In the May 1990 issue of Four Wheeler we used an object lesson to address the ongoing debate of two-wheel drive versus four-wheel drive. We put two ’90 GMC Jimmys, one two-wheel drive and one four-wheel drive, head-to-head on- and off-road. We wrote, “We wanted to know if four-wheel drive is vastly superior to two-wheel drive for all uses. Are there any advantages whatsoever to a two-wheel-drive truck? And, lastly, which is more practical overall.”
Aside from the number of driven wheels, the two Jimmys were identically equipped mechanically. Both had the 4.3L V-6 engine, a five-speed manual transmission, and 3.42 ratio diff gears. Since the four-wheel drive came with more aggressive tires than the two-wheel drive, we leveled the playing field by sourcing a set of stock-sized General Grabber all-terrain tires for each vehicle to ensure that both SUVs had equal traction potential.
To say that four-wheel drive isn’t necessary is akin to claiming that a helicopter spends most of its time on the ground so it doesn’t need to be able to fly.
The two-wheel-drive Jimmy had a base curb weight that was 292 pounds less than the four-wheel-drive Jimmy, and it had a base price that was $1,665 less than the four-wheel-drive Jimmy. The two-wheel drive was slightly faster in the quarter mile and 0-60 mph, it had a tighter turning radius, and higher EPA mpg ratings for city/highway. However, the four-wheel drive Jimmy had more minimum ground clearance (due partly to larger tires), better approach/departure angles, more payload capacity, better braking distances, and surprisingly, it achieved better fuel economy. In regards to fuel economy we wrote, “One explanation might be that during off-road testing the 2WD spun its wheels so much that the fuel economy suffered enough to alter the results.”
Off-road testing was interesting. We put our best driver behind the wheel of the two-wheel-drive Jimmy and we aired the rear tires of the vehicle down to 10 psi (the four-wheel-drive Jimmy’s tires were kept at 32 psi). The story told how early into the trail, at lower elevations and with dry conditions, the driver of the two-wheel-drive Jimmy showed that by choosing the proper line and using the e-brake to fool the open differential, he could take the rig over some obstacles that gave an average driver in a four-wheel-drive vehicle fits. However, when the trail became more challenging we wrote that the two-wheel-drive Jimmy was subjected to a “workout that bordered on abuse” to continue where the four-wheel-drive Jimmy had no problem. Several times the two-wheel drive Jimmy had to be towed by the four-wheel-drive Jimmy, especially when the trail became wet and snowy. Also, when descending the trail, the lack of transfer case in the two-wheel-drive machine meant there was no compression braking. This forced the driver to rely on the vehicles brakes to slow the vehicle.
In the end we concluded that even though you may not need four-wheel drive all the time, it’s good to have it. Staff writer Jimmy Nylund wrote, “To say that four-wheel drive isn’t necessary is akin to claiming that a helicopter spends most of its time on the ground so it doesn’t need to be able to fly.”
Back in 1990 there was a 12.7 percent difference between the base price of a two- and four-wheel-drive Jimmy. We randomly surveyed the base prices of six 2013 trucks and SUVs and found that adding four-wheel drive can increase the base price 7.5 percent to almost 20 percent depending on the vehicle. Now as then, we think it’s a great return on investment.