ATV stands for All-Terrain Vehicle, and as the name implies, it’s a type of vehicle designed with off-road riding applications in mind. But this does not necessarily mean that all ATVs need to be four-wheel drive.

Most recreational and utility ATVs on the market are four-wheel drive (also known as AWD, 4WD, or 4X4), while most sport- or racing quads and all youth ATVs are only two-wheel drives (also known as 2WD or 2X4). 

This post will look at some of the pros and cons of 2WD vs. 4WD in an ATV. Hopefully, it will help you decide whether a 2×4 or a 4×4 ATV is the right choice for you. 

Pros and cons: 2WD vs. 4WD ATV

As in most cases, when you put two alternative options up against each other, you’re able to identify both some advantages and disadvantages they have against each other. The same applies when comparing 2WD and 4WD in an ATV.

4WD allows you to back up a hill

If you go down an incline and suddenly find yourself in a situation where you need to back up the hill, you’ll be glad you have 4X4.

When riding downhill, most of the weight is placed on the front wheels. There is not much traction on the rear wheels. This will often leave the rear wheels on a 2WD spinning without pulling you back up. 

On a 4WD, however, the front wheels with a lot of traction have a much better chance at pushing the ATV in reverse.

4WD provides better holdback when driving downhill

When you drive down a hill, it’s recommended to use engine braking rather than applying the brakes for a more controlled descent.

Using brakes instead of engine braking increases the chance of locking out the wheels, causing the ATV to slide.

Since there is little traction on the rear wheels, engine braking will have less effect than on a 4WD, where both the front and rear wheels will help control the speed.

In a hill where you would need only engine braking when riding a 4WD, you will likely have to apply the front brakes as well when riding a 2WD.

A 4WD ATV is less likely to flip over when going uphill

The front-wheel-drive components’ added weight makes the ATV a bit less likely to flip backward when going up a steep hill. Also, it helps the front tires grip better, increasing your chances of making it to the top. 

A 4WD is less likely to flip because the front wheels help pull the bike up the hill where the rear wheels on a 2WD push. When the rear wheels suddenly regain traction, it will cause the ATV’s front end to lift.

Front wheels that regain traction do not have the same effect. They will merely help pull the vehicle forward. 

Lean forward when riding uphill to reduce the chance of tipping even more. This will move the center of gravity forward and put more weight on the front wheels to increase traction. 

4WD provides better traction in slippery riding conditions

In dry, grippy conditions such as on dry dirt and sand, a 2WD will be able to go most places where a 4WD would go.

But after some heavy rain or in the snow, is where the 4WD earns its keep.

You could use your winch to pull your 2WD out of the mud when you get stuck, but you’ll be using it much more often than with a 4WD.

A 4WD won’t prevent you from ever getting stuck, but it may provide that little extra push you need to make it through the mud hole or up a slippery hill. 

Make sure to get a model that offers locking front and rear differentials as well for optimal traction. 

4X4 allow for a more slow and controlled ride

With 2WD, you typically need the momentum of speed to get through the tricky spots. This increases the chances of losing control and hitting something along the trail. 

The added traction you get with a 4WD allows you to crawl your way through challenging terrain while keeping the speed at a controllable level.

This is particularly useful when:

  • Going up steep hills
  • Crossing logs
  • Crawling out of a ditch
  • Maneuvering slippery rocks
  • Pulling a harrow at the food plot
  • Hauling a deer or some firewood out of the woods

4WD doesn’t tear up the ground as much as 2WD

A 2WD ATV is typically spinning and churning the tires to find traction more often than a 4WD. Not only is this true when climbing a slippery hill, but it also happens during moderate acceleration on the trail.

Some trails don’t allow 2WD sport quads at all due to the damage they inflict. No matter how carefully you ride, you will likely tear up the surface of the trail. 

And hopefully, it goes without saying that leaving deep ruts out in the woods should be avoided.

4WD offer more versatility

Most modern 4WD ATVs come with the ability to switch off the drive to the front wheels, making it a 2WD.

Turn on or off 4WD with the push of a button.

This feature provides the ability to choose 4Wd or 2WD based on which option best fits the riding situation.

It’s like having 4WD in your truck: You will usually not need it, but when you do, it sure is nice to have. 

A 2WD ATV is cheaper

2WD drive systems are much more straightforward and, thereby, cheaper to produce. Most 2WD quads come with chain drive, consisting of a front and rear sprocket connected by a metal chain. 

A very few ATVs, such as the Honda Rancher, come with rear shaft drive. While a bit more expensive than a chain drive, it is much cheaper than a 4WD model. The Honda Rancher costs $1000 more than the 2WD base model.

A 2WD ATV weigh less

The lower weight of a 2WD can be a pro or a con, depending on the riding situation. 

For racing purposes, it’s essential to keep the overall weight of the vehicle low. The added traction you get from a 4WD won’t usually justify all of the extra weight added by installing the front wheels drive components. 

To get 4WD, you need a transfer case, an extra drive shaft, a front diff, and two CV axles. These components can add 10 to 20 lb to the overall weight of the bike.

Riding a 2WD off-road is physically more challenging than a 4WD

Maneuvering a 2WD properly off-road without getting stuck off-road takes a lot more energy than a 4WD.

If you’re looking to keep up with the four-wheel drives, you need both strength and stamina. And you better be ready for a pounding. At the end of the ride, you may find yourself exhausted, where your friends that ride 4WD have energy to spare.

A 2WD offers a better turning radius and is more nimble

Most two-wheel drives offer a tighter turning radius because of the lack of cv-joints to the front wheels.

This, in conjunction with a lighter weight, makes them more agile. Some riders prefer 2WD over 4WD because they are easier to maneuver in tight spots. 

A 2WD is typically easier to steer than a 4WD

Some but not all 4WD ATVs are a bit harder to steer than a 2WD due to the front driveline’s added complexity. You may find that it gets easier to navigate as soon as you disengage the four-wheel drive. 

This downside is significantly reduced if you opt for a model with power steering.

Here are some of the pros and cons of having power steering on your ATV

2WD Chain drive vs. 2WD shaft drive

2WD ATVs come either with shaft drive or chain drive. Shaft drive offers lower maintenance, better ground clearance, and better reliability. 

On the other hand, Chain-drive is lighter and faster but does require some maintenance to keep the chain and sprockets in good shape. The rear sprocket protrudes below the rear axle, which can be a hassle when you ride off-road. 

4WD with independent rear suspension makes for a smoother ride

Most 4WD ATVs offer independent front and rear suspension rather than the solid rear axle you get with a 2WD model.

Independent rear suspension offers benefits such as less taxing on your body, and overall better off-road capability, especially in uneven terrain.

Why are some ATVs 2WD while others are 4WD?

All ATVs can look the same for an untrained eye, but they are not. ATVs are used for a range of riding applications ranging from high-speed racing – to low-speed, heavy utility work.

A vehicle designed for extreme off-road or utility work needs different features than one set up for speed or racing. 

Sometimes low weight and speed are more important than traction. Other times it’s essential to keep the cost within budget. All of these are factors that determine which design the manufacturer chooses for their different models. 

How to choose between a 2×4 or 4×4 ATV?

If you’re in the market for a new ATV, you may be wondering whether you need a four-wheel-drive machine or if you’ll get by just fine with one that has only a two-wheel drive.

To better answer this question, you need to consider a few things like:

  • What type of riding you plan on doing with your new ATV most of the time. Are you planning on using the bike for utility work, recreational trail riding, racing, or dune bashing? Keep in mind that there are places you simply cannot go with a 2WD, where a 4WD can go. At the same time, you wouldn’t bring a 700-800lb utility 4WD to the racetrack.
  • In what type of terrain you will be riding. If you live up north, where it’s wet and snowy, you’ll have more use of 4WD than if you live longer south in a dry and sandy area. 
  • What is your budget? If you’re on a budget and need a cheap utility ATV, consider whether you can get by with a 2WD as they are more affordable.
  • What brand do you prefer? It’s always advised to buy a brand that has a well-reputed dealer in your area. Keep in mind that the brand you want may not offer 2WD.

Ultimately it will be up to you to weigh the pros and cons in the environment in which you’ll be using the ATV.

When do you need a 4WD ATV?

4WD is useful when you ride in uneven terrain with steep hills and in soft or slippery terrain where push-pull traction is needed.

Typical riding applications where 4WD is useful:

  • Off-road riding
  • Utility work
  • Hunting
  • Trail riding
  • In slippery terrain (wet and soft ground as well as on snow)

When do you need a 2WD ATV?

2WD is the better alternative in racing where you need speed, lightweight, and nimbleness. They are also a good alternative on youth or budget models where low cost and simplistic design is vital. 

The lower weight of a 2WD helps reduce the risk of injury if the bike lands on top of the rider in a crash. This is a desired feature in racing where you ride on the limit and with youth models ridden by young and inexperienced riders. 

Typical applications where 2WD is useful:

  • In racing
  • On youth models
  • On budget-friendly utility machines, where you ride in relatively flat and grippy terrain

Related questions

What does 4×2 mean on a four-wheeler?

Each of the numbers in 4X2 has a specific meaning. 

The first number refers to the total number of wheels on the vehicle. In the case of 4X2, the bike has four wheels in total.

The second number refers to the number of wheels that receive power from the engine. In the case of 4X2, two wheels make the ATV move. 

Is 4×4 the same as 4wd?

4×4 refers to a vehicle that has four powered wheels out of four wheels in total. 4WD, on the other hand, refers to a vehicle with four powered wheels but does not say anything about the vehicle’s total number of wheels. 

While four wheels are the most common on cars, trucks, and ATVs, there are vehicles such as commercial trucks with six wheels. A six-wheel truck with 4WD would be a 6X4

What is faster, 4×4, or 4×2?

A 4X2 is typically faster due to the lighter overall vehicle weight; as long as you ride somewhere, you get adequate amounts of traction with only two driven wheels. 

Are all RZR four-wheel drive?

All current models of Polaris RZR come with four-wheel drive.