4 min read

4WD: Is it 4 You?

Jun 4, 2020 8:19:06 AM

4WD: Is it 4 You?


Four-Wheel Drive. That phrase has always seemed to hold the key to magical places and adventures. The spell was cast on me by my older brother in the mid-1960s. He longed for a four-wheel drive Willys Jeep. Because I was strongly influenced by his opinionated enthusiasm, I too wanted four-wheel drive. Perhaps you are under that same spell. All those television commercials showing 4WD vehicles going to beautiful places will do that. But do you need it? Is 4WD more about affectation and consumerism or is it a logical and valid way to have more family fun when exploring and camping in this beautiful country?


I had to wait a long time to find out. About forty years! In the meantime, I learned all the pros and cons of two-wheel drive. Traveling in my pal’s 2WD truck on camping trips taught me what many know: two-wheel drive can be surprisingly effective when one has good off-road driving skills. By picking our line carefully, we were able to get that old Ford Ranger up some uneven, rocky slopes. But critically, the success of the technique depended on speed and momentum. Going too slowly caused a loss of traction and wheel spin which meant backing down and trying again. Getting up to speed did the trick. But that success was at the price of comfort; many times I recall hitting my head on the roof or the door as we surged up a hill. As well, the risk of damaging the vehicle or the tires went up as the speed increased.

Just before a move to Utah in 1993, I bought a used 4WD 4Runner because I knew the winter snow would be too much for my little VW. I immediately took it camping in Southern Arizona so I could try it out. I was thrilled with the secure, rooted-to-the-ground feeling it gave. I could finally tackle rough terrain that in 2WD was either impossible or required a mad, fast dash to clear.

Motoring in four-wheel drive was dramatically different. The sure-footedness and additional ground clearance allowed for slower speeds and tons of confidence which in turn allowed more time to scan the road to take the best line. When the rocks and ruts became extreme, shifting into 4WD Low mode allowed the truck to creep up and over almost anything. The feeling of power and invincibility was profound, especially as I explored muddy, watery, or snowy terrain. For me, it was essential. When I upgraded to a Tacoma truck in 2003, it had to be a 4x4.

4x4 badge on Mercedes Sprinter van. | Sprinter van, Sprinter ...


But the technology does come at a cost. Traditional 4WD systems add substantial complexity, weight, and cost. Insurance can be more expensive. Maintenance for the transfer case and differentials is more expensive. Fuel economy declines.

But as they so often do, Mercedes engineered a better approach. The tried and true 4ETS AWD System that Mercedes uses for Sprinters was developed for several platforms such as the ML series. It takes the place of three heavy differentials and features a 35/65 percent front-rear power distribution, but that percentage is continually adjusted for each wheel. It also allows all the standard Adaptive ESP features (including ASR acceleration skid control) to remain engaged which safely increases traction and performance. Computers cleverly monitor all four wheels and can improve grip and stability by applying braking power at one or more wheels. It is fine-tuned for the Sprinter’s generous size and higher center of gravity. It even adjusts instantly for different loads and angles that change the vehicle’s center of mass. These are very real advantages that increase safety, confidence, and best of all, get you where you need to go.

DSC_3022 (1)


There is an optional “Low mode” as well. When in Low, the transmission ratio is reduced by 42% which makes it possible to creep up or through the nasty stuff you might encounter. I find that the bigger the vehicle, the more important Low mode becomes. Speaking of dimensions, you might wonder if such a long wheelbase vehicle is truly off-road worthy. I can tell you from experience that the combination of the substantial increase in ride-height, surprisingly good approach/departure angles, and the 4WD system makes your Mercedes Sprinter surprisingly agile. It is far easier to drive than one might think.

And amazingly, it does all of this with a minimum of additional weight. Depending on options, the 4WD system adds only 77 to 253 pounds to your Sprinter so that gas mileage is barely impacted. Perhaps even more cleverly, fuel economy is kept high via a feedback-controlled alternator, feedback-controlled oil and coolant pumps, and on-demand “splash-cooling” of the engine pistons.

Naturally, no vehicle can conquer every situation. Nor is technology a substitute for common sense, good route planning, and the use of proper driving techniques. No matter what you drive, stay within your skill set, do not get overconfident, stay aware of the weather, and consider taking an off-road driving class.

After I logically examined all the facts and considered my many years of 2WD and 4WD experience, I realized that the magic I felt when I first fell under the four-wheel drive spell really does exist. More precisely, it is the breathtaking places that 4WD takes me to that are magical. They are so special precisely because not everyone can get to them. My 4WD Sprinter delivers me there safely and with all the gear that I want. Take a moment to imagine what magical places you might go to in a MVAV Sprinter. With all the tumult and canceled plans, 2020 can either be “the year that wasn’t” or the year you take charge and rewrite the book on how to have family fun. It is your choice.

Your very own magical places are there right now…waiting for you. Mountain View Adventure Vehicles is here to help you achieve that dream when you are ready!

Topics: 4WD
Stephen Vivona

Written by Stephen Vivona