What Does the Four Wheel Drive Warning Light Mean?

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Anyone who off-roads for a hobby knows that four wheel drive is a must have. Unlike two wheel drive cars, vehicles equipped with four wheel drive (4WD) have a transfer case that takes the power from the engine and sends it to the front and rear wheels. Most four wheel drive vehicles also have a low and high range depending on the situation. Even though there is a button or shifter that is used to activate four wheel drive, auto makers include a light on the dash to let the driver know what setting is being used.

What the four wheel drive indicator light means

When you engage the four wheel drive, a corresponding light is illuminated on the dash. Vehicles with multiple gear ranges will also indicate what range has been selected. High and low are commonly abbreviated to “hi” and “lo” respectively. Some vehicles may only have an indicator for low range as high range is the default. Refer to the owner’s manual of your vehicle for specific information on your four wheel drive system.

Newer model vehicles have started using electronics to control the four wheel drive. Some of these electronically controlled systems have a 4x4 automatic mode. This mode keeps the vehicle in two wheel drive mode for most of the time until extra traction is necessary. The car’s computer monitors the wheel's rotational speeds and if it notices any slipping, it will send the power to all four wheels to keep the car moving.

Vehicles that have four wheel drive systems tend to have a separate light to indicate an issue with the system. Usually labeled “Service 4WD”, when this light comes on, a code will be stored in the computer’s memory to help identify any issues. Depending on the problem, the four wheel drive may be disabled temporarily. Sometimes if you haven’t used four wheel drive in a while, the computer may think that the transfer case isn’t lubricated properly. If your Service light turns on, try engaging the different gear ranges and driving around a little bit to move the oil around. Hopefully, the next time you start the engine, the light will be off.

Is it safe to drive with the four wheel drive indicator lights on?

Using four wheel drive in slippery situations makes a huge difference to the vehicle's driveability. You should never engage four wheel drive on dry pavement. Four wheel drive requires some slippage to occur between the front and rear wheels which is why it’s perfect for gravel, snow, and sand. On dry pavement, the grip prevents any slipping from happening and enabling four wheel drive will overstress the drivetrain. Vehicles equipped with automatic four wheel drive switch between the modes on demand so you don’t need to worry about switching it yourself.

If your service light is on or if your four wheel drive system doesn’t seem to be working properly, ask one of our certified technicians to help you diagnose any problems.


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Matthew

32 years of experience
689 reviews
Matthew
32 years of experience
Chevrolet Impala - Warning Light is on - Norfolk, Virginia
First off he was on time....actually 30 mins early which was great. Everything he described was what I was going through and he knew exactly what I needed before he even looked at the car. Other mechanics i feel were trying to take advantage because I am a woman but he made me feel comfortable. Still have to get work done on it but at least I know exactly what the problem was.
Chevrolet Tahoe - Warning Light is on - Norfolk, Virginia
Very detailed and takes the time to explain what is being done. Willing to answer any questions you may have. I would definitely use his services again and have already been telling my coworkers about this site. I have a unique electrical situation going on with my truck that none of the dealers could assess. Just by Matt doing some general maintenance , my truck is already driving smoother. Matt asked that I monitor things to make sure we don't need to troubleshoot anything else. I feel quite confident.

Quentin

18 years of experience
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Quentin
18 years of experience
Volkswagen Tiguan - Warning Light is on - Nottingham, Maryland
Quentin was very professional and meticulous with locating the issues with my car. Great spirit and explained and answered all of my questions.

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12 years of experience
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Travis
12 years of experience
Mercedes-Benz C230 - Warning Light is on - Charlotte, North Carolina
Travis came out to determine cause for the Check Engine light. He did so and told me what needed to be done and the cost.

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8 years of experience
35 reviews
Juan
8 years of experience
Suzuki Grand Vitara - Warning Light is on - Durham, North Carolina
I won't go into details about the actual work performed - the result was completely satisfactory. Juan is knowledgeable about how these computerized engines work . He's very personable, polite, patient with my questions, and when I need service again, I'll request Juan. He put in more time than originally scheduled and seems to want to see things through and honest enough to tell you if the job is beyond his expertise and suggests taking car to dealer for more extensive diagnostic tests. I am well pleased.

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