Pickup Trucks 101: Driveline Systems

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By Matthew Barnes

Almost every driveline type available is offered in a pickup truck. Most pickups come standard with rear-wheel drive and have optional all-wheel-drive and/or four-wheel-drive systems. Here's our guide to their differences, strengths and weaknesses.

Front-Wheel Drive

There are two types of two-wheel-drive drivelines: front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive. FWD is not common in pickup trucks. The Honda Ridgeline is only FWD pickup currently being sold in the U.S. FWD provides packaging and fuel economy benefits. Without a transfer case, rear driveshaft and rear differential, a FWD pickup provides more space for designers to work with and less overall weight.

FWD has more grip than RWD in most low-traction situations. That's because there is more weight on the front axle than the rear, unless the vehicle is loaded. FWD typically costs less, weighs less and is more fuel efficient than 4WD and AWD. Another advantage to FWD is that it is hard to put the vehicle into an oversteer situation; for drivers, this means it is easier to control when slipping.

The most significant downside to FWD is that when the wheels do slip, the ability to steer is completely lost. Front-wheel drive also means there is less room for your hands when doing under-the-hood maintenance work.

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Rear-Wheel Drive

Rear-wheel drive, the second type of 2WD, is standard on most pickups sold today. This is a great option for those who put a lot of miles on their trucks but don't need the extra traction offered by 4WD. Like FWD, RWD vehicles cost less and get better fuel economy than their AWD and 4WD counterparts. They also weigh less. These benefits make the RWD platform a good one for towing and hauling in areas with good traction. While not comparable to AWD or 4WD, many RWD pickups are offered with a limited-slip rear differential; this helps improve traction at a fraction of the cost of an AWD or 4WD truck.

All-Wheel Drive

AWD is offered in a variety of forms. It can be a part-time system that only engages when slip is detected or when the driver engages the system. A part-time system reduces fuel consumption; however, it may take a moment for the system to fully engage or the driver may forget to engage it. Full-time systems are engaged and ready for action all the time. These systems are easy to use and hard to damage. Full-time AWD means extra traction is always available, but it comes at the expense of fuel economy.

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Four-Wheel Drive

Four-wheel drive differs from AWD in that the center differential, typically inside the transfer case, can be manually or automatically locked. Many 4WD vehicles also have a transfer case allowing the vehicle to be placed into Low Range. Low Range usually has at least a 2-1 gear-reduction ratio, making slow-speed maneuvers and/or pulling tree stumps out of the ground much easier. Some 4WD systems also have an AWD-type setting in which the center differential isn't locked, but traction can get to all four wheels if the surface allows. Conversely, many have a gear-driven or alternative-style limited-slip center differential that is engaged when the system is manually placed in 4WD. This is great for driving in the rain or on roads that are mostly clear with some slick spots. Four-High usually locks the center differential and can be engaged while the transmission is in gear and the vehicle is in motion.

Being able to engage 4-High while the vehicle is moving is great for rapidly changing road conditions where it isn't safe or practical for the driver to stop to engage 4WD. If not properly engaged, the transfer case and other driveline components may be damaged. To protect the system, 4-High should only be engaged when all four wheels are moving at the same speed. There are also limitations on how fast a vehicle can go when engaging or using some 4WD systems. Be sure to read the owner's manual for your vehicle.

The problem with having the center differential locked is that in high-traction situations (like on pavement), the drivelines can bind and cause the tires to "scrub" or "crow hop," damaging the drivetrain. To shift into 4-Low, the transmission must be placed in Neutral and the vehicle must be moving at a low speed or stopped — between 1 and 5 mph is often recommended. Low Range is great for slow-speed driving when off-road or towing on slick boat ramps. The lower gearing increases the engine braking performance for descending steep slopes, and increases the torque at the wheels for easier climbing. This also can be useful for towing a trailer, but it does take extra time to stop and shift into 4-Low. If the center differential is locked, 4-Low shouldn't be used on high-traction surfaces.

The most versatile 4WD systems provide the driver with the ability to choose when to lock the center differential. This means that the vehicle can be placed into Low Range for backing a trailer up a steep hill or for pulling a boat out of the lake without having the tires scrub and the drivelines bind from the center differential being locked. It also allows the pickup to act like an AWD vehicle when placed in 4-High with the center differential unlocked.

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Making a Choice

Four-wheel-drive systems add cost, increase vehicle weight and lower the fuel efficiency of a pickup compared to 2WD systems. Although you must decide for yourself, the positives typically exceed the negatives when vehicle pickup is used in situations where the extra traction may be needed.

[Photo: 4WD and Center Diff Buttons image.]

When shopping for a new pickup truck, evaluate the situations in which your pickup will be used. With all other variables being equal, a 4WD or AWD vehicle will likely outperform a similarly equipped FWD or RWD in heavy rain, snow, ice or off-road. Unfortunately, 4WD and AWD vehicles cost more to purchase, to run and to maintain, but they also have a higher resale value in areas where they're popular.

Cars.com photos by Evan Sears, Angela Conners, Matthew Barnes

 

MB 4WD Selector Knob and Center Diff Lock Button II

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Comments

I really liked the 4wd system on our 4th gen 4Runner (2006 4.0 V6). It had the multi-mode 4WD which allowed for:
2WD/full-time 4WD/4WD w/center diff locked/4LO w/center diff unlocked/4LO w/center diff locked

It was so nice having this system, basically when it snowed you could lock or unlock the center diff depending on how clear parts of the road were. You get the benefits of a part-time 4WD, the benefits of a full-time 4WD, and the benefits of a locked 4WD all in one package.

I believe Toyota still uses this system on the Sequoia, but the Limited 4Runners and Land Cruisers are full-time 4WD with no 2WD option.

The 4WD in my 2016 Toyota Tundra Platinum engages much quicker than my pre-2014 Tundra's. The new BorgWarner transfer case made the lock time such shorter compared to the old transfer case in the 2007-2013 Tundra's.

GM auto 4x4 with the standard auto locking rear axle. BAM!

For years I belonged to various hunting clubs and needed a dedicated "woods" truck. Mine was a lifted 79 Ford F150 with a 4 speed stick shift and 2WD. It was already old when I got it.

Despite the lack of 4WD it never got stuck. It had many drawbacks but it was very handy having a second vehicle that was good off road and could double as a grocery-getter in a pinch.

Today I'm more inclined to have one vehicle that can do it all, but in those days I loved having the old camp truck.

The Honda Ridgeline does it all but Papa Jim hates it because it's not a GM.

Mine was a lifted 79

@Papa Jim--Still stuck in the 70s.

Papa Jim - - -

I had a '74 Dodge D100 2WD Club Cab, Manual Trans.
Also never got stuck. Didn't need 4WD.
Gave it to an old monk for his goats.
Wish I had it today. Utterly tough and reliable.
No dumb gadgets!

==================

4AUTO in my Silverado with locking rear diff is more than enough for diving through deep snow covered roads, across frozen lakes, and up muddy embankments on job sites.

FWD is the biggest FU to consumers in automotive history. It should be relegated to cheap disposable subcompacts but is now standard in most applications. If it were up to consumers we would still be able to buy '57 Chevys off of dealer lots who would be more than happy to sell them. You can thank the government for mandating all sorts of insane regulations and made awful trade agreements that killed entire industries and eliminated consumer choice. Now we have expensive crapboxes made somewhere else.

and by BAM, I mean BAM, CLUNK, roadside assistance.

Is this papajim and friends at the car show?

Imagine if Chevy just retooled their shhh?

https://youtu.be/vZwAUMIB1rw

Too funny.

It's funny how Nitro got nothing. Guess those Ford drivetrains are not that great. They certainly don't measure up in the HD segment. Nitro, does your steering wheel wobble when making a turn in 4x4? HAHAHA!

No '57 for me. I will take all the new stuff any dsy.

I so miss floor sifters. Auto hubs with manual back up are GREAT.

I agree with papajim. The 70s Fords were better than the Ford trucks today.

Speaking from experience here, my 250 has been flawless in this category. I tow about 80% of the time using the truck, no wobble, GMS, of shake like your Chevy. Cant say the same for 2 silverados I owned, junk rear ends, and rusty Mexican frames.

@Nitro, you are correct, my only experience in trucks is the current Gm I own. I never drove any of the others, so I should shut up now.

@GMS, you are loosing your mind. My Aveo has a great drive-line.

papajim and friends at the car show

https://youtu.be/vZwAUMIB1rw


Posted by: Tom | Aug 31, 2017 10:11:57 AM

Which one is papajim?

Speaking from experience here, my 250 has been flawless in this category. I tow about 80% of the time using the truck, no wobble, GMS, of shake like your Chevy. Cant say the same for 2 silverados I owned, junk rear ends, and rusty Mexican frames.


Posted by: Nitro | Aug 31, 2017 11:59:11 AM

Can't make a post without Chevy or GMC rolling off your keyboard?

Some deep seeded GM love going on here?

Tell us about that super duty with the horrible sag, the box being held on by one bolt due to rust-out (tons of rotted beds up here in the midwest), or the brake job that gets done every 6 months (front and rear, take your pick),

All known problems on super duty, but go ahead and tell us about the issues with the GM twins you have to offend on every post.

...........but go ahead and tell us about the issues with the GM twins you have to offend on every post.

Posted by: andrwken | Aug 31, 2017 12:32:57 PM

You got Nitro on the run. Soon he will be posting as andrwken.

For years I belonged to various hunting clubs and needed a dedicated "woods" truck. Mine was a lifted 79 Ford F150 with a 4 speed stick shift and 2WD. It was already old when I got it.

Posted by: papajim | Aug 31, 2017 9:02:17 AM

A "lifted" 2wd? Body or Suspension?

I always liked that era Ford trucks. The highboys were pretty damn cool.

I don't miss manual locking hubs....

...........but go ahead and tell us about the issues with the GM twins you have to offend on every post.

Posted by: andrwken | Aug 31, 2017 12:32:57 PM

You got Nitro on the run. Soon he will be posting as andrwken.


Posted by: GMSRGREAT | Aug 31, 2017 12:44:01 PM

He can't spell it right. He's tried a few times while directing his venom in my direction....

hahahaha

They really should user/pass these comments. I like a lot of the discussion and the "friendly" banter about who's truck is better but it gets out of hand. Then we get butt-hurt keyboard warriors overtaking the comments. Puts a lot of people off.


...........but go ahead and tell us about the issues with the GM twins you have to offend on every post.

Posted by: andrwken | Aug 31, 2017 12:32:57 PM

You got Nitro on the run. Soon he will be posting as andrwken.


Posted by: GMSRGREAT | Aug 31, 2017 12:44:01 PM

He can't spell it right. He's tried a few times while directing his venom in my direction....

hahahaha

They really should user/pass these comments. I like a lot of the discussion and the "friendly" banter about who's truck is better but it gets out of hand. Then we get butt-hurt keyboard warriors overtaking the comments. Puts a lot of people off.

Agree with andrwken, my GM comments have no merit, i do not even own a truck, but ride around in my dads (papjim) aveo and get great mileage. GM will never sell as many trucks a Ford. Heck after the last article with GM placing 3rd in the sag department, no wonder GM cant over take Ford. Maybe we should have a 3rd truck line in the full size market? Wake up GM, give us a 3rd truck line to compete with Ford.

.........Then we get butt-hurt keyboard warriors overtaking the comments. Puts a lot of people off.

Posted by: andrwken | Aug 31, 2017 1:07:20 PM

Yes, and it's always the Ford fan girls getting butt hurt.

Last weekend I used my '15 global Ranger 3.2 TD to carry 6 adults, 2 coolers full of beer & 5 mountain bikes (2 electric/3 regular) up to one of the highest mountains on the island (over 4 000 ft), it's all off-road dirt road with huge ruts washed out by rain, mud etc etc & managed it all only in 4-high.

Everyone was amazed how this little mid-sizer managed the whole outing with no issues, in comfort and safety. My buddies who have Toy Hilux & L200 Mitshbuitshi were convinced.

I also know a full size truck would be a tight fit on this trail & definitely inherit scratches along the fenders from scrubs/ bushes. It makes me believe maybe some of us do not need a full size truck after all & a mid-sizer can do it all...just with a bit less seating comfort...

"The most significant downside to FWD is that when the wheels do slip, the ability to steer is completely lost."

Who's writing this junk?

It's an open differential, you have plenty of steering control.

Please leave Honda alone we are talking trucks. When the back is loaded the front become lighter that`s why FWD doesn`t work.

Front wheel drive svks,,once you lose control its very dificult if not imposible to recover and you end up in the ditch or worse..
Theres a reason all race cars have rear wheel drive,.namely balance and control,,
Spread the word kids..

I am surprised papa jim even liked a Ford. A real shocker since papa is among the first to attack Ford. 79 was a good year for the F-150. I know he likes Chevy trucks and BMWs but unfortunately BMW does not make a truck.

Ford 4wd sucks!

Ford 4wd sucks!


Posted by: johnny doe | Aug 31, 2017 5:35:57 PM

Your mom sucks good!!!

The title of this questionable article is:
"Pickup Trucks 101: Driveline Systems", by Matthew Barnes

Since the driveline systems are meant to apply to ONLY pickups (PU's) for this website, and since NO real pickups would ever be dumb enough to have FWD or AWD, then why are these two "driveline systems" even mentioned?

As we all know, the Honda Ridgeline is NOT a real pickup truck, and its sales are inconsequential in the midsize truck segment.

Matthew: I want to hear from you on this. Do you even own a pickup truck? If so, what do you use it for?

====================

The only issue with my 2016 F-150 4x4 is the traction control gets confused with 4 wheel drive.
The best and safest way is to switch the traction control OFF when in 4 wheel drive, they don't mix well together.

"FWD is the biggest FU to consumers in automotive history. It should be relegated to cheap disposable subcompacts..."
---- Posted by: BD | Aug 31, 2017 10:02:50 AM

Actually, the exact opposite is true; FWD is almost invariably safer and more economical in the long run for almost all types of vehicles (including pickup trucks.) Pickup trucks in particular have a BAD habit of throwing out their tails in low-traction conditions which, while it may be fun for those experienced and know how to compensate can also put that truck into a ditch when least expected. It doesn't help any when the truck is so typically overpowered, with more horsepower than they really need.

FWD can pull itself out of situations where RWD may just spin its wheels, which is obviously why AWD and 4WD are so popular today. I've seen FWD vehicles pull out of spins on ice where RWD ended up in the ditch. This has been especially notable when the truck was on black ice and the driver simply not realizing it, driving as though on a dry road.

I personally have 40 years of driving under almost every kind of road condition and have more than once amazed people by making a supposedly incapable vehicle go through conditions others said would be impossible for it. Things like going through Wolf Creek Pass in a 2WD LTD on 2" of ice-covered road while 4x4s sat stranded against the cliff face or railing. Yes, knowing how to drive the conditions is critical, but too many obviously don't know and tend to overdrive their cars.

Can you drive an RWD truck in those conditions? Certainly. But you have to prepare the truck if you want to maintain control. Each drive type has its advantages and its disadvantages. Knowing how to drive them in dicey conditions is where those advantages or disadvantages will reveal themselves.

"The only issue with my 2016 F-150 4x4 is the traction control gets confused with 4 wheel drive. The best and safest way is to switch the traction control OFF when in 4 wheel drive, they don't mix well together." ---- Posted by: Tom#3

Thumbs up, Tom; Traction control does more harm than good whenever you're in true 4x4 conditions. I have several friends who own 4x4 pickups and complain loudly when an older 4x2 truck can get through mud that their 4x4 traction control simply stops them. Even the Wrangler suffers these issues as the ASC/traction control will switch back on the moment you exceed 30mph. Having the ability to switch ASC off is good but in 4x4 mode that needs to be completely manual to let the other wheels do their jobs.

"Please leave Honda alone we are talking trucks. When the back is loaded the front become lighter that`s why FWD doesn`t work."
---- Posted by: JoBlow | Aug 31, 2017 4:23:32 PM

That's when AWD kicks in and the Ridgeline clearly proved itself on soft-road conditions against dedicated 4x4 systems in PUTC's own truck challenge.

"Front wheel drive svks,,once you lose control its very dificult if not imposible to recover and you end up in the ditch or worse..
Theres a reason all race cars have rear wheel drive,.namely balance and control,,
Spread the word kids.."
---- Posted by: Chevrolet builds a better way to see the USA

Not "all race cars" have rear wheel drive. Front wheel drive has proven itself more than once against RWD and AWD has proven itself even better, which is why AWD is banned from many racing circuits.

Well I did the 4x2 thing for awhile in Colorado.

Then after a light snow and having to try 2 or 3 different ways to get home, And it's even worse if you encounter that snow when you have a trailer behind you, and you can't just get a run at stuff because your whole set up wil slow you dow.

And that was the time that I decided I needed a 4 wheel drive.

@NMGOM

I do own a 20 year old truck. It has a manual transmission, 4wd, an 8 ft bed, and burns gallons of fuel per mile driven. It tows anything I need to tow, pulls out tree stumps, hauls gravel, and takes me camping down forest roads. It's been buried to the frame in mud, it's rescued others, and been rescued itself. While it's not my daily driver, when it gets driven, it gets used.

Everyone has different needs in a pickup truck and the Honda Ridgeline with FWD is the best pickup truck for some people. If you need to tow a 20,000 lb trailer then a Honda Ridgeline isn't for you.

Matthew Barnes - - -

Thank you.
I have much of what you have: '96 Ram 1500 V8, MT.

M: "If you need to tow a 20,000 lb trailer then a Honda Ridgeline isn't for you."

According to rate-of-growth data from 8 months this year, the Ridgeline isn't for very many people anyway, whether they need to tow 19,000 or considerably less. It's just not perceived to be a "real" truck, and its rate-of growth is NEGATIVE, by a large margin:

Tacoma...............295
Colorado.............290
Frontier...............148
Canyon.................21
Ridgeline..............-43

The market has spoken.

================

70s Fords were better than the Ford trucks today.

@NMGOM/Bernie -- the market is far from being done talking. The Ridgeline sold more in August than in July. If that keeps happening, it is going to mess up your silly trend charts.

@NMGOM: "According to rate-of-growth data from 8 months this year, the Ridgeline isn't for very many people anyway, whether they need to tow 19,000 or considerably less. It's just not perceived to be a "real" truck, and its rate-of growth is NEGATIVE, by a large margin:"

The only people who perceive the Ridgeline as "not a real truck" are those like you who insist that your way is the only way; people who simply don't need and don't want a gigantic RoadWhale™ of an over-powered, over-capable and over-thirsty monster truck will be looking at the smaller trucks and once they see the things the Ridgeline can offer them in that slightly smaller form factor, they tend to go with it.

You see, in many ways the Ridgeline is the opposite of what "perception" is for a pickup truck. Perception of a pickup truck is a pretentious status symbol OR a heavy-duty hauler but almost never both. The Ridgeline claims to be neither; it is strictly and intentionally a light-duty, fun, hauler capable of doing anything the old station wagon did, only better. There are things I myself don't like about the Ridgeline but they have no bearing on what it is and everything to do with how it "fits". Wanna know something? Those giant RoadWhales™? They don't "fit" either. The cab is so tight with everything wrapped around you that I, as an average-sized person, feel claustrophobic and my 6' tall wife who is all leg •can't fit behind the wheel with the seat full back•!

Size, appearance, convenience, they're all factors in a truck choice and so far the best vehicle available is a toss-up between the Ridgeline and the Frontier, though the best "fitting" truck is, believe it or not, the Fiat Strada, where they give you enough leg room that despite being the smallest, it's the most comfortable to sit in.

[the Ridgeline] is strictly and intentionally a light-duty, fun, hauler capable of doing anything the old station wagon did, only better.
Posted by: RoadWhale™ | Sep 2, 2017

@Roadwhale

The Ridgeline came out over 10 years ago. How many have YOU bought since then?

@papajim--Do you buy every vehicle you comment about? Road Whale was making a comment and never said he owned a Ridgeline. How many Hondas have you owned papa? Does it really matter? You really have some issues with the Ridgeline. If you don't like it then you don't have to buy one that is the beauty of a free market which also allows those who want a smaller truck the ability to choose a smaller truck.

@RoadWhale--Papa Jim might not know what a station wagon is. He knows what a V-8 powered half ton pickup truck is but he has probably never ridden in a station wagon. I understand what you are saying but then I was raised in a family with station wagons.

@Jeff S

Is a Ridgeline in YOUR plans? Better get one before it becomes the next Honda CrossTour and goes bye bye.

A Ridgeline is not in my plans nor is any new vehicle for a long time. Paying off my last remaining debt is in my immediate plans. Zero debt.

Papa Jim might not know what a station wagon is.

@Jeff S

I've done everything you can do in a station wagon, sometimes more than once.



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