car? 4WD simply refers is to a system where all the wheels of a car are powered at the same time. With a 4WD system, the vehicle has a lot of traction which makes it great for off-road use.

At this juncture, we’ve provided some insights on 4WD meaning, its drivetrain system, and its implication for your driving habits. We have detailed information on what AWD and FWD mean on a car. Ensure you read them to know more about your vehicle’s functionalities.

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Osuagwu Solomon

Osuagwu Solomon is a certified mechanic with over a decade of experience in the mechanic garage, and he has over five years of experience in the writing industry. He started writing automotive articles to share his garage experience with car enthusiasts and armature mechanics. If he is not in the garage fixing challenging mechanical problems, he is writing automotive repair guides, buyer’s guides, and car and tools comparisons.

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