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When & How to Use Four-Wheel Drive

Updated: March 2021

Four-wheel drive (4WD) is a vehicle system that powers the front and rear wheel axles at the same speed to help gain traction, according to Car and Driver. Drivers have to start a vehicle's 4WD system manually, but a vehicle's all-wheel drive (AWD) system is always on.

4WD systems are traditionally found in large trucks and sport utility vehicles, Edmunds says.

Sport-utility vehicle driving in the snow.

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When Should You Use Four-Wheel Drive (4WD)?

4WD is the way to go for heavy-duty jobs like hauling a boat trailer up a launch ramp, according to Consumer Reports.

Car and Driver notes that 4WD is not meant to be used all the time. It's only for certain road types, including rugged terrain and off-roading, as well as slippery conditions, like snow or mud. Otherwise, 4WD vehicles should be driven in two-wheel drive, according to Car and Driver.

How to Use 4WD

Most 4WD systems offer drivers the option of shifting between the 4WD high or 4WD low range, according to Edmunds. The default setting is the high range. When to use high range vs. low range depends on driving conditions.

4WD High

Popular Mechanics notes high range is for higher speeds and less traction than 4WD low. Edmunds recommends using 4WD high range on dirt or paved roads that are snowy, slick or icy

4WD Low

Edmunds says 4WD low range is for off-roading conditions, like deep sand, where you need serious traction. Unlike 4WD high, adds Motor Authority, the low setting turns the wheels slowly but gives you more torque on less forgiving terrain.

When You Shouldn't Use 4WD

Do not use 4WD on flat, smooth and dry roads, as it can damage your vehicle, according to Consumer Reports. Family Handyman adds that 4WD uses up more fuel to get the gears and drive shaft going. Turn it off when you don't need it to save on gas.

All-Wheel Drive (AWD)

According to Cars.com, AWD is a system that automatically gives power to all four wheels at once. It's typically used for lighter-duty vehicles such as sedans or car-based SUVs. An AWD engine can also regulate how much power is being sent to the front and back tires. This helps the car get the best possible traction. Cars.com adds that 4WD or AWD alone don't dictate your car's traction performance. You also need to consider the specific type of car you have and the condition of your tires.

Insurance coverage for a 4WD vehicle

On top of knowing how to use 4WD, make sure you have the right insurance to cover the vehicle itself. If your vehicle is damaged by hail, comprehensive coverage can help foot repairs. Same with collision coverage if you collide with another vehicle or object. And that's regardless of fault.

Also, ask your auto insurance company about roadside assistance. It can come to the rescue if your vehicle is stuck or breaks down on the side of the road.

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