If you own a 4WD vehicle you may not be aware of all of the different features and modes that come with it. I know I felt overwhelmed when I got my first 4WD vehicle. With so many different features on newer vehicles, drivers can easily mistake 4WD mode for something else. A common mistake made is the use of off-road 4WD mode on the pavement, this can have a lasting impact on your vehicle.
If you do find you have driven in 4WD, Make sure to get underneath and check your vehicle, Turning your vehicle in 4WD tends to do most of the damage, Make sure to check the Transaxle bearings (for alignment, The hubs front axles, diff case, cv joints (for Cracks and Leaks) and make sure to listen for unusual noises as this may be a sign of serious damage.
I’ve done some digging to help clear up any misconceptions about 4WD mode, So keep reading to learn the best course of action for correcting common issues.
What is 4WD mode and how does it differ from other modes?
So firstly, what is 4WD? You’ve likely heard it mentioned it a lot and understand it’s purpose, but what exactly are the mechanics behind it?
A four-wheel drive vehicle refers to a two-axle vehicle that is capable of providing power to all wheels at the same time. In this scenario, the engine spins all four wheels at the same time rather than only two. Most vehicles come with a transfer case that allows the vehicle to swap from two-wheel drive to four-wheel drive and back with ease.
- What Is Four-High (4H) 4×4 High
4H mode allows the vehicle to achieve normal speeds on harsher terrains. This mode is normally engaged when the vehicle is driving on highways that are wet or have snow or ice on the track. 4H is also effective at achieving normal speeds on roads that are made from loose-gravel, mud or sand. To summarise this mode, it is for achieving normal speeds on your vehicle while also needing more traction on the road. If you’re travelling for long periods on a freeway that isn’t consistent in terms of terrain, this mode shouldn’t cause any long-term damage to your vehicle.
- What Is Four-Low (4L) 4×4 Low
4L is the mode you want if you are more off-road and are trying to traverse across the deep sand, water, snow or mud. This mode is also very effective when you plan on ascending or descending along steep hills or are trying to climb over rocks. For this mode to be at its effectiveness peak, it is recommended that lower speeds are used as 4L provides more torque to the wheels which are best used at lower speeds. Essentially this mode is designed for the maximum amount of grip and power for a vehicle. Since the wheels turn slower in 4L than they do for 4H, using this mode for hours on end can cause some serious damage to your vehicle including worn out bearings.
- Automatic Four-Wheel Drive (AWD) (If equipped)
The AWD mode is a handy mode that allows the vehicle to essentially make the decisions for you regarding when 4WD should be activated. Think of it as an automatic vehicle shifting gears but instead the vehicles monitors traction of the wheels rather than speed and rpm of your vehicle. If you are travelling across terrain that isn’t consistent such as a freeway after heavy rain, this setting is highly recommended. As the vehicle tracks your traction and other factors, it will not keep the 4WD mode activated if it will damage the vehicle.
- Things to remember about these settings
The most important setting to remember about all 4WD settings is that they shouldn’t be used on smooth, flat and dry roads. These settings are for harsher terrains and using them for prolonged periods of time on normal roads can cause damage. Additionally, it is important to note that 4WD provides torque to all of your wheels but doesn’t help you come to a stop any easier. From this point, you should always aim to be at a reasonable speed where you have enough time to stop if the situation calls for it.
Damaged cause from the wrong use of 4WD mode
As we previously touched on, if you use the 4WD modes incorrectly you may experience some damage to your vehicle. On the road, if your vehicle is in 4WD mode, turning corners can be dangerous and cause tyres to slip or spin. Fuel consumption and your fuel bill are likely to sky-rocket and you will wear out your bearings. There is a potential to destroy your gearbox due to the increased strain on the vehicle.
With any issue that may arise after using 4WD for long periods of time it is highly recommended to take your vehicle to a mechanic as a small issue that may arise could lead to a major breakdown in your vehicle later on. A mechanic will be able to run the appropriate tests for your vehicle to find and analyse what is damage and help you through the recovery process.
If you manage to notice that you are in the wrong mode quickly there shouldn’t be any prolonged damage to your vehicle. As there is extra torque being transferred to the wheels, short term effects will probably range from some unusual noise coming from the vehicle to excessive fuel consumption.
What should you do before you go four-wheel driving?
For those who are new to the four-wheel drive scene there are some steps you should take prior to your trip to ensure that everything goes smoothly. One of the most important aspects, when you are planning on engaging in either 4H or 4L mode, is the pressure of your tyres. The factory default setting for tyre pressure should be approximately 38 psi but be sure to check the manufacturer’s guide beforehand.
To ensure that your tyres remain at a pressure that is safe to drive on you want to be sure that you have a tyre pressure gauge in your vehicle so that you can check their status after every major obstacle or circuit. If the pressure does drop below than what is recommended you should pump them up immediately to avoid any potential damage to you or your vehicle. A compressor to reinflate your tyres should also be in your car. Make sure you check out our recommend gear page to see our pick of the all the 4×4 recovery gear out there including compressors, tyre deflators and gauges
Another handy tool that you should be bringing with you on all 4WD trips is a shovel. Whether you are the most experienced on inexperienced driver out there, accidents can happen and you may find yourself bogged. Having precautionary tools in your vehicle allows you to enjoy yourself without the fear of hiring help to get you out of an awkward situation.
Along with a shovel, a plank of wood is also an effective tool that you can bring to help you get out of some serious bogs especially in sand or other terrains with low density. All of these tools and equipment are rather cheap and definitely won’t set you back as much as it would to get a tow truck or crane to pull you out.
Is a 4WD safer than a 2WD?
One of the most common questions about 4WD vehicles is if they safer than their 2WD counterparts. Well, the short answer to this question is no. While 4WD vehicles do provide more traction and stability on harsher terrain, compared to slowing down the difference is insignificant.
If you were to drive upon an icy or wet road with 4WD engaged at a normal speed, a person driving on the same road but slower would be much slower. The purpose of these vehicles is to provide more traction and to adapt to road conditions; however, this shouldn’t be a substitute for careful driving. Originally 4WD vehicles were designed to stop the wheels from spinning on dry surfaces due to them carrying heavy loads.
Regardless of your driving experience with any vehicle under any weather condition, it is better to be safe than sorry and slowdown in dangerous areas.
Can you shift to 4WD mode while you’re in transit? For many older vehicles that have 4WD you would have to come to a complete stop when you are shifting between 2WD and 4WD as well as from 4H and 4L. This is due to the technology at the time not allowing the vehicle to have a free-flowing effect where it can be easily changed at any time during transit. Newer vehicles, on the other hand, do have this feature so it is recommended that you read your car’s manual before you attempt to switch modes while driving. If your vehicle, on the other hand, is AWD, it is capable of changing at all times and can choose when to deliver torque to each of the wheels.
What is 4×4 auto? 4×4 auto is another term for a vehicle that has Automatic Four-Wheel Drive (AWD). Essentially it means that the vehicle is capable of making its own decisions in regards to when a 4WD mode should be activated. This mode can prove to be very beneficial if you are driving on a prolonged period of time and the conditions of the road may change. Instead of worrying when you should activate the 4H mode, the vehicle will activate it automatically and change back once the conditions improve.