Do I need a four-wheel drive car?

James Foxall
Written by: James Foxall
Posted on: 15 November 2016

Four-wheel drive cars come in all shapes and sizes, from family saloons to dedicated off-roaders, estates and even sports cars.

It’s increasingly common for models with engine power to drive all four wheels, but if you’re in the market for a brand new four-wheel drive car, think carefully before paying extra for it - you may find it’s actually a waste of money.

Here’s what to consider before buying a four-wheel drive car…

Why consider four-wheel drive?

There are usually two main reasons to consider four-wheel drive (often known as 4x4).

The first is grip. There’s a perception that driving all four wheels improves the car’s ability to transmit engine power to the road. You might want this for towing horseboxes over boggy terrain or perhaps pulling a boat up a slippery causeway.

The second is having a car with a higher ride height than a regular saloon. Again, this might be for negotiating muddy fields or because you live in rural parts of the country where it regularly snows during winter.

But if you don’t live at the top of a hill or regularly drive in harsh weather conditions, the likelihood is that you won’t need four-wheel drive on a day-to-day basis.

Cost of buying a 4x4 car

Many cars are available with a choice of two-wheel or four-wheel drive. But if you choose four-wheel drive, you’ll instantly add around 6% to the car’s purchase price.

However, with certain types - such as an SUV that’s suited to towing - four-wheel drive may improve the value of the car when you come to sell it on. But for cars that aren’t typically used as a workhorse, you’re unlikely to recoup any of that extra cost.

Cost of running a 4x4 car

How much you spend running a car with four-wheel drive depends on the kind of system it has.

Cars with permanent four-wheel drive tend to be more costly to run than those with occasional 4x4. But fitting any four-wheel drive system to a car involves an increase in weight because of the components needed to drive and assign power to two additional wheels. That extra weight means increased fuel consumption. A Nissan X-Trail with part-time four-wheel drive records 53.3mpg; an identical two-wheel drive model returns 57.6mpg.

A knock-on effect (especially on the wallet) is an increase in road tax and possibly more expensive car insurance. And the extra weight also means marginally more wear and tear for components such as tyres and brakes.

Reliability of a 4x4 car

If you’re buying a second-hand four-wheel drive car, it’s worth bearing in mind that they can be more complicated, with additional parts to wear out and possibly go wrong.

As these tend to be components that aren’t replaced during regular servicing, they’re more likely to be a problem in cars that are getting older and with more miles under their wheels.

Would different tyres do the job instead?

If you’re keen to have the ability to keep going in muddy, icy or snowy driving conditions, the evidence points towards choosing all-terrain or winter tyres, rather than four-wheel drive.

In a test conducted by motoring magazine Auto Express between a two-wheel drive car fitted with winter tyres and a four-wheel drive car without, the two-wheel drive car made it further up a snowy slope than its identical 4x4 sibling.

What about in-car systems?

The electronics fitted to cars are now sophisticated enough to mimic four-wheel drive.

Peugeot and Fiat are two makers that offer such systems on front-wheel drive cars. These systems use the car’s onboard computers and traction-control to detect when one of the wheels is slipping. They then transfer engine power to the wheel with grip. They can transmit varying degrees of power, and do it in fractions of a second for maximum effectiveness. And the systems don’t require any of the heavy mechanical hardware associated with four-wheel drive.

Verdict

If you often drive on uneven, muddy lanes in the countryside or regularly tow a horsebox through wet fields, then four-wheel drive is probably the way to go.

However, if you rarely need to drive on slippery surfaces, there are alternatives that can prove considerably cheaper and sometimes be more effective than a 4x4.

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