Ford F150’s 4-Wheel Drive: How it Works & Ultimate Guide


How Ford F150 4WD works

One of the many things Ford prides itself on is the quality and consistency of their vehicle’s hauling and off-roading capabilities due to their strong 4WD. Their formidable trucks are designed to take on some of the toughest terrain, from desert sand to rocky outcroppings.

When driving on pavement, they can haul the heaviest of loads (here are some towing capacities). If you’re looking to learn about the Ford F150’s 4WD capabilities, how Ford F150’s 4WD works, and even if all Ford F150s are 4WD, you’ve come to the right place!

What should I know about Ford F150’s 4WD? 4WD is designed to give power to each individual wheel, increasing the power with which the vehicle is able to drive. The latest additions to Ford F150’s 4×4 drivetrain include hill descent control and an electronic shift-on-the-fly.

The 4WD-Low is intended for use in situations where you need greater torque vs. 4WD-High, intended for better traction.

Ford F150’s 4×4 drivetrain is equipped with a wide variety of features to give you the best possible experience with driving their vehicles.

With unique added features including the hill descent control and electronic locking rear differential to give the most possible control of your vehicle, along with the ESOF which allows you to shift between two 4WD modes, the Ford F150’s driving experience is truly one of the best.

Ford F150 4-Wheel-Drive basics

Admittedly, there have been a handful of people that have taken issue (or have been confused) with just how many features the Ford F150 4WD system offers. The rich collection of accommodations has left some a little lost on what to do with all of it but worry not.

Here, I will walk you through the exact uses of every feature and why they are all important to your Ford F150 4WD experience.

Firstly, you need to know that the 4WD system will drive nearly identically to the 2WD, only with less fuel efficiency. The extra power being diverted to the two additional wheels will take up a bit of the fuel that is normally directed toward a more fuel-efficient drive.

Unfortunately, that is a compromise you can’t escape, however, it is commonplace among all 4WD systems, no matter the make.

Another major difference between 4WD and 2WD is that there are added components on 4WD:

  • Front axles
  • Front differential
  • Second driveshaft
  • Transfer case
  • 4WD switch (located inside of the cab)

4WD is intended for use in poor soil conditions, and the way you will use it is highly dependent on what type of conditions those are. For snow and deep mud, for instance, you will need to use 4WD-L, which gives you much greater traction for being able to free yourself from those nasty situations.

For less-demanding yet still challenging terrain, 4WD-H is necessary – such as driving over large expanses of loose sand in a desert.

But firstly…

Are all Ford F150s 4WD?

No, not all Ford F150s are 4WD trucks. You can get 2WD versions plus FX2s now, more of which I explain about further down this guide.

Components of the Ford F150 4WD system

There are many components of a 4×4 drivetrain that distinguish it from a 2×4 system, supplying the power with which the truck is able to move through tough terrain.

Not only do these components dictate the performance of F150’s 4WD, but they also hold influence over how you shift into 4WD. For instance, shifting incorrectly into 4WD from 2WD or executing excessively sharp turns will stress and damage the CV axles.

Constant velocity axles, or CV axles, function as the link between the drivetrain to the front wheels of the F150. When the truck is in 2WD, the CV axles may rotate with the wheel at all times, or depending, on the year of your F150, they may only engage when the truck is in 4WD.

When in 4WD, rings known as front axle actuators. These are attached to the wheel spindle and, engage the front wheels of the vehicle.

The transfer case of the Ford F150 essentially replaces the drive shaft output of a 2WD in its placement. It is connected to the end of the transmission and is fitted with two yokes: one for the drive shaft in connection with the front wheels, and the other to the rear wheels.

Its function is to regulate the transfer of power from the transmission to the front and rear axles via the drive shafts.

Electronic Shift-On-The-Fly (ESOF)

The ESOF system is a godsend for drives who find themselves needing to use the F150’s 4WD system often. This allows you to cycle between the 4WD-High and 4WD-Low modes quickly and with ease and increase your understanding of how and when to use the entire 4×4 system.

The key to engage the ESOF system is located on the steering wheel. You’ll have to navigate to “Truck Apps” on the dash using the keypad.

When you select “OK,” you will be taken to an information screen that gives you options of choosing either a 4×4 system or “AdvanceTrac.” Choose the 4×4 system to continue onto a tutorial that will walk you through the use of Ford F150’s 4WD system. This will inform you of how to shift in and out of the 4WD system.

Despite all of these benefits, however, it is imperative that you recognize the risks that come with the ESOF.

Ford owners have reported that sometimes the system is just a bit too good at its job, resulting in them accidentally shifting into the wrong 4WD modes at inappropriate times.

Proper use of the ESOF requires constant, careful attention to your manner of use of the vehicle.

When to use 4×4 High vs. 4×4 Low

Speaking of 4WD-L and 4WD-H, there is a little more you need to know about when it is appropriate to engage one over the other, especially if you are only towing and not driving off-road.

After all, many drivers of Ford F150s are not using the vehicle for personal use, but as a commercial vehicle, and may not have any need for off-roading.

Let’s start with 4×4-H: This mode is most appropriate when you are driving between 15-55mph. This is not intended for off-roading but can be used for that if need be.

The main purpose of 4WD-High is to increase traction which can help you when driving on roads in less-than-ideal conditions, such as:

  • Rain
  • Sleet
  • Snow

This mode will enhance the safety of your drive especially when towing.

4×4-L, on the other hand, is meant to be used as-needed and never for extended periods of time. You should never be driving more than 15mph when using 4WD-Low. This mode can also be used for towing heavy loads, especially trailers, for example.

The benefits of 4WD-Low in the context of off-roading, however, include greater traction and mobility when driving up (or down) steep grades.

Of course, the advantages of both 4WD-H and -L extend far outside of the scenarios mentioned here so this is only a simple overview of the general categories of appropriate use for each mode.

Essentially, the purpose of 4WD is to increase the safety of your driving experience by giving you greater control over your vehicle despite less-than-ideal driving conditions.

More information on 4WD-High vs. 4WD-Low

If you are engaging 4WD expecting more power, then you need to switch into 4WD-Low. This is because this mode is intended primarily when needing more traction for increased stability, not specifically to bolster the strength of the vehicle.

If you are needing more power to your vehicle temporarily, 4WD-Low is what you’re looking for.

Why is that?

The way that F150 4WD-Low works is by increasing the amount of torque distributed through the 4×4 system.

Note that it is not increasing the horsepower of the vehicle, but the torque specifically. Torque is produced when the combustion of the engine within the F150’s cylinder applies pressure to the piston, leading the piston to press down onto the crankshaft.

The piston then presses offset from the axis of rotation at the center of the crankshaft at a specific distance. All of these physical elements work together to produce engine torque, producing a twisting force that can be used to control elements of the 4WD system.

Torque is increased as distance increases, and it is for that reason that 4WD-Low results in greater torque within the limits of traction.

This is why the addition of the downhill assist and electronic rear differential to increase traction are invaluable to improving the performance of your Ford F150 in either 4WD mode.

How does the Downhill Assist work with F150 4WD?

At certain times, you will need to engage either the downhill assist to increase the amount of traction you’re getting when driving. This is something that can be extremely beneficial to your use of Ford F150 4×4 as a whole, as it will directly influence the amount of torque distributed.

All of these elements combined determine the way your vehicle performs in 4WD – and the safety with which it performs.

The primary purpose of the hill descent function is to manage the speed of the vehicle while driving downhill. It employs the brake system by preventing you from passing certain speeds when traveling downhill or generally over uneven terrain. If you begin to approach the restricted speed, the system aides you by applying the brakes more strongly.

How to use Downhill Assist

Using the downhill assist feature is quite simple: All you need to do is:

  • Press the Hill Descent Control TM button that is located on the control console above the LED monitor. Once pressed, a graphic confirming the activation of Hill Descent Control will pop up on the instrument cluster along with a chime to alert you of the confirmation.
  • Choose to either accelerate or brake to bring the vehicle to the target speed. Once you lift your foot from either pedal, the speed will be maintained
  • At any point while the downhill assist is engaged, you can change the desired speed by simply using your accelerator or brake pedal again – you are not tied to one speed only.

Not that the desired speed can only be between 2 to 20 mile per hour. The system will remain activated if you happen to go above 20mph at a maximum of 40mph, but once you pass that maximum threshold, the system will disengage.

Additionally, although it will remain engaged, the downhill assist function is unable to maintain speeds of more than 20 miles per hour.

Also, be aware that the downhill assist feature needs a cooldown period after a certain amount of time. If the system is reaching its maximum activation after a cooldown period, it will chime again to alert you that it will soon disengage.

Learning to be aware of the uses and limitations of the downhill assist function will improve the skill with which you use your Ford F150 4WD system.

How the Ford F150 4WD works

Regarding mechanics, when your Ford F150 truck is in its standard 2WD mode, the front axles are unlocked, meaning they are not connected to the driveline. This prevents any access to power from the drivetrain to the front axles. Once you engage 4WD, the axles lock, thereby gaining access to the drivetrain.

After the front axles are locked, the front and rear driveshaft begins to rotate at the same speed. In this mode, it is highly recommended that you avoid driving on pavement.

The reason is that, now that both of the driveshafts are operating at the same speed, if you happen to go around any tight corners as you drive, the system will become bound.

What is binding in a Ford F150 4WD System?

Binding, also referred to as “drivetrain windup,” is something that happens when the front and rear axles of the 4×4 system begin to rotate at different speeds.

Recall that the purpose of 4WD is to make these axles rotate at identical speeds: when you operate your F150 in a way that it is not meant to be when engaged in 4WD, this introduces complications that the system is not prepared for and can interrupt the intended rotational speed.

This is why, in the example of turning too sharply or simply driving on terrain that does not call for 4WD, the 4×4 becomes unstable and therefore vulnerable to binding.

It is especially recommended that part-time 4WD vehicles are not driven on dry pavement due to the little or no slippage. The absence of the slip increases the chances that one wheel will gain more traction than the other if turning or otherwise, throwing off the matching rotations.

Part-time Ford F150 4WD systems

In part-time 4WD vehicles, the front tires operate at a faster rotational speed than the rest of the drivetrain. These are especially vulnerable to binding because of the lack of a center differential in many 4WD transfer cases.

The purpose of this center axle is to compensate for different axle rotation speeds. When this is absent, the lack of compensation can lead to serious complications.

Operating your Ford F150 4WD vehicle when the 4×4 system is engaged on dry or generally non-slippery surfaces introduces physical stress that the system is not equipped to handle. Such activity can do more than just interfere with the performance of the axles but damage the axle and transfer case as well.

Keep this information at the forefront of your mind when engaging the 4×4 system in your Ford F150, as these vehicles are manufactured as part-time 4WD.

Why does 4WD reduce fuel efficiency?

Part of the reason the truck performs with diminished fuel efficiency is due to the effects of this new connection.

Because there are now two additional wheels receiving power from the drivetrain, they are also receiving weight from the engine. This helps the tires to gain traction due to the increased pressure with which they are contacting the ground, but it also places more stress on the engine.

With the increased weight and greater power distributed through the drivetrain, your F150 will be exerting twice the energy it normally does to move the body of the vehicle. The added stress in addition to the elements through which you are trying to navigate – mud or snow, for example – create heightened resistance to the vehicle’s movement.

Unless you are planning on using your Ford F150’s 4WD regularly as opposed to as-needed (specifically restricted to getting out of tight situations), you need not worry about the reduction in fuel efficiency.

In the big picture, it is truly not something that will significantly affect your overall vehicle performance and is only a small compromise for a stronger performance.

Convenience of no manual locking hubs

In the early days of the F150 4WD systems, Ford had manual locking hubs on their vehicles. The removal of this mechanism has been a game-changer for 4×4 drivers, as you are no longer required to exit the vehicle to engage 4WD.

With the manual locking hub, shifting into 4WD was quite a chore, as after you got out of the vehicle, you had to lock the front wheel and axle shaft together by rotating a dial on the front wheel hub.

Over time, it became clearer just how inconveniently slow and clunky this process was. If ever there was an emergency situation where 4WD was necessary and environmental conditions were not conducive to being out of the vehicle, this system posed quite a danger.

On a lesser note, having to stop and exit the vehicle was a significant interruption to off-roading experiences – it needed a renovation.

Starting in the 1980s, Ford began making changes to the F150 4WD system to streamline the process of activating it. They began to provide automatic locking hubs, and eventually implemented the use of an actuator. The automatic locking hub is now a standard addition to Ford vehicles, so, unless you are driving an older model or Super Duty vehicles such as the F250 or F350, you can expect your activation of 4WD to be easy and comfortable.

Handy Hint: Check out the variances in the models in this guide to F150 vs F250 vs F350 differences.

When you activate the automatic locking hub by turning on the 4WD switch from inside the cabin of your Ford F150, the two front axles connect to the drive plate.

This allows them to turn as one component. The axles will then spin together simultaneously and will receive power via the front differentials from the transfer case.

All of this together serves to make your Ford F150 4WD much more streamlined and accessible to the average driver.

What is the difference between the Ford F150 4WD and others?

You may have come across Ford vehicles that display “Fx4” instead of 4×4 and wondered what exactly the difference is. There is no substantial difference between “Fx4” and 4×4, as the “F” is representative of “Ford” and nothing more.

Still, this doesn’t take away the fact that there are many unique aspects of the Ford 4WD system that separate it from competitors.

Ford boasts system improvements that set them above other manufacturers’ 4×4 systems including

  • Improved suspension
  • Skid plates
  • More powerful Ranchero shocks
  • Limited slip rear end

All of these aspects not only improve the power of the Ford F150’s 4WD but also the ease with which you as the driver will experience it. Other 4×4 trucks come with weaker suspensions and lower ground clearance, a severe blow to potential off-roading capabilities.

They also typically need to be engaged via a manual shifting system instead of a simple switch like the one provided in the Ford F150.

Back in the early 2000s, Ford actually marketed this “Fx4” as the “Off-Road Package,” due to the superior strength with which the system performs.

Of course, it is capable of a stellar performance even on paved roads, so you can trust that you will experience an excellent drive even apart from off-roading.

The Ford F150 AWD system

In addition to its cutting-edge 4×4 drive system, Ford prides itself on yet another driving modification, the all-wheel-drive system. The Ford F150 AWD features sensors that monitor, in real-time, conditions of the road, along with information regarding your vehicle’s speed and throttle.

This data allows the AWD system to be uniquely tailored to your driving habits and real-time environmental conditions.

How?

Based on the gathered data, the AWD adapts by sending specifically calculated levels of torque and power to the appropriate 4×4 components.

This serves to keep your vehicle safely grounded in tough weather conditions and gives you thorough control of the vehicle at all times.

What’s the difference between Ford’s 4WD and AWD?

Some Fords are equipped with the capability to be used as 2WD, part-time 4WD, or AWD vehicles. Now that we know what it means to operate a part-time 4WD vehicle, the last distinction left is between that and AWD Ford trucks.

What exactly is AWD and how is it different from any of the 4WD modes we’ve discussed here so far?

With an all-wheel-drive system, there is a bit more flexibility in the way the vehicle operates. This is because, instead of the front axles having to rotate at identical speeds, they are able to rotate at speeds distinct from one another.

This speed differential allows for use in a variety of conditions including use on pavement.

An added benefit of AWD is that all four wheels are receiving power from the drivetrain at all times. Although the power is not necessarily equally distributed, depending on the situation, it may offer more consistent power than 4WD.

Sometimes more power is sent to the front wheels than the rear wheels – most of the time the bias is toward the rear. The distribution of power is determined by your driving habits and environmental conditions.

Pros and cons of Ford F150s

Ford F150 trucks are some of the most popular vehicles worldwide – and for good reason! As some of the most reliable pickups on the market, F150s continue to raise the standard of quality and performance of 4WD vehicles.

Handy Hint: I compiled list of the best and worst Ford F150s ranked by year. Go check it out and see if yours is highly rated or not!

Given all of this information on Ford’s F150 4WD system, you should begin considering the pros and cons of deciding to invest in this stellar truck.

Let’s look at the Ford F150 2019 for example:

Pros

  • Special Off-Roading Trim Option: One of the trim options available for the F150 is specifically for off-roading. This trim offers the same 3.5L engine as the Limited, however, the frame of the vehicle is stronger and it is fitted with an enhanced 4WD system, with softer suspension and shocks and more durable tires.
  • Low Noise Levels: This may seem trivial but lots of cabin noise can ruin a good 4WD off-roading experience. The 2019 F150 has significantly reduced cabin noise, even at high speeds. Vibrations from the road are nearly unnoticeable.

Cons

  • Seemingly Lightweight: When the bed isn’t weighted down with cargo, it feels as if the truck does not have much traction on the ground. This may interfere with your experience in engaging 4WD, as the vehicle may bounce around a bit more than unexpected when on rough terrain.
  • Low Fuel Efficiency: Typical of many pickup trucks, the Ford F150 fuel efficiency is relatively low, especially when in 4WD. (From an average of 20 mpg in the city to 17 mpg with 4WD.)

These are only a handful of examples of factors you should consider when looking to purchase your Ford F150. The innovative 4WD system is unmatched by other vehicles currently available on the market, so you can be sure that for whatever reason you need to employ the 4WD, you will not be disappointed.

Josh Henderson

Hi I'm Josh and I'm a huge pickup enthusiast. I started this website in 2018 in order to share all my projects and custom mod tips that I've done with my own Ford F-150.

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