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Do you really need four-wheel drive?Notes From The Road

2WD vs. 4WD - Do you really need four-wheel drive?
By Debbie Murphy/autoMedia.com

If the world of off-roading calls out to you, and you're ruing the limitations of your two-wheel-drive light truck, then read on.

While 4x4s are the kings of rock crawling, mud bogging and all other sorts of non-paved adventures, you don't have to scrap your reliable 4x2 in order to join in the fun. By simply adding a few upgrades, you and your 2WD may be able to respond to that call of the wild.

Closing the Gap
Ten or 15 years ago, the choice between two- or four-wheel-drive light trucks involved some serious thinking. Although tempered by the fact that the off-road models held their resale value in direct proportion to their less expensive 4x2 counterparts, at least on a regional basis, the cost of 4x4s was higher. To further complicate matters, the 4x4 option at that time came with some noticeable downsides: harsh rides on paved roads and heavier weight, resulting in lower gas mileage and less highway horsepower.

With the growing popularity of light trucks in the forms of both pickups and SUVs, manufacturers realized that this vehicle category was being used in a broader range of driving conditions than before. The result of this realization is a wide truck selection that appeals to today's driver, and a narrowing gap between two- and four-wheel-drive features.

Today, some of the larger heavy-duty trucks come with the same suspension systems loaded on their 2WD and 4WD models. The only real remaining differences are the inclusion of differentials on the front wheels of 4x4s and the availability of lower gearing and higher low-end torque in the 4x4 mode – a plus for tow vehicles, regardless of whether or not they ever actually encounter off-road driving conditions.

Modifications
So what sort of modifications will breathe new life into your trusty 4x2 and open up new off-road capabilities? Look at the 4x2 Toyota Prerunner, a phenomenon modeled after the two-wheel-drive trucks used to pre-run desert races. Having to cover the same terrain as the actual race trucks, they are not obligated to do everything that the race trucks are capable of. You may also consider that the famed Paris-to-Dakar rally now has a category for two-wheel-drive vehicles.

The ability to take a 4x2 off-road boils down to attaining two simple, necessary factors: ground clearance and traction. Lift kits – designed to provide that extra clearance for oversized tires and to avoid gutting your undercarriage on rocks while still maintaining steering and braking geometry – are available for 4x2s. With the availability of lift kits and other suspension upgrades, you can now put a system together that is tailored to your own, personal off-road requirements without having to compromise highway comfort.

The same holds true for tires that are intended to provide you with the traction you need. With the variety of off-road competitions, each requiring a specific tire design and tread, the only limitation is your wallet. BFGoodrich, with an unchallenged success rate for both Baja and Paris-to-Dakar rallies, markets a heavily treaded tire designed as the rear tire for two-wheel-drive desert racers.

One possible additional option for two-wheel-drive truck owners is an effective locking system for the differential. A number of 2WD and 4WD pickups have limited-slip differentials that lock up the axle when a wheel starts to slip. When the axle is locked, full power is delivered to both wheels


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