Accidentally Drove in 4-Wheel Drive? Here’s What To Expect

It isn’t uncommon for drivers to notice that they have mistakenly been driving with the vehicle’s 4WD engaged while driving along the highway or in the neighbourhood. This often worries new drivers about the condition of the vehicle’s drivetrain and its components.

Although 4WD is meant almost purely for off-road conditions, accidentally driving on smooth roads with it shouldn’t actually worry you too much if it doesn’t happen too often.

In this article, we will give you more information on what the 4WD Mode exactly is, its difference from 2WD, and what to expect when driving in 4WD, whether intentionally or unintentionally. If you think this information will be helpful, continue reading below.

What is the 4WD Mode?

The 4WD mode on a vehicle is the system that allows it to traverse extreme terrain. The core of a 4WD drivetrain system is called the transfer case, which is responsible for connecting all wheels, allowing the axles to turn at the same speed, and improving traction and maneuverability on steep or uneven terrain. 

A number of modern vehicles, particularly those geared for outdoor adventure and long drives, come equipped with a four-wheel drive (4WD) drivetrain system. Most vehicles with this feature have their front and rear wheels linked together, which allows power from the engine to be split between them.

4WD vehicles are meant to be used on harsh terrain or extreme weather conditions and are more commonly seen in those with exceptionally high towing capacities, such as SUVs and trucks. 

Switching between modes is often easy and done through a switch. The reason the option to still drive 2WD in a vehicle that can drive in 4WD mode is because it hastens the amount of wear dealt to the tyres and may even damage the vehicle in an environment with high traction, such as dry pavement.

What is the 4×4 High Mode?

4×4 High Mode (4WD High) is something you would use in environments with low traction and relatively high speed, such as roads full of snow or a dirt road. This can be likened to the 10th gear (high gear) on a mountain bike, which is used to achieve higher speeds when conditions are not too extreme. 

The 4WD High will enable your vehicle to traverse speeds greater than 40 km/h and give great traction. This can be used when cruising down the interstate when snow has started to fall. The primary difference between the two modes is the speed of the vehicle.

What is the 4×4 Low Mode?

4×4 Low Mode (4WD Low) is what you would use when brute force matters over speed. This can be likened to the first gear (low gear) on a mountain bike, where it’s commonly used when climbing up hills to reduce the stress on your legs – you sacrifice speed for power. 

In a similar fashion, the 4×4 Low is primarily used when towing heavy objects, traversing vertical climbs with extreme inclination, water crossings, and even rock crawls.

Some vehicles will require that the vehicle be shifted into Neutral prior to 4WD Low. However, modern vehicles no longer need to go into Neutral and can be switched to 4WD Low with the push of a button.

What’s the Difference Between 4WD and 2WD Mode?

A 2WD is a vehicle that moves by powering two wheels. There are two kinds of 2WD – a Rear wheel drive (RWD) and Front-wheel drive (FWD). Vehicles with 4WD, on the other hand, are powered by all four wheels, which grants them much better traction with stronger suspension systems and higher road clearance. 

Performance vehicles such as sports cars tend to be RWD to allow for a larger engine. On the other hand, vehicles with FWD tend to have smaller engines but perform very well in road conditions with very low traction (such as during the Winter).

In most cases, the 4WD has to be manually engaged, so the vehicle primarily operates in 2WD. Trucks, Utes, and SUVs are the most common types of vehicles to have a 4WD drivetrain.

Is it Bad to Drive in 4WD Mode All of the Time? 

Yes, using 4WD all the time, especially when unnecessary, is bad as it will speed up tyre wear and can potentially damage your vehicle. 4WD mode is specifically tuned for certain road types and driving conditions, which include off-roading, rugged or extreme terrain.

4WD mode should not be used on smooth, flat, and dry roads as your vehicle will most likely be damaged, on top of the unnecessary increase in fuel consumption. In situations where you think you will need to switch to the 4WD mode, make sure you choose between 4WD High and Low correctly.

What Happens if You Accidentally Drive in 4WD Mode?

If you accidentally drive in 4WD mode, you should immediately stop where safe to do so and put it back into the standard driving mode. If you accidentally drive for too long in 4WD mode, you risk damaging your vehicle’s suspension and drivetrain. 

The specifics about what happens to your vehicle’s drivetrain depend entirely on several factors, such as the car’s overall condition (e.g. if it is well maintained or tyres are not worn down) and the environment at the time. For instance, the 4WD mode is meant for low friction environments, so if you happen to have accidentally driven through the highway at high speeds using 4WD Low, then expect major damages to your transmission, as well as your tyres. 

There may be less damage if you were on 4WD High, but damage is likely nonetheless. Accidents may also happen at this time as tyres may slip on dry pavement when in 4WD mode.

Can Driving in 4WD Mode Damage My Car?

Yes, driving in 4WD mode on terrain, environment, or weather conditions that it is not meant for will definitely damage your car. The damage however, will vary depending on factors such as how long you have been driving it in 4WD mode and your car’s general condition, among others.

In general, practically all the damage and deterioration will be done to your vehicle’s drivetrain. The following are things that may happen when you drive your vehicle on dry pavement:

  1. Front axles may break
  2. The differential gears may be sheared, or the differential case may break apart
  3. Tyre wear can significantly increase

Can 4WD Mode Affect My Car’s Transmission?

Yes, 4WD mode can affect your car’s transmission, but there should be no damage or deterioration to your car’s transmission if you are using the right 4WD mode at all times. Driving in 4WD when not off-road can damage your car’s transmission.

4WD drivetrains are designed to be able to handle the terrain that they are intended for, such as off-roading terrains. However, using 4×4 High or 4×4 Low matters. The vehicle’s speed in 4×4 High usually allows up to the 5th gear, while 4×4 Low usually only allows speeds up to 2nd or 3rd gear. This means that if you force your vehicle into higher gears while on 4×4 Low, then there will definitely be some deteriorative effects on your car’s transmission.

Is it Ok to Drive in 4WD Mode on the Highway?

No, it is not ok to drive in 4WD mode on the highway. Generally, high friction environments such as dry pavement are not suited for 4WD modes. However, certain exceptions will allow 4WD on pavements, like when snow has begun to fall, which reduces the friction of the roads, allowing vehicles to use their 4×4 High mode.

A good rule to follow is whenever the road is dry, 4WD should not be used. Whenever friction on the road has decreased due to weather conditions, then 4WD High may be used.

What Should I Do if I Accidentally Drive in 4WD Mode?

If you realise that you have accidentally been driving in 4WD Mode, stay calm, avoid turning, and stop the vehicle. Switch back into 2WD mode and continue driving with caution. The reason for avoiding turns is because doing so in the 4WD mode may cause your tyres to slip or spin. 

Tyre wear aside, most of what could have been damaged (depending on how long you have been unintentionally driving in 4WD mode) cannot be seen upfront, as the components will have to be checked by a mechanic. If you hear any unusual noises or notice a change in your car’s performance, have it checked by a professional.

Related Questions

Can You Switch From 2WD to 4WD While Moving?

For a lot of older vehicles, a complete stop is required prior to shifting between 2WD and 4WD. However, newer and modern vehicles nowadays have technology that allows switching between 2WD and 4WD, as well as 4H and 4L during transit.

If you aren’t sure if your vehicle allows in-transit switching, then it’s best to come to a halt before doing so.

What Happens if You Put a Car in Neutral While in 4WD?

Putting your vehicle in Neutral gear while in 4WD mode will do the same things as if it was in 2WD mode. Neutral gear decouples the engine, effectively cutting power to all four wheels. 

James Mitchell

Hi, I’m Jimmy Mitchell and I love exploring this great country with my wife and two boys. I have a 2015 Sterling LX that is the Mitchell Family camping machine. Lets Getaway is the website where I share things about my trailer as I learn them, and help other camper owners to enjoy their RV even more.

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