The world of 4×4 pickups trucks used to be simple: a transfer case bolted behind the transmission offered an extra low-range gear to provide more low-speed control when navigating slippery, rutted or rocky terrain. And to engage that gear you had to be at a full stop, and in some cases, spin a pair of front-axle hub locks.
Additionally, many pickup owners liked to run fast and smooth over the jagged terrains of the desert backcountry, mimicking some of the activities of a Baja race truck. Due to the love of high-speed running on dirt roads, these vehicles typically were two-wheel drive and had a rear limited-slip or locking differential to get the most traction from the rear tires.
But nowadays, choosing one or the other isn't good enough.
Pickup manufacturers such as Ford want to give truck buyers the best of all worlds with state-of-the-art four-wheel-drive systems — or even a little more. At the top of the high- and low-speed traction technology pyramid is the 2017 Ford F-150 Raptor (see video below), with its smart transfer case and multidimensional cutting-edge Terrain Management System. The system offers six different modes — Normal, Sport, Weather, Mud/Sand, Baja and Rock Crawl — each of which changes software parameters for throttle response, traction aggressiveness, steering feel and shift algorithms.
In addition, the Raptor's transfer case offers four different selections as well: two-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, four-wheel-drive auto (center differential is locked) and four-wheel-drive low range (also locked). These choices can be controlled manually with the rotary dial on the dash or through automatic settings of the TMS via thumb controls on the steering wheel. Additionally, steering modes — Normal, Sport and Comfort — can be selected manually. Although this might sound complicated, from our experience, this technology all works seamlessly together in a complicated dance, making the driver something of a superhero.
In a similar but less complicated way, the 2017 Honda Ridgeline uses a sophisticated AWD system without benefit of a transfer case or low-range gear. It senses excessive wheel spin, knowing when and how to mitigate and transfer power to where it's needed. To Honda's credit, the new Ridgeline has a supersmart multiterrain system as well — Intelligent Traction Management — with four different modes: Normal, Mud, Snow and Sand. Each of these settings changes several software parameters in the traction control and engine/transmission management system. In our experience, this system works exceptionally well in 90 percent of all off-road situations.
It's worth calling attention to the Ram 2500 Power Wagon anytime there's a discussion of traction-adding systems. The is probably the best classic example of how heavy-duty pickup trucks can get tire grip to the ground. Power Wagons use a heavy-duty transfer case activated through a shift lever along with front and rear locking differentials (the rear locker must be engaged first to allow the front to lock) and an electronically controlled front sway-bar disconnect. This allows the front axle to twist and flex without restriction. Add to that Bilstein shocks, aggressive mud tires, a 2-inch lift and gobs of ground clearance, and you can see why this rock-ready truck has the reputation it does.
What does all this mean for the future of pickups? We have no doubt there will always be traditional 4WD systems in the heavy-duty truck class and very likely more sophisticated traction control systems along with AWD in newer, smaller pickups. However, it wouldn't surprise us if the solid-tech middle-of-the-road 4WD systems started disappearing as high-tech, high-profit vehicles — think Raptor, Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 and Range Rovers — become more popular.
We'll have more to say about 4×4 pickups after we get a chance to flog the , which has a new exterior design, sophisticated suspension technology, and front and rear locking differentials. Driving impressions, as well as industry implications, coming soon.
Cars.com photo by Evan Sears; manufacturer images