from Goss’ Garage by Pat Goss

Put two or more men in a room and sooner or later they’ll be bragging about their four by fours. Of course rarely is anything said about actual adventures because 90% of all four-wheel drives never go off-road or do anything more strenuous than haul groceries and butts.

Note: The most significant difference between four-wheel and all-wheel drive is that four-wheel drive adds a driver-controllable “low range” or “granny gear” for more power. In this article I refer to both as four-wheel drive.

So, if the majority of four-wheel drives are never really used; what’s their point? Perhaps it’s that erroneous feeling of invincibility or maybe a more commanding view, but probably most of them are nothing more than fodder for bragging rights. Whether they provide useful benefits or bragging rights, four-wheel drives are an expanding part of today’s automotive landscape and most devotees feel they’re even better than burlap underwear.

But no matter what those rugged commercials suggest four-wheel drive will not bring nirvana. For many of you it will bring heartache and expense because you don’t know the basics of using or maintaining them. Today’s systems are amazingly complex and require very specific maintenance. Most owner’s manuals cover maintenance requirements in detail, but who reads owner’s manuals? It’s estimated that only one person in every hundred does, which means the remaining ninety-nine are clueless. Which are you, clued-in or clue-less?

Because these systems transfer power to all four wheels when needed there have to be controls to direct the flow of power. The two most common are mechanical levers and electric motors.

Although they’re durable, floor-mounted levers are becoming obsolete because they’re crude and miserable to shift even when they’re working right. Plus if you don’t keep the shifter linkage slathered with grease the lever seizes and Hercules himself couldn’t shift it into four-wheel drive.

Electrically controlled systems use a computer to control an electric motor to direct power to the wheels. Although there are no moving parts to lubricate, there are wires, connectors, relays, and the motor which mostly reside under the vehicle exposed to salt, sand and road slop. Because they’re exposed to the elements and because exposed electrical parts are prone to corrosion, electrical four-wheel drive systems should have their wire connectors repacked with dielectric grease each fall. This keeps water and salt from entering the connections which prevents corrosion and system failure.

Consider this, four-wheel or all-wheel drive more than doubles the number of driveline components. They have two differentials, two drive shafts, a transfer case, wires, computers, sensors and guess what — more parts mean more maintenance.

A word to the wise! With four-wheel drive you have three times more fluid to monitor and change plus many vehicles require fluid changes as frequently as every fifteen-thousand miles. Also, these systems may need highly specialized lubricants that are only available by special order. Universal fluids and lubricants are rarely acceptable. Four-wheel drive repairs can be staggeringly expensive so have the drive-system components serviced regularly and absolutely, always use specified products.

Before buying four-wheel drive ask yourself will the slight benefit warrant the higher initial cost, lower fuel economy, and higher repair and maintenance costs? For most drivers the answer is — absolutely not!