Difference between a Two Wheel Drive and Four Wheel Drive

Updated on July 16, 2015

Vehicles come in many configurations. The most common distinction is whether the vehicle is a two wheel or a four wheel drive. If you are looking for a car to buy, you have to carefully evaluate which type you need, as each is suitable for different road conditions.

Definitions

2-wheel-drive
Honda CRV SUV – a front two wheel drive

A two wheel drive means that the engine’s power is used on two wheels that spin to make the vehicle move.

  • A two wheel drive (front) uses the two front wheels to move.
  • A two wheel drive (rear) uses the two rear wheels to move.
4-wheel-drive
A four wheel drive vehicle on a rough road

A four wheel drive means that the engine’s power is used on all four wheels that spin to make the vehicle move. Different power settings in four wheel drive vehicles give rise to two types of four wheel drive vehicles: four wheel drive and all wheel drive:-

  • Four wheel drive can be used as a two wheel drive and are either a part-time or a full-time four wheel drive. A part-time four wheel drive vehicle is one in which the four wheel drive feature is only used on demand (under specific road conditions that need more traction). Conversely, a full-time four wheel drive vehicle is one in which the four wheel drive feature is operated at all times for all road conditions. Examples include Mitsubishi Montero and Suzuki SUVs (full-time and part-time respectively).
  • Not all four wheel drive vehicles can be used as two wheel vehicles. They have a feature in their system that automatically turns on the four wheel drive mode whenever need arises. The feature is also selectable in some vehicle models. Examples include the Toyota Matrix and the Pontiac Vibe.

Comparison Chart

Two Wheel DriveFour Wheel Drive
Uses two wheels to moveUses all four wheels to move
Cannot be used as a four wheel driveCan be used as a two wheel drive
Its vehicles are relatively simple and lightMakes a vehicle more complex and heavy
Relatively cheapExpensive

Two Wheel Drive vs Four Wheel Drive

What is the difference between a two wheel drive and a four wheel drive, then? It’s a matter of the type of power distribution to the wheels.

For a two wheel drive vehicle, the power from the engine is distributed to only two out of the four wheels of the vehicle. The two wheels can either be the front (front two wheel drive) or rear (rear two wheel drive). These vehicles are sometimes referred to as 4×2, meaning that the vehicle has four wheels of which only two are driven by the engine.

On the contrary, four wheel drive vehicles feature engines that distribute power to all four wheels. These vehicles can be referred to as four by four (4×4), meaning that the vehicle has four wheels of which all four are driven by the engine. These vehicles have many configurations, some of which have been highlighted above.

Vehicles with four wheel drive configurations are often more complex, heavy and consequently more expensive than two wheel drive ones.

Video

Below is a video that explains how a four wheel drive works. It also helps differentiate the different types of four wheel drive vehicles: