4WD vs 2WD Trucks: The Ultimate Decision Guide

Buying a new or used pickup truck is a big purchase. According to Kelly Blue Book, a new pickup will cost you over $30K and can exceed $50K depending on the make and model. The demand for hard-working vehicles is so high that even used pickups can have a price tag of over $20K. When shopping for a truck, it’s essential to consider all available options to get the most from your money.

The best drivetrain option is a decision that’s often overlooked. Many buyers assume that all trucks are four-wheel-drive (4WD). Or truck shoppers believe that 4WD is always superior to two-wheel-drive (2WD). The truth is that it’s more complicated than that, and you could end up paying more for a feature that you don’t need.

Both 2WD and 4WD have benefits depending on what you plan on using the truck for and even where you live.

  • A 4WD is more suited if you plan to drive off-road, tow heavy items,  drive up and down hilly terrain, or often drive in snow. 
  • A 2WD is more suited for highway driving, flat terrain, stable weather, lighter hauling. 

There are several things to consider when choosing between drivetrain options. In this guide, we’ll review the differences between 2WD and 4WD and how to decide which powertrain is the best fit for you.

What is Four-Wheel-Drive (4WD)?

First, it’s worth reviewing the parts of a vehicle that work together to spin the wheels of a truck. The torque that powers the wheels originates from rotating cylinders in the engine. From there, the transmission and the driveshaft work together to transfer it to spin the wheels. The driveshaft is the long rod that runs vertically under your car and connects to the front and rear axles. In a four-wheel-drive configuration, the driveshaft sends torque to all four wheels through a series of differentials, transfer cases, and coupling for maximum traction.

All-wheel-drive (AWD) has been around since before cars were everyday necessities and mass-produced. British engineer, Braham Joseph Diplock patented the technology in 1893. He invented it while he was trying to create a vehicle that would be less damaging to roads. What he created was a system that was better suited for difficult driving conditions.

From there, the popularity of AWD systems grew. One of the first widespread applications was in racing vehicles. Eventually, due to the World Wars, the need for off-road capabilities surged. In the 1930s, both Dodge and Ford began creating the first pickup trucks with 4WD for military use. Then in 1946, Dodge released the first AWD pickup truck made for the civilian population. Today, according to Edmunds, 45% of all vehicles sold in the US have AWD or 4WD capabilities.

What is the difference between 4WD and AWD?

Both 4WD and AWD vehicles use their drivetrain to power all four wheels. Either type of vehicle can employ all four wheels constantly or intermittently. Intermittent use can be automatic or through a setting initiated by the driver. The difference is that 4WD systems are more advanced. The added components of 4WD give better traction and allow it to handle more severe terrain than AWD.

Advantages of Four-Wheel Drive (4WD)

Four-wheel-drive provides your truck with better traction in challenging driving conditions. One example is off-road situations where the road may be uneven. Jagged or rocky paths can bring one or more wheels of your pickup off the road. In 2WD vehicles, you would lose half of the power to your wheels. With 4WD, you can maintain more of your pickup’s drive. That’s why 4WD is always an ideal choice for off-road driving.

Even flat, paved roads can be dangerous when weather conditions affect the driving surface. Rain, snow, ice, and even mud can create slippery roads and cause your tires to lose traction. 4WD is sturdier in these situations as all four wheels actively engage with the ground. If one or more wheels lose traction or come off the road, the vehicle is more likely to maintain control and recover. Also, the added weight of a 4WD truck helps keep all four wheels securely on the road.

Better traction and control can be significant advantages when it comes to towing. If you are pulling a boat or trailer in off-road conditions, 4WD is a must. A 4WD truck is also better for towing up and down steep inclines. Strength on slopes makes 4WD the best option for boaters that often need to navigate slippery boat ramps.

What is 2WD?

In a two-wheel-drive (2WD) vehicle, the drivetrain delivers power from the engine to only one set of wheels. The other set of wheels roll from the momentum of the car. A 2WD system can provide torque to either the rear axle shaft or the front axle shaft. Which axle receives power determines if it is a front-wheel-drive or rear-wheel-drive vehicle.

Rear-wheel-drive vehicles became popular with the rise of the front-engine configuration. Due to their mechanical advantage, front-wheel-drive was the standard drivetrain until the 1970s. Then the oil crisis created the demand for lighter, fuel-efficient cars. That is when front-wheel-drive gained popularity with carmakers. By the year 2000, almost all-new 2WD car models had front-wheel drive. However, most trucks and SUVs still have rear-wheel-drive.

Front-wheel-drive does provide superior gas mileage, better traction, and better climbing ability. Front-wheel-drive also allows more interior space when compared to rear-wheel-drive. But, for trucks that carry cargo in the back, it is better to have the weight and power at the rear of the vehicle.

Advantages of Two-Wheel-Drive (2WD)

Contrary to popular assumptions, 2WD can have several advantages over 4WD drivetrain configurations. First, 2WD pickups weigh less than their 4WD counterparts. This weight difference is partly because their drivetrains need to handle less load and are lighter in weight. A lower curb weight means that a 2WD truck will get better gas mileage than a 4WD pickup. The gas mileage is also better with 2WD because it takes less fuel to power two wheels rather than four.

2WD pickups also tend to have a higher payload and towing capacity than a 4WD truck. This extra strength comes from the lighter weight and the rear-wheel-drive configuration.  On average, a 2WD has a towing capacity 200 pounds higher than a 4WD counterpart and can haul 70 around pounds more.

You will also save money in the short term and the long run with a 2WD pickup truck. The initial sticker price on a 2WD model is, on average, $1,500 to $4,000 less than the same model with 4WD. Down the road, there are also maintenance savings with 2WD pickups. An AWD system is more complicated. The extra parts, including differentials, self-leveling systems, and transfer cases, mean greater maintenance.

What are the Best 2WD and 4WD Trucks?

By far, the most popular truck model is the Ford F-150. In fact, it is one of the best-selling vehicles in any class in the United States. It’s known for its exceptional performance and strength. It also has a stylish design and comfortable cab. These features make the Ford F-150 an ideal option for a work truck that also needs to function as an everyday vehicle.

The Dodge Ram is another extremely popular truck model available in both drivetrain options. The Ram has all the power you need in a work truck but also touts a smooth ride for long workdays. Depending on the towing capacity and size you need, the Dodge Ram likely has a good match.

Another versatile line-up is Chevy’s line of Silverados. Chevy offers many trim packages and customizable options. You can keep it basic or upgrade for a more elevated pickup experience. If you love the Chevy styling but want fuel efficiency, Chevy’s Colorado Model is one of the most popular diesel engine pickups on the market.

Should I Choose a 4WD Truck of 2WD Truck?

The choice between a 4WD and 2WD pickup is not as clear-cut as it might seem. The perfect fit is highly personal and depends on several factors. How you will use the truck, driving conditions, and budget all play a part. Make sure to ask yourself the below questions before making a final decision.

What Are You Using the Truck For?

First, consider if you intend to use this truck for everyday on-road transportation or as an off-road work vehicle. If you will be spending a considerable amount of time driving in challenging terrain, then 4WD is the way to go. You will get better traction and have to worry less about getting stuck.

If you are looking for a work truck with the highest towing capacity and payload, you should consider a 2WD rear-wheel model. They can haul and tow more than their 4WD counterparts. The exception is if you will be towing a boat frequently. 4WD trucks perform better when towing on steep inclines like boat ramps.

What Conditions Do You Typically Encounter?

In most cases, 2WD is all you need to drive safely on the road. Even in moderate snow, rain, and ice, a careful and competent driver can own the road in a 2WD truck. But, heavy snow and rain can present problems for 2WD. The superior traction and control of 4WD prevent slipping to navigate roads with heavy snow better.

How often do you see heavy snow, rain, or ice? If it’s once a year, you might be able to get by with 2WD. If you live in a location where it’s frequent, then having 4WD is a good investment.

What is Your Budget Considering Mileage and Maintenance?

Right off the bat, a 4WD pickup truck is going to cost you at least $1,500 more than the same model with 2WD. Pile on top of that, the reduced gas mileage and increased maintenance cost. Over the lifetime of your vehicle, 4WD is a significant financial investment. If you are on a budget, 2WD will be the friendlier option in the short term and the future. If you don’t plan on off-roading or driving in treacherous conditions often, save the money and buy a 2WD pickup.

The Final Word

Even veteran pickup owners are surprised to learn that a 2WD is not always a lesser version of a 4WD truck. Both drivetrains come with advantages and disadvantages of varying importance to the drive. Carefully consider what’s most important to you before investing in a new vehicle.

The perfect truck is not one-size-fits-all. Depending on your driving conditions, towing needs, and budget, either 4WD or 2WD may be ideal for you.

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