What’s the difference between 2-wheel drive, 4-wheel drive, and all-wheel drive?

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘wheel drive’, and as a car dealership we know that we’re guilty of throwing it around a lot, but what does it actually mean?

Don’t worry – we’re on hand to explain the differences and help you figure out what type of wheel drive is best for you and your family.

2-wheel drive

This is the simplest type of wheel drive, so is normally the cheapest. It’s best used in a place with a mild climate that does not experience much rain or snow. However, with modern traction control systems, good tyres, and a bit of driving experience, a 2-wheel drive system should be fine in more adverse conditions.

2-wheel drive cars come in two setups; front or rear-wheel drive. Most drivers wouldn’t notice the difference, but the general rule is that rear-wheel drive cars are better for performance but worse in bad weather, while front-wheel drive offers improved harsh-weather driving.

The front-wheel-drive means that the front axle is in charge of both steering and managing all the engine’s power. Whilst rear-wheel drive is controlled by, you guessed it, the rear wheels.

Front-wheel drive is employed in most family cars as it has better fuel economy and is less focused on performance.

4-wheel drive

Probably the most well-known type of drive, the 4-wheel drive is pretty old-school but will get the job done. Also known as Four by Four or 4×4, it’s typically used for off-road vehicles or vehicles with the ability to drive on all terrains. (So it’s a bit odd when you see mums steer them into the school car park!)

Put simply, the 4-wheel drive system splits power from the transmission between the front and rear axles so that maximum torque (force) is going to each wheel.

This means that all the wheels turn at the same time. Not such a good thing for turning as the inside wheel needs to turn more slowly than the outside wheel. But don’t panic. Modern 4-wheel drive systems get around this by using a driver activation system (levers, buttons and switches that are under the driver’s control).

All-wheel drive

A much more modern but complicated innovation, all-wheel drive was developed specifically for cars (rather than off-road trucks like with 4-wheel drive). All-wheel drive is engaged for pretty much the whole time you’re driving.

Power gets to the wheels by splitting between the front and rear axles on the centre differential, and the individual wheels by the front and rear differentials. These ‘differentials’ allow the wheels to rotate at different speeds.

All-wheel drive is most useful in slippery conditions when each wheel might be getting different amounts of grip.

It’s not quite as robust as 4-wheel drive and can’t match the levels of traction in extreme off-road conditions, but the all-wheel drive does work well on the road – improving grip and control, it gives sportier handling and traction.

Anything else?

One thing to remember when thinking about traction, grip and control is the quality of your tyres. Without sturdy tyres, your driving system will not be able to perform sufficiently. Check your tyres regularly, and maybe invest in different tyres if you’re going off-road than the ones you’d use to zip around town.

Each type of ‘drive’ is suited to certain conditions, and now you’ve been filled in on the specifics, you’ll be able to find a new car that will suit your needs perfectly. If you’re in any doubt at all, your local Perrys dealer will be able to help you decide on which wheel-drive will best suit your needs.