John B. Lewis' SUV Buying Guide: 4x4 vs 4WD vs AWD
Introduction: The first part of this page was sent to me by John Lewis in response to editorials at Drivers Central. I replied, and so did he, and we kept up a correspondence for a little while. He gave me permission to reprint his letters, because I felt they would be a valuable addition to the site. His perspective, as a long-time four-wheel-drive and off-road veteran, is far different from mine, as a paved-road driver.
I have not messed around much with the organization of this page. That's my fault, not John's.
The four wheel drive secret
There's a "secret" about "4WD" vehicles and, unless you've spent some time around the animals, it's easy to miss. Most new owners don't know it.
Almost all of those 4WDs running around out there are not four wheel drive at all!
Oh yes, they say that they are four wheel drive, the owners buy them because they think they are four wheel drive, and they have the hardware to become four wheel drive. However, most are part time four wheel drive, which means that when you are driving around town, you must be in two wheel drive. You can only use four wheel drive when in loose terrain or you will damage the drivetrain.
There are some exceptions. Land Rover / Range Rover, along with the Toyota Land Cruisers, have good lockable full time systems. Most of the other so-called full time systems are really automatic part time. However, the majority of the so-called 4WDs sold out there are part time, and the buyers have no comprehension that if they don't go off-road, they have a two wheel drive vehicle with inferior handling and braking, lousy gas mileage, and poor safety standards. And they paid a premium for them! Dumb, ain't it?
What makes me an "expert" in this area? I've driven a sport ute for years, and today have an old Land Rover and Range Rover. My real interest is in sports cars, small ones.
The proper place for SUVs
Why do I drive a Sport Ute?
- I do use it for camping in remote areas like the Mojave desert and remote Baja, so the 4WD gets regular use. Sport [as in sport utility] has nothing to do with "sports car" but with the sport of getting away to other sporting activities. (Most new so-called sport utes coming out have inferior off-road capabilities, so they can't even be used for that!)
- I gotta have something to carry the Lotus engine in when it breaks, and tow the E-type [Jaguar] home!
Yes, I agree with you that sports utes are mostly a waste of resources. However, they do have a place, if you use them as intended. Few do.
The Ford Expedition is a disaster. Huge outside, wasteful of space inside. Off-road capabilities very compromised by the stylists. What a waste.
I feel that Sport Utes and trucks do have some valid role, but unfortunately, 95% of the buyers are wasting their money and our resources. We see the same ridiculous waste, but from different perspectives. Sort of like fishing, it's OK to catch the fish to eat, but a sin to catch them and let them die without eating them.
Four wheel drive systems
According to a recent 4WD guide put out by Land Rover and several other comparison charts I've seen, the different 4WD systems can be roughly categorized as follows:
Group 1: Part Time
The following vehicles use a part-time 4WD system which must be in two wheel drive when you drive on the road. This is the cheapest way to make 4WD, and it works well off-road, but if you don't really go off-road you've wasted your money because you just have an over-sized gas guzzling 2WD station wagon.
- Chevy Blazer/GMC Jimmy
- Dodge Durango (standard)
- Honda Passport / Isuzu Rodeo
- Jeep Cherokee (standard)
- Jeep Wrangler
- Mitsubishi Montero Sport
- Nissan Pathfinder
- Toyota 4-Runner
Group 2: Automatic Part Time
It takes some reading between the lines, but from the materials I have, it looks like the following operate in two wheel drive and then shift some amount power to the front if rear wheels start to spin. What this means is you still have a two wheel drive truck, but after you start spinning a wheel it will help some. In many cases, that's too late. It is a good system for use in snow. This is a low cost way of getting a four wheel drive system that the manufacturer can call "full time."
- Acura SLX / Isuzu Trooper
- Chevy Tahoe / Yukon / Suburban
- Ford Explorer/ Mercury Mountaineer
- Ford Expedition/Lincoln Navigator
- Infinity QX-4
With part-time 4WDs, when you lock it up, the front and rear wheels must turn the same speed, and that means that when you turn, the tires have to slip. In tight turns, the front wheels will slip and you could go right off the road. It's really noticeable when you are in soft sand too. [And the turning radius expands dramatically].
Street Full Time
The following have real center differentials, and really operate in four wheel drive all the time, giving you four wheel drive that works on the street. But - the connection between the front and rear does allow slip, so it is good on the street, but not ideal for off-road (something those that don't go off-road don't need to worry about) This is a better way to go with a "full time" system.
- Dodge Durango (optional)
- Jeep Grand Cherokee (standard)
- Ford Explorer / Mountaineer (optional)
- Oldsmobile Bravado (has locking differential, but no low range, so not for heavy off-road use)
Full Time, On and Off Road
The following have a real full time off-road system, and a locking mechanism between front and rear, so they really are developed to operate in four wheel drive on the road and give excellent off-road capabilities too. This is the ideal set-up, and there are several ways to accomplish it, some good, some better. Unfortunately, it is the most expensive, too.
- Land Rover Discovery
- Land Rover Defender
- Range Rover
- Toyota / Lexus Land Cruiser
- Mitsubishi Montero
- Jeep Grand Cherokee (optional)
- Mercedes ML-320 (electronic locking, but body design not for heavy off-roading)
The first and fourth groups are going to be good for off-road use, but the first group does nothing for you on the highway. The second group would be good for use in snow, and helps some on the road, but isn't as good as it should be. The third group would be good on the road, and fairly good off-road. Only the fourth group does it all. Of course, they are the most expensive too. (That's why Land Rover wants to publish the data, but many of their sales people don't understand either.)
It gets confusing, and systems do change at times so list my not be current, but it does give an idea of how easily a non-enthusiast consumer can be fooled. To make things worse, the sales people really have no clue. I went to a Jeep dealer, and the salesman put the Wrangler in 4WD low and started doing figure 8's in the lot, tires scrubbing and drive line clunking all the time. I feel sorry for whoever eventually buys that one.
Most of the four wheel drive vehicles sold though fall into the first group, and unless you drive off-road, you just been sold an overpriced, overweight, gas wasting two wheel drive station wagon. Any Subaru would be a much better choice for most buyers, get decent fuel economy, and be a lot more fun to drive! Besides, if you want to know terror, imagine your neighbor's 16 year old daughter borrowing mom's Suburban, and heading out on the town, hairbrush in one hand, cell phone in the other, and steering with her knees. I saw exactly that the other day. She may not kill herself, but sure am glad my kids were off the streets!
Anyway, I've gotten spoiled by not having car payments and cheap insurance on older cars, so I drive the old Lotus to work much of the time, and use an older Range Rover for camping, hauling more people or stuff, etc. Total cost for both is less than a new stripped Jeep Wrangler! Every time I think about a nice shiny new car or truck, the kids’ college fund brings me back to reality!
Buying the SUV you need
I think that we would both agree that when you need to use a Peterbilt truck, by all means, buy one, but it's a sin to buy one and drive it when you don't use it. We gotta watch out because, some guy is going to say that all internal combustion engines should be banned because he only rides his bike, sure don't want that!
I am pissed at what the posers are doing, same as they did to sports cars. My fellow camping enthusiasts laughed at me years ago when I put on my strategic marketing hat and predicted that the growing popularity of Sport Utes would eventually destroy the market. Today, there are virtually no capable sport utes, they all support the image, and few are really capable. The newest ones are complete disaster off-road. Even Land Rover, who should be catering to the hard core seems to be going toward selling sizzle, and not the steak. Word is that the newest ones will not have transfer cases, and will use electronics instead.
It’s like what happened to sports cars in the 1970s. Hard-core sports car guys like myself who removed the soft top and put it in the garage for the summer, saw companies catering to customers needs by adding killer stereos, softening the ride, worrying about stylized headlights more than performance, etc. As a result, there were virtually no real sports cars available for sale. Mazda came closest to the original formula with a good synthetic sports car and made a fortune.
(PS. Drove the Lotus today, more fun and gets almost 30 mpg on the commute!)
The 4x4 image
I think that magazines always want to push cars from companies that advertise with them, and aren't afraid to pan those that don't, or those that snubbed them at the last press release or had lousy food on their last visit. 1980s BMWs are a great example where they made a really boring car, but the magazines raved about them, but when the new models came out, they said how much better they were than the old ones that were so bland. I always read very carefully between the lines. I'm in marketing so I notice these things too. When you see magazines like Automobile that come out with special editions sponsored by one company, gotta think they know who butters their bread.
When you look at "real" sports cars, they are a waste too. Today sedans like the Maxima, Intrepid, etc. have the same performance or better. Not as much fun though. I like the old Lotus philosophy of small, skinny tires, low horsepower, and lots of fun. Viper is no sports car to me, but is so outrageous, I'd love it!
I wish that more prospective SUV buyers would do their research. One guy here is going back and forth between the new Lexus and Infinity, and proudly says that he never ever plans to take it off-road. He claims to want the room. I proposed he get a nice luxury sedan, and an old beater station wagon or pick-up truck for the occasional times he needed to haul something, or better yet, rent. No, the world has gone ga-ga for SUVs that they never use. There may be a good side to it though, in 5 years when the gas prices go up, there may be a lot of good deals on low mileage, pristine SUVs out there.
The Chrysler minivan is a good example. I rent them quite frequently, and often have had 7 hour solo drives. They are very impressive, even the past generation ones.
A friend of mine is a consultant for Mercedes for their ML-320, and I had a chance to drive it off-road on parts of the Mojave Road.. It was quite nice, but no great off-roader in soft sand or when there were difficult rocks. However, on dirt roads and on the highway it was great, but ergonomics and quality of interior pieces wasn't so good. It is not capable of real off-roading, so the macho thing and utility for that is gone. What you are left with is something close to a Chrysler minivan with four wheel drive and star on the grill, but it is no where near as good as the Chrysler minivan, costs lots more, and is nowhere near as economical to run! But, as you said, try to convince someone wanting a macho image sport ute to look at the Chrysler, and no way! Oh yes, just try to open one of the Mercedes massive stylish doors when you are tilted over 30 degrees!
It's not possible to control what people buy, except to convince them to at least have an open mind and to become educated before they buy. How many people insist on their need for a sport ute, and discover soon after that they really didn't think about the downsides, and then never knew that they never used it in four wheel drive anyway. OK, so they go skiing sometimes. For the price of some of the basic ones, they could have a really nice Audi 4WD wagon, or an Outback (the one I usually recommend) and a nice Europe vacation. One I have always wanted to look at is the Mitsubishi 4WD minivan. Probably low on power, but it looks nicely sized. If Chrysler made a four wheel drive minivan again, that would be a killer if they could convince people to buy them. Maybe they could do like they do in Japan, where people are taking their little microvans and minivans and adding bull bars to them. What will quickly change things is another gas crunch. Recycler and Auto Trader magazines will be filled with them then.
Although the market is skyrocketing today, all but the die-hards will reconsider after going through one or two of them. I'd guess that the fickle, ever changing market will find another fad and move to that soon. Maybe sports cars with regular front doors and small pseudo rear doors for the kids, like Porsche was thinking about. Either that, or the so-called sport ute will eventually become so compromised to make it car-like that they'll start getting better mileage too and it won't matter. What's funny too, is that lots of the hard core "macho" guys know that a little 4 cylinder Wrangler or "flatfender" Jeep or Suzuki Sidekick (or an old beat-up 4 cylinder Land Rover like I frequently drive) make the best off-roaders and get decent gas mileage too. Too wimpy for today's sport ute buyers though!
Image is odd. Range Rovers that accelerate 0-60 in 10 seconds are considered slow, but the best Rovers are diesels that can't even hardly reach 60 in any time! I go off-roading with my little 4 cylinder 70 hp Land Rover, and it goes everywhere the new macho V-8s go, and sips gas. I have always thought that just enough to get the job done was right. If you can get more for free, meaning same maintenance, handling, and fuel economy too, that's great, but an around town car that must have 0-60 in 7 seconds at the expense of high costs and lousy mileage, come on. In Europe a large sedan with smaller engine is well accepted, but no good for the image here. Again, the Suburb Outback makes lots of sense.
My wife has a couple year old Jag XJ-6, and several years back the dealer let me drive a new 12 cyl XJ-6. It was really nice, fast, and fun. But, fuel economy was 12-15 mpg compared to my wife's 24-26, and handling with the heavy engine was no good. On top of that, it cost a big premium. What a waste.
I've spent a lot of time in the K cars, and lots of other small and mid-sized boxy rentals. Good power and torque to get the job done, and boxy so you sit up straight, have lots of room, and can see all the fenders. Very easy to drive. To be competitive new cars seem to have to be swoopy so you lose room and can't see the fenders. Bucket seats and aero styling are fine for sports cars, but as a "town taxi," too compromised. I used to really like the basic Buick Century over all other rentals, but since they've re-styled it, it's not a very nice car to rent anymore.
I wonder if someone came out with a basic 4 door sedan that was built really well, and had clean, timeless styling, how well it would sell? The old Mercedes 280 sedans were like that, as were the basic Volvo 240, and several others. Basically, town taxis without a pretense to being a lousy sports car. I think that a lack of such a vehicle, or the negative image implied by such a vehicle is driving many to minivans or if too turned off by that, to the sport utes. However, as they get stylized and compromised, I'll bet that they lose their appeal. It seems that the "green" cars are becoming more prominent at shows now.
My ideal - a medium sized wagon, (slightly larger than Outback to carry 4 plus weekend of luggage) powered by one electric motor in each wheel to give 4 wheel traction, with electric operation in town, and hybrid ultra clean diesel / electric when it needs more power or to charge the batteries. Wouldn't it be great to head off-roading, and cruise so quietly that the only sound is the sand under the tires, or at most, a little highly efficient motor running somewhere buried in the chassis? I saw a prototype of a military vehicle that was a bit larger, but much like that.
I have always had a secret fetish for Fiat X1/9s, and have had 2 of them. Small engine, skinny tires, and great fun to drive, while they give 35mpg+. Floor them all day long and have a blast running through the gears, no one even notices, and not too bad for the environment. Today with ultraclean engines it would be a great commute car too! That's my idea of a sports car! Yea, I'm weird.
I get over to Japan a few times each year. I used to see a lot of the micro vans and station wagons with bull bars, lights, tow ropes, etc added. Even saw one Mitsubishi micro van with full roll cage, lights, tow ropes, winch, and painted Camel Trophy yellow with stickers all over it. Used to think it was funny, but in a land where there is no place to go off-roading they maybe had the right idea. I say had, because the big sport ute idea has caught on there too, and there are lots of big Monteros, Land Cruisers, etc. now. They are diesel, but still fuel economy is not so good, and the stuff still costs the same per liter there as ours costs per gallon.
Oops and dangers
I go to a few off-road events every year sponsored by local forest service and sheriff departments as fund raisers for search and rescue, and for clean-up days. It's fun watching Mr. Macho in his big 4WD get stuck and getting pissed when a nearly stock Suzuki Sidekick skitters around him with no problem. BMW, Mercedes, Pontiac, Toyota, Honda, etc used to make 4WD cars and wagons but dumped them when the big ute craze caught on. I've got to think that when owners get tired of the oversized trucks and move back, they will still like the 4WD in the snow and Suzuki will really be in a good position.
Every time I look at it, the little Subaru sure makes the most sense.
Amen, amen, amen. I currently own a Jeep Cherokee and it is a blast. I mean there is no comparison between it and my 1984 Laser Turbo on the street but it is a dream when used to its potential. Although I do have ARB air lockers in my diffs so I get a good compromise between both on and off highway. I get irritated about the same stuff. The "keep up with the Joneses gotta have the newest most trendy SUV" thing. I have owned 4 different 4x4s (3 were pick-ups) and I enjoy driving off-road as much as drag racing. It seems such a waste to spend money on something you will never use.
Additional note: 4x4 vs AWD
In general terms, all AWD vehicles are 4WD under equal tractive effort (means the same amount of traction at all 4 wheel ground contact patches), but not all 4WD vehicles are AWD (which implies a permanent drive connection of some type between the drive axles).
4WD is the generic term, AWD refers to a specific type of drive. In a vehicle equipped with AWD, there is a coupling (electrically actuated dog clutch or friction plates, torque proportioning differential with a limitied slip mechanism, or other "declutching" device) between the front drive output and the rear drive output. This coupling is used to allow the 2 axles to turn at a different speed. In a corner, all 4 tires travel in different arcs, meaning that they travel at slightly different speeds. Without a differential device between the tires, side to side, you would make noise (slide or skid) one of the 2 tires.
The same thing happens between the front and rear drive axle-they turn at different speeds and must have a differential in between the 2 outputs of the transfer case to prevent drive understeer (sliding straight off the road) or drive oversteer (tail of the vehicle passing you). A 4WD vehicle does not have this capability to allow a speed variance between the axles, leading to binding of the driveline when the 4 tires cannot rotate at different speeds
in that same corner (as on dry, hard pavement).
Certain types of differentials (like the Torsen in the HMMWV) require a slight brake application to lock up the side to side torque proportioning differential, BUT in no way affects the front to rear differential inside the transfer case.
There are several vehicles that utilize an oddball transfer case- most notably the Jeep XJ series and ZJ series- called the NVG/NP 241. This particular transfer case has BOTH types of drive available- a locked up 4WD (properly called a part-time system) and an AWD (properly called a full-time system), selected by a lever in the interior.
- Bob Sheaves