Jargon Buster – Do You Need Four Wheel Drive?

For a lot of people the idea of an SUV is a very tempting one, you only need to look down a busy road to see how popular they are, but is having four wheel drive an attractive part of the proposition and do you need it?

All Wheels, Four Wheel and 4X4

It is all to easy to refer to any car that has drive to all four wheels as 4X4, this would technically be incorrect for reasons to complex to go into here. Many manufacturers also use the terms all wheel drive, part time four wheel drive and full time four wheel drive to describe how the car gets drive to the wheels.


The real 4X4 vehciles like Land Rovers and Range Rovers not only had power going to all four wheels but also have an extra gearbox called a low range or low ration box. They will also have locking differentials between the wheels either side and front to back. What does this all mean? Well it’s not that complex if you avoid trying to understand how it all works.

A low ratio gearbox is a second set of gears, mostly selected through choosing a mode on the central console these days. This extra set of gears are very low, they are all lower than the standard 1st gear and allow the car to move incredibly slowly while still having power. These are used for going down very steep slopes, crawling over rocky river beds and sometimes just when massive amounts of slow pulling power are needed.

The idea of locking differentials is simple, on a normal car if one wheel gets stuck and cant move all the power will go to the wheel that can move. This is needed because a wheel on the inside of a corner turns less than the one on the outside, its a little hard to grasp but on normal road surfaces it is essential to stop the axel breaking. What happens on an off road situation is that one wheel gets stuck all the power goes to the wheel that isn’t stuck and the car cant go anywhere. To make sure you can get out of these kind of situations you need to be able to lock the “diff” and make sure the stuck wheel still gets power and so can help get the car out.

Whether any of this makes sense or not the fact stands that cars with this kind of technology are meant for use on very tough situations. That is not to say there are not amazing on the road, anyone who has driven a Range Rover will tell you they are are great. But it does mean you may not need all that off road tech if you never plan to enter any more than a deep puddle.

All Wheel Drive and Four Wheel Drive

Cars that state they are all wheel drive or four wheel drive have the same basic theme as true 4X4’s but without all the locking diffs and low ration gear boxes. They do have power to all four wheels and will be very useful in snow and mud but they don’t have the ability to lock the differentials for true heavy off road work. These are a great choice for people who often need to get across the muddy fields or deal with snow but may not need to ability to cross the Amazon Basin or drive up Snowdon.

Part Time Four Wheel Drive

More recently technology has allowed car makers to use rather clever clutch and other systems to make a car essentially two wheel dive like most other cars but they can also automatically become four wheel drive when needed. This technology works in various ways but the result is the same, when the front wheels lose grip the back wheels kick in to help. Some cars like the Nissan X-trail have this system but also offer the ability to lock the drive to all four wheels in very tough conditions. The massive advantage of these cars is that they cost far less to run as four wheel drive cars do tend to cost more in fuel. Having a two wheel drive car  in day to day situations means they are very economical but they are capable of four wheel drive if things get a little sticky. These cars are perfect for peoplewho love SUVs and do sometimes get lots of snow, or go camping from time to time during a British summer.

Two Wheel Drive SUVs

The final bracket of SUVs and “4X4’s” uses the much newer idea of a two wheel drive SUV. These cars have the looks of an off roader but not the complications, costs or capability. For many people who enjoy the saftey and high driving position in an SUV but only use it around town and on normal roads these are just perfect. However, do not be fooled into thinking you can go out in snowy conditions just because your car looks like an off road vehicle. Most SUV models come in a two wheel drive version like the Nissan Qashqai, X-Trail and Range Rover Evoque but many offer a Four Wheel Drive Version too.

Whatever SUV you consider, do some research and ask for some help at your local dealership. There area number of different options and each one suits different types of people, they all have pros and cons just like anything else. Knowledge is the key and is the best way to make sure you get the car that suits you best.