High Heels and Four-Wheel-Drive

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It’s a good idea to skip the high heels if you’re going out for a hike.gravel drive 1

Similarly, a two-wheel-drive truck is just about the worst possible choice for attempting to make your way up a steep gravel driveway in summer.

Forget winter.

I rediscovered this truth the other day after not making it up my friend Tim’s steep gravel driveway in my 2WD pick-up. Combine loose gravel (which behaves a lot like snow) a steep incline and a vehicle (my truck) with most of the weight up front – but all the power going to the (light) rear end.

Slip-sliding away…

This same steep gravel driveway did not even faze the low-slung 2016 Acura ILX sport sedan I made the attempt with the next day. Despite the Acura having short-sidewall performance (not off-road) tires and having just a fraction of the ground clearance the truck has.

But the Acura is front-wheel-drive.2WD vs. AWD

It pulls rather than pushes itself.

This is a great advantage. Think of a cat clawing its way up a tree.

And a FWD car’s engine sits on top of the drive wheels, weighting them. Which is why it’s got more traction than a light-in-the-ass 2WD truck.

This weighting of the drive wheels, incidentally, is also why the old VW Beetle – air cooled model – was such an outstanding snow car. Though rear-wheel-drive, the Beetle’s engine was also rear-mounted. The weight of the engine pushed the tires through the snow, where they usually found at least some purchase. Instead of spinning, you kept moving.

But a front-mounted engine in a rear-drive vehicle = stuck, Chuck. Make that a double if the rear-drive vehicle is a truck – with an empty (and so, light) bed.

This, by the way is why bags of sand or other heavy things are popular carry-alongs in 2WD trucks.

They help… some.weight in the bed

Of course, four-wheel-drive (4WD) would help more – and with the extra ground clearance, you now have what you need for both gravel and deep, unplowed snow.

You have push and pull working together.

And – usually, in a truck-type system – you’ve also got more weight over the front wheels (transfer case) as well as a more even weight spread, front to rear.

Most truck-type systems also have 4WD Low range gearing – which really helps. Mechanical leverage is multiplied; the truck (or SUV, if it has truck-type 4WD) will hunker down – and dig in. With the right tires, such a vehicle can go almost anywhere – including my friend Tim’s god-awful driveway.

Did I mention having to back down? And that his driveway is about a quarter-mile long – and really narrow?

But  keep in mind that when you’re not trying to bully your way up a steep gravel driveway (or through deep snow) 4WD should, as a rule, be disengaged – else you risk wear and tear on the parts. Some 4WD systems must be disengaged on dry, smooth roads for exactly this reason. But this leaves you in back in 2WD (rear-wheel-drive) mode – with all the traction disadvantages that attend.4WD sticker

Truck-type 4WD is great on gravel, fabulous in snow. But on dry, paved roads what you probably want is FWD.

Better yet, AWD.

Because it provides a handling as well as a traction advantage.

Some of the newest AWD systems can selectively power (or de-power) individual wheels independently of the others, maximizing lateral grip and stability. For example, the tendency of the car to slide toward the outside of the curve can be counteracted by automatic transfer of engine power one side of the car to the other. Acura’s SH-AWD all-wheel-drive system (not offered with the ILX, incidentally) does exactly this.

Which is why the “SH.”

It stands for Super Handling All Wheel Drive.

Several other manufacturers offer similar systems, including Subaru and Audi. SH pic

And most of the latest AWD systems can also can split the power, front to rear, from 0 to nearly 100 percent (either way).

They can effectively go from FWD to RWD – to something in between – as conditions indicate.

Truck-type 4WD, in contrast, can only send the power in a fixed proportion (typically, 50 percent to the rear and 50 percent to the front when the 4WD is engaged). And when not engaged, 100 percent of the power goes to the rear wheels.

Slip-sliding away….

The other significant thing to know is that the truck-type 4WD system usually cannot route power to individual wheels, independently of the others. So there’s no handling assist to be had.

Truck-type 4WD is all about traction.

In a (relatively) straight line.SH 2

It’s meant for uphills – and downhills.

But not for the curves.

So, to sum up:

If you don’t want to get stuck, skip the 2WD truck. But think carefully before buying the 4WD truck. And give some thought to FWD – or better yet, AWD.

It might be the better way to get where you’re going.

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28 COMMENTS

  1. Having spent the last 50 some years driving in snow I can tell you that 4wd is for people who can’t drive. My RWD BMW has a Quaife limited slip differential that distributes torque via entirely mechanical means (no clutches or springs, all gears.) If I add chains I can get through any road where the snow isn’t so deep as to affect ground clearance. When going up hill the 50/50 weight distribution actually means that more weight is transferred to the rear as the angle increases.
    My Chevy pickup with Positraction and plenty of weight in the bed was good in the snow too.

    I laugh at all the 4wd commandoes with their wide mudder tires slipping and sliding into ditches as they try to go down steep and icy hills.

    This article is all wet.

    • The difference between 2WD and 4WD is when you get stuck with 4WD, you’re REALLY stuck!

      I recently had a front pinion bearing fail in my Ram 1500. While I was at it (overhauling the rear end), I installed a positraction carrier. It made a huge difference on snow-covered hills and should work well in the situation Eric describes too.

    • 2wd in the case of many pickups is a total misnomer. My Ford F100 is a 1 WD.

      Get that thing on a mild slope and some wet grass and I don’t care what you do, it’s getting stuck. because only one wheel will spin.

      Now, since it has a 9″ rear end, I should be able to upgrade it to limited slip easily, right? NO. That updgrade will cost me around $1000, just for a new center section.

      For an ‘upgrade’ that would have cost less than $100 when new.

      Why on earth anybody would want a pickup without at least an LSD in the rear boggles my mind, especially when you can add that to most pickups for a few dollars when purchasing new.

      So my old Ford sits with its 1WD and doesn’t get used much in winter. It cannot make it up my neighbor’s driveway without perfect conditions.

      My LSD RWD G37 can. My LSD FWD Jetta can.

      Again, why would anyone buy a new truck without LSD?

      I’ve even seen so-called 4WDs stuck, spinning 1 front tire, and 1 rear tire.

      LSDs should be standard equipment in all pickups and SUVs.

      • $1000 sounds like doing fabrication to keep things as original as possible and such or maybe because the truck has an odd sized track so the axle tubes have to be shortened or lengthened while custom axles made. For most cars and pickups it’s about finding the right junkyard axle to swap in with at worst swapping/relocating spring mounting plates.

        The only junkyard rear end that costs $1000 is the Lincoln Versailles axle if the seller knows what he has. That’s because it’s 9″ as I recall and it has disc brakes, limited slip, and it set up to be mounted on leaf springs and it’s Mustang sized in width. This makes it highly desirable for early Mustang build ups and hot rods. Now if that’s the one your truck would be using, that would be why the cost makes sense. But for an old F100 an old 8inch with drum brakes should do. I’m actually a bit surprised an F100 without limited slip would have a 9″.

        • BrentP, I have never seen an F 100 with the big axle since the entire point was to make a light truck. In fact, the ones made later had 14″ wheels.

      • Roy, I’ve never figured that out either. I can recall when LSD was a $30 option and rarely did you ever see one with it.

        Another completely stupid thing I’ve seen my whole life is comparing the price of new pickups via the window sticker. Every year, some automotive journalist would rightly point out that Ford’s were cheaper than GM’s, sometimes to the tune of $4, yep, that’s a real deal breaker alright. Later decades it would exceed $10, once again, a real budget breaker.

        Don’t mention things like one being front heavy, having thin sheet metal on the bed requiring a huge foot for headache racks to keep them from spitting.

        I rarely recall a test of a new pickup by anyone who knew crap about them either.

        About 10 years ago I was looking to install an LSD in a diesel 4X4 pickup I had and the price was about $800. You could buy all sorts of aftermarket units for half that. I commented about it to my cousin who runs the parts dept. for a very large dealership in the SW. He said that GM had just adjusted their prices for many parts, LSD being one of them. I’m thinking, yeah, $20 off one will make it competitive. Low and behold the price had changed from $800 to $400 with just the stroke of a key. Reckon they were making a bit on mark-up? Manufacturers never take a hit on parts…..ever. Mix in enough competition and they can suddenly compete. Whoulda thunk it?

        I recall from experience when GM made those great(sic)S-10’s you didn’t want to stop on a dirt road and have a person relieve themselves near the back tires or you might get stuck. I’ve pulled many of them out and had people say about my big Chevy, Boy, that 4WD sure makes a difference? Yep, it sure does and you should see it work when I use it but it doesn’t appear I will today.

        My El Camino has LSD and with the great weight distribution on it, it will go just about anywhere. A friend and I were chasing a flock of turkeys over some rough country just trying to keep them in sight so we’d know where they were headed and probably roosting. He said, I didn’t know these things were 4WD and we both laughed. I’ve been in some short WB pickups with LSD and been impressed by the places they’d go with just rear drive.

        Growing up, there was always a big mud puddle in the offloading section at the cattle sales in one town. It was one pickup after the other getting stuck with an empty trailer. It wouldn’t even have been an issue with LSD.

        When I was just a kid I’d ask somebody why they didn’t have a limited slip rear-end since they knew they’d be going down really muddy roads and such. They’d look at me like I was speaking Klingon or at best, ask me what I was talking about.

        Why every 4WD pickup and SUV doesn’t come standard with LSD front and rear has always been a mystery to me.

        4WD’s spinning one front and one rear reminds me of a friend who was stuck in his Blazer. He was mortified and said to me Can you believe this thing is only spinning one wheel each axle? I had seen it too many times.

        I think that mindset was put into print once in Car and Driver when a tester was comparing an Impala and a Galaxy. He gave the heads up to the Galaxy because the Impala has LSD and “some people might get into trouble because of the way it changes the handling”. Sure, if you are spinning both tires and in a tight turn and you stay in the gas it will certainly keep going in that tight circle. You’d think most people would have the sense to let the tires get traction and straighten it out. Always defer to the lowest common denominator.

        • service parts have tremendous mark up. 400% is not uncommon. Much of that mark up comes from the manufacturer then is multiplied through the distributor and dealer channels.

          Manufacturing is often done on razor thin margins where the real money is made by distributors, dealers, and retailers. That’s why it’s a big deal to cut a few pennies from a product, the manufacturer can often not tell the distributor and retailer and keep a little more. Also when a product is improved with some little ergonomic thing that looks like it costs more is often a cost reduction in disguise. That’s to keep the retailers, dealers, and distributors from demanding a slice of it. Because of this the ability to make money on parts is desperately needed. The retailers, dealers, and distributors don’t care because they mark it up a lot too and they really want people to buy new.

          Manufacturing has been squeezed out the USA from every angle imaginable. It’s pretty shocking how little a manufacturing company makes per unit.

      • Depending on year model, you could probably use a Ranger rear axle. If you have to move spring hangers, I don’t consider that a deal breaker.

      • You can pick up a ‘lunchbox’ locker for around $500 and drop it into your existing 3rd member at home in your driveway.
        http://www.jegs.com/p/Powertrax/Powertrax-No-Slip-Traction-Systems/744476/10002/-1?pno=2&itemPerPage=60
        I ran one in a V8 swapped S10 with narrowed 9″ (my daily driver and track toy) for over 5 years. It had some minor quirkiness but nothing that would prevent me from using one again. Handling was very predictable (acts like a spool when you’re on the throttle and an open diff when you’re not).
        I would recommend using synthetic oil in the rear with one of these – mine would not want to engage at temps below about 10 deg. until the diff. fluid warmed up a bit. I suspect synthetic oil would mitigate this problem.

  2. I’ve been a confirmed front-wheel-drive fan ever since I drove an Austin Cooper (I think that’s what they were called then) up California Highway 1 through Big Sur ca. 1962 (I always preferred to drive north on that road) and felt the pleasure of being pulled through the curves. Before that I was a VW type, but the Cooper/Mini replaced it as the ideal small car.

    Recently purchased a 2004 Honda CRV (to replace a 1985 Toyota wagon – lot of changes in cars in 20 years) and learned something important about AWD vehicles: When rotating tires, the spare should be included, so it will be worn to the same level as the other four – as driving with a new spare and three half-worn tires can trash the drive train as it tries to allocate power to wheels of different diameters. Which also means if the tires are significantly worn and one of them has an unrepairable blowout, one must buy a whole new set of five tires so they’ll all be the same size. Great news for the tire industry, I guess, but not so charming for the auto owner.

    Didn’t learn about this until after I’d bought the car, which has four very worn second- or third-generation tires on it, and the original, untouched spare which could be used only very carefully and briefly – and is no longer being made/sold, so I can’t buy four new tires to match it, but must buy a whole set of five and start over. I like the car generally (and am repulsed by anything newer I’ve seen – for reasons Eric has documented extensively), but really would rather it were simply front-wheel-drive (or 4WD by choice when needed rather than all the time), which I found sufficient for my use in a four-season climate when I had a ’79 Honda Civic. (The 2004 CRV did come in a FWD version, but only in automatic, which I’ve never had and don’t want; luckily I found a manual that was in good shape.)

  3. When you say 4wd are you talking locking hubs? And aren’t most 4X4 trucks just AWD where you’re able to disengage the transfer box. Do most 4X4 trucks without locking hubs come with limited slip diffs front and rear or just rear, and do some come with just regular diffs both front and rear?

  4. “Most truck-type systems also have 4WD Low range gearing – which really helps. Mechanical leverage is multiplied; the truck (or SUV, if it has truck-type 4WD) will hunker down – and dig in. With the right tires, such a vehicle can go almost anywhere – including my friend Tim’s god-awful driveway.”

    Not exactly. This is a common misconception. 4WD-Lo provides no more traction than 4WD-Hi. Low range simply, and only, gears down the power being sent to the wheels to increase the torque at the expense of rotational speed. This does not provide any increase in traction and does not make a vehicle “hunker down” or “dig in” any more than simply having the system in high range 4-wheel-drive does. It is essentially the same as shifting into a lower gear on a bicycle. You will pedal at the same rate, but the driven wheel turns fewer rotations and provides more power, but it doesn’t suddenly gain more traction.

    However, it has its advantages and they mostly have to do with serious off-road work. Take a scenario where you are “rock crawling” or carefully negotiating a path across a series of obstacles. The general rule in off-roading (with occasional exceptions) is that slow and steady beats power and momentum. The latter gets you stuck deeper as well as breaks vehicle parts. Having the torque increased at each wheel helps keep each wheel turning, but more importantly it permits much greater control over forward motion. You can keep the engine RPMs low, near idle, and subtly modulate the throttle and the brakes and carefully work the tires over the rocks without having to rev the engine higher and into the power band and have much more unpredictable power delivery to the wheels.

    Similarly, if going up a steep incline, 4Lo multiplies the torque at each wheel and thus provides greater power to turn each wheel, and provided that the tires have sufficient traction, will permit the vehicle to continue to climb.

    In a traditional 4WD setup with a transfer case and front and rear differentials, at most only 25% of the power can be delivered to any one wheel. If the differential on an axle is “open” and one of those two tires loses traction, immediately the mechanics of the system shunt the power to the wheel of least resistance in that axle and you effectively lose all power to that axle. Even if you have the ability to fully lock the front and rear differentials, only 25% maximum power can be used at any one wheel.

    Thus having a way of mechanically multiplying the torque by gearing down the wheels through the transfer case using a 4WD-Lo setting helps effectively increase the torque at any given wheel, assuming all wheels have traction (or all differentials are locked). So take, for example, a vehicle with 250 horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque peak out of its engine. At peak torque, in 4WD-Hi range, you’ll get at most only 50 lb-ft of torque at any given wheel. That might be OK on flat ground, but if you’re going up a steep hill, especially rock crawling or trying to pull through thick gumbo mud or something with a lot of resistance, that 50 lb-ft won’t work so well if you suddenly lose traction at two or three of the wheels. Put the same vehicle in 4Lo range and suddenly that 50 lb-ft is multiplied by whatever ratio the 4-Lo range has built-in, let’s arbitrarily say 3x ratio, and you’ve now got 150 lb-ft torque at each wheel to pull you through at the expense of traveling at 1/3 the speed.

    It’s actually pretty cool, and fairly rugged. Some bits and pieces can be actuated by electronic or pneumatic systems, depending on design, but they’re generally fairly solid and simple.

    Modern AWD systems in many SUVs, crossovers, sedans, etc. typically don’t have low range options (Range Rovers and Land Cruisers do, though, to name two). Some other systems use the CVT in them to simulate a sort of low-range, such as the new Jeep Renegade, though it’s not quite as good.

    Yet modern AWD systems compensate by having a lot of electronically controlled systems that can literally move power/torque around from wheel to wheel depending on where the computer thinks it’s needed. How well this works depends on the type of AWD system as well as the computer software capabilities. Yet in some systems, 100% of the power/torque can be sent to a single wheel, if it’s the only one with traction, and power can be shifted around within fractions of a second to adapt to changing conditions underneath each tire on the ground.

    Thus, under certain circumstances, AWD systems can outperform more traditional 4WD systems hands down. This is particularly noticeable when you see roller tests where one, two, or even three frictionless rollers are positioned under the tires of a test vehicle. It’s rather humorous to see the big, bad rock crawlers struggle and fail to pull themselves off the rollers (on flat ground, no less), then see a bone stock Subaru pull away like it was pulling out of a driveway. Yet at the same time, the Subaru would be hard-pressed to make it down the Rubicon Trail.

    The point is, you need to choose your weapon for the task, which gets back to your original point of the post. Understanding how your particular vehicle’s system functions can help you figure out how best to overcome its limitations. In your case, though it would have been a pain, you might have had more success backing your 2WD pickup up your friend’s driveway than driving forward, effectively converting it into a front-wheel-drive. Or better yet, just add weight to the bed.

    • I’d have to disagree about the driveway thing. Going forward shifts weight to the rear and on a slope, even more so. I’ve had hell backing up a slope in a 2WD pickup many times.

      At one time “townies” tried using their big FWD Toronado’s and the like pulling their boats. Crush time at the ramp and boat after boat has drained on the ramp and it’s really slick, the fact that the rear is having weight transferred to it and the front is having weight taken away and if you’re in a hurry, you’ll gladly offer to pull them out and get them the hell out of the way.

      A big storm right on top of you, the ramp is slick and people are side by side with 50 people waiting to load a boat and all you can hear is bzzzzz from those useless FWD cars. PLEASE let me pull you out.

  5. If you are only going to have one vehicle and live in the snow belt but do not want to spring for the additional cost in initial buy in and fuel, front wheel drive is the best way to go. RWD only is for fun cars or possibly SUVs/trucks in areas that do not see snow or if you already have a fwd/awd vehicle for bad weather.

      • This is to everyone – the “EPautos” domain is down; we’re still up at “ericpetersautos.com” and hope to have this resolved soon!

        • libertariancarguy.com has been working for me.
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7bSYG0qL3Y

          This is John Galt. If you’re listening to this, you are the resistance. I once knew a woman who told people to fear the future. That the end was coming. That all would be lost. Nobody wanted to hear her truths. Society locked her and her colleagues away and marginalized her.

          That woman was Ayn Rand… my mother. Now we know, that what she predicted has all come to pass. And so I ask of you to please believe in me, her son. The way that we should have believed in her.

          Command wants us to fight like machines. They want us to make cold, calculated decisions. But we are not machines. And if we behave like them, then what’s the point in winning?

          Listen carefully, I need everyone of you now. You are vital for one final fight. Those who are with me, may live. Those who are not, may die. It is that simple.”

            • Redemption period is 30 days. It expired on the 23rd. The debacle is that Dom is the contact. I snipped the below as to not give away personal info to people who don’t know how to use internet lookup tools.

              Domain Name: EPAUTOS.COM
              Update Date: 2014-08-23T10:17:55Z
              Creation Date: 2009-08-23T02:49:36Z
              Registrar Registration Expiration Date: 2015-08-23T02:49:36Z
              Registrar: GoDaddy.com, LLC
              Registrant Name: Dom

              • No response from Dom yet. I’ve been calling the numbers I’ve got for him all day; also sending him e-mails… nothing in reply yet.

                Not good.

                • You still have 24 days to get a hold of Dom and fix it before there is any issue. Dom can renew it and then transfer it to you or transfer it to you and then you renew it whichever godaddy allows.

                  You’ll have to fight off the scavengers when the redemption period is over. But if you get in the first bid (before its over) they’ll probably be scared off. I think it’s mostly a zero investment type business. Godaddy has the process on their website.

                  Just something obvious that might not be so obvious. Did you try to see if it is governed under your godaddy account for ericpetersautos.com? That one is entirely registered to you with a tech/admin email for dom.

                  • Hi Brent,

                    I spent about an hour on the phone with GoDaddy; they won’t let me renew EPautos.com without a PIN or password – which Dom has and I don’t. I’ve e-mailed and called him – and am surprised (and getting worried) that he hasn’t responded.

                    • Not ideal maybe, but epautos.co is available for a few bucks.

                      Make it clovercam 2.0 but also with all the same popular epautos content, in a new mp4 delivery platform.

                      I think making a epautos.co YouTube account might be a new direction.

                      The goal being to get other cammers involved and moving away from the text and image heavy wordpress scenario.

                      I play Larken Rose or Stefan Molyneux material on a computer for people sometimes. It’s a total snoozefest. He’s a tinfoilhatter.

                      When I play the same vids through DLNA YouTubeTV on a smart tv, mundanes are like: wow, who are these guys, and why haven’t I heard from them.

                      Somehow get someone else, maybe a one of our wives? to host and be the face of your podcast, and you call in as a regular guest, radio expert?

                      Maybe you can get on Roku even?

                      What about Libertarian Garage or else Libertarian Workshop as a concept. That is a far larger and more relevant arena for internet users as a whole.

                      Not just cars and bikes are discussed there. But everything to do with living and working can happen there. There’s a more open mindset that happens in our garages, I would think.

                      Hopefully though, you don’t have to change anything, because your ad revenue and site metrics will likely go to shit like the last time you changed something.

  6. Many 4wd are actually only 2wd, and most 2wd are only 1. Without a limited slip/torsen/locker of some sort each axle will select the wheel with the least traction.
    More important is tire selection, if you have all seasons or a performance tire you will get stuck much more easily (the M&S rating on those tires is a joke). I can’t even count the number of times I have had to pull some dumbass consultant out of a muddy field because they thought their rental 4wd exploder/f150/silverado/jeep etc…….. would keep up with our all terrain rigs and mud tire equipped trucks.
    Have you ever noticed that the first vehicles in the ditch after a bad snow are mostly 4wd trucks/SUVs? My $.02 is that these vehicles make people over-confident because they dont slip and slide getting moving but when it comes to stopping/turning they are no better than anything else on the road.

    • Exactly why on an icy glazed highway, I keep my truck in 2wd so I know exactly when traction is lost and I can correct before any issues. I also have no problem in 2wd cars on ice. It is just white knuckle driving. Almost all vehicles were suvs and trucks in the ditches. 4wd is for deep snow in town or on the highway

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