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.


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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@papajim--Good, I thought the only vehicle you ever drove was a full size pickup.

RoadWhale - - -

R: "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."

Blah, blah, blah....

I see you recapped everything I told you except the DATA. Are you trying to compensate with verbiage that you think could defeat reality? And who said that the only alternative to this (shudder!) Ridgeline is "an over-powered, over-capable and over-thirsty monster truck"?? The DATA list has non-monster alternatives: did you even read it? Do you understand it?

For your benefit (and to cover any comprehension deficit you may have), I'll recap that mid-size segment growth-data, YTD, for 2017. The numbers are units/month - - -

Ridgeline..............-43 (That's a NEGATIVE 43!)

The market has spoken.


Indeed it has.
Yes, there may be some poor misguided souls who, under duress and the begging of their wives, may accede, in a moment of weakness and after 3 beers, to actually purchasing such an over-feminized, girly machine, --- but I'm sure they'll need visits to their psychiatrists for months afterwards.

As you can clearly see by looking at the DATA (I say again, DATA), the market itself is making hash out of your goofy verbiage.

BOTTOM LINE: The Ridgeline is being increasingly rejected by mainstream mid-size truck buyers. Period.

They know, deep inside of their little hearts, that the pathetic Ridgeline is just Honda Pilot with the backend missing; and if you're going to put ~ $40K into a truck, at least it should be a truck!



Ridgeline..............-43 (That's a NEGATIVE 43!)

The market has spoken."

---- No, the market has NOT spoken, only the OEMs have.

Tacoma: Bigger than a Strada
Colorado: Bigger than a Strada
Frontier: Bigger than a Strada
Canyon: Bigger than a Strada
Ridgeline: Bigger than a Strada

As for the Ridgeline itself, because it's bigger than a Strada, the people who would REALLY like something with the Ridgeline's overall capabilities simply refuse to buy anything that large.

Reports are out that Hyundai may bring the Santa Cruz to the market--though they won't admit that to the general public. Some have taken this to mean that what Hyundai plans to bring out is something more along the size of the Ridgeline. Maybe. Maybe not. There's enough proof that a broad market segment WANTS something smaller than a Ridgeline. How broad a market? Well, how many CUVs are there on the road today? How many of them are as large as a modern pickup truck? That will give you a clue.

Real sad if you have to compensate for a lack of manliness by buying a large truck. I you like a large truck that is one thing but if your manhood is threatened by owning a certain type of vehicle then you have some issues that require professional help. It is one thing not to like something but it is another if you have to buy something to compensate for your perceived lack of manliness. Before the automobile our ancestors survived without large pickups and did not have to prove their manliness with things. If anything real men did not need anything but their hard work and determination. Maybe we have become weaker as a society by becoming more dependent on things and judging others by what they own.

With you 100% on that one, Jeff S.

@Jeff S @Roadwhale


Each of you will receive the complete DVD archive of Phil Donahue shows, with the BONUS DVDs of Oprah!!!

@papajim--There you go again. The ramblings of an old man.

@NMGOM If the Ridgeline is just a Pilot with the backend missing.
How much are people paying for a Pilot or Acura MDX or Odyssey?
When you pay $40K for a USA version Ridgeline you are getting next to top model or top RTL-E $42K+ is Black Edition but RTL-E has everything Torque Vectoring AWD and driver aides safety systems. So it comes with most features as near top Pilot.
So the Pilot price range is same as Ridgeline. And the Ridgeline structure is more beefed up a Pilot for truck duty suspension parts are made different than Pilot. Ridgeline has a lockable in-bed trunk something other pickup trucks don't have. Don't have to have a Tonneau Cover on to lock stuff away.

Ridgeline has a lockable in-bed trunk something other pickup trucks don't have. Don't have to have a Tonneau Cover on to lock stuff away...Posted by: RIDGELINE OWNER 2007 | Sep 7, 2017

@ridgeline owner

No need for locking cover.

Get a sinister-looking 100- pound dog to keep in the bed of the truck. Shepherds are ok for this purpose but a Cur-Bulldog mix is better. The Shep prefers to ride in the cab, and every bulldog I know wants to ride in the bed.

Nobody bothers my stuff.

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