4 wheel drive – How it works, who needs it and which models have it

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Car manufacturers are very eager to mention it in catalogues that certains models are available with a 4×4 drive. Unfortunately, this term often refers to systems working in very different ways. That's why it's a good idea to learn what exactly the salesperson at the dealership means when saying „4 wheel drive”.


4 wheel drive, which means…

The first type of 4×4 drive is all-time four wheel drive, where torque is always split between two axles. It is possible thanks to using a third differential. We can find an all-time 4 wheel drive in models such as Audi Allroad, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and Pajero, Toyota Land Cruiser or Land Rover Discovery.

All-time 4 wheel drive can be further divided into symmetrical and asymmetrical. We can find the symmetrical variant in Land Rover Defender, where the torque is split equally between both axles. In the asymmetrical variant, on the other hand, we have a distribution of the torque between the axles depending on the needs, with use of an interaxle differential or a multi-plate clutch.

The second type of 4×4 drive is manually engaged 4 wheel drive. In this case we're dealing with a situation where one of the axles is powered all the time, while the second axle drive can be engaged with a dedicated switch or button. Engaged drive can be found, among others, in Suzuki Jimmy, Jeep Wrangler or Nissan Patrol, where the back axle is powered all the time, while the back axle drive can be engaged. We should only use that option, however, off-road. On normal surfaces this type of 4 wheel drive will be more of a burden than support.

The third type of 4 wheel drive is automatically engaged drive. It's the middle ground between the all-time 4 wheel drive and the manually engaged drive. We can find this approach, among others, in Mitsubishi Outlander, Toyota RAV4, Volvo AWD, Suzuki SX4, Audi A3 or BMW X5. In this variant, the power is constantly and directly transferred to one axle while an multi-plate clutch also automatically transfers it to the second axle when needed.

What are the upsides and downsides of a 4 wheel drive?

The truth is that most of the time a 4 wheel drive car will be more universal than vehicles with a single axle drive. It concerns both different types of surfaces and weather conditions. With a 4 wheel drive on board, we can definitely get further than without it. However, it doesn't mean that we can reach any destination any time. 4 wheel drive obviously provides better traction than a single axle one, but if we get caught in a skid, which sadly can happen, it might be very difficult to get out of it. It's because with 4×4 drive cars, an understeer can seamlessly  turn into an oversteer, which makes dealing with it much harder.

It is also hard to deny that the costs of purchasing a 4 wheel drive car are significantly higher than when it comes to single axle drive cars. 4 by 4 drive cars are also much more expensive to maintain. We will also visit gas stations more often, especially when we go for an all-time 4 wheel drive. This type of configuration usually makes our car heavier, which increases the craving for fuel. Potential repair costs will also be higher. That's because we're going to deal with a sophisticated system that, like any other part of a car, will sooner or later break down.

That's why the decision on buying a car with both axles powered has to backed up by more than just economical factors. This type of car will surely come in handy for people who often drive in rough terrain, i.e. they live or work in mountain or forest areas, or tourists who regularly visit the ski resorts located at the highest altitudes.

4×4 drive cars available on the market

To wrap it up, let's take a look what choices we have when it comes to new 4 by 4 drive cars. To do that, we visit one of the most popular advertisement websites in Europe. First let's take a look at vehicles with an all-time 4 wheel drive:

  • Audi A5, A6, A7, Q2, Q3, Q5 and Q7;
  • BMW 4, 5 and 7 series as well as X1, X3, X4 and X5;
  • Mercedes C, E, S class, as well as CLA, GLC, GLE and GLS models;
  • Volkswagen Amarok, Golf, Multivan, Tiguan, Touareg.
  • Subaru Levorg, Forester, Outback and XV;
  • Mini Clubman, Cooper S, Countryman;
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee.

When we filter the results to display vehicles with an automatically engaged 4 wheel drive, we will get models from manufacturers like BMW, Audi, Volvo, Volkswagen, Mercedes, Porsche and Honda. The least represented group is cars with a manually engaged 4×4 drive. Among them, we can find makes such as: Nissan, Mitsubishi, Toyota, Suzuki, Jeep, Isuzu and Hyundai.

Overall, there's plenty to choose from. Of course, secondary market is also full of interesting choices. But remember to avoid offers for used 4 wheel drive cars going for few thousand euro. Low price usually means that soon after the purchase you'll spend much more at the repair shop.