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Posted: 02/03/2016

4-Wheel Drive — The Truth Is in the Test Drive

The Truth is in the Test Drive

Not all utility vehicles are created equal. In a parking lot, vehicles may appear to handle and operate similarly. However, they might have completely different characteristics when you work, use attachments or drive on uneven surfaces.

Don’t rely on simple dry runs to determine your purchase. Evaluate the machines in real-life situations that simulate your common tasks. When you research utility vehicles online, don’t get caught up in simply comparing specifications. It’s always best to get behind the wheel and evaluate how the specs really measure up.

Evaluate 4-Wheel Drive Systems

As you compare utility vehicles, it’s important to become familiar with the different types of four-wheel-drive systems and how they are engaged. They range from fully automatic, no operator input to those requiring the operator to stop the machine and pull a lever or push a button to engage the system. Not all machines that are marketed as all-wheel or four-wheel drive are the same. Some have the potential to drive on all four tires, while others drive on only three tires and just two tires (front axle and rear axle) at any given time.

To begin, consider the types of jobs and conditions you’ll face with your utility vehicle. As an operator, you need to understand when you should engage or disengage your four-wheel-drive system and differential locks (if applicable) in order to prevent unnecessary changes in vehicle handling, excessive wear or possibly damage to components. You should also be familiar with the machine’s drive mode options such as turf mode (one-wheel drive), two-wheel drive (locked rear differential) and four-wheel drive at your job site application.

Manually engaged differential locks are not meant to be used at all times. If you operate your vehicle on hard surfaces such as concrete or asphalt, having this type of four-wheel-drive system engaged will cause binding and unnecessary wear of tires and other drive-line components.

When you transition from a hard surface to one that requires more traction, most systems require you to stop to engage the system. It is important to understand the manufacturer’s recommendations on the “in” and “out” for each vehicle’s four-wheel-drive systems.

To quickly test four-wheel-drive functionality, put the vehicle to the test and educate yourself by an operational simulation.

Operate the vehicle in a safe and controlled environment and run an exercise of the vehicle’s four-wheel-drive operation.

During the operation, assess the following:

  • Understand the manufacturer’s recommendations on how to engage the four-wheel-drive system to maintain traction.
  • Do you need to shift into a lower or higher gear to activate the four-wheel drive?
  • When can you engage your four-wheel-drive system? At a stop or can it be rolling? If rolling, what is the speed range?
  • When engaged, how many wheels would spin once traction is lost? If you still don’t have enough traction, can you engage a differential lock? What axle does it affect?
  • If differential lock can be engaged, how many wheels would spin if traction is lost again?
  • When would you be able to spin all four tires?
  • How easy is it to determine which drive mode you need to be in for your application?
  • As ground conditions change, available traction will change with it. Understand whether the vehicle drive system is able to handle these changes in stride or if the vehicle four-wheel-drive system needs adjustment as traction conditions change — so as not to compromise steering, handling and create drive component wear.

This understanding is not only important for climbing inclines. The drive system is very important for operating in wet conditions, running attachments, or pulling a trailer.

Lastly, consider whether it’s important for you to have a shift-on-the-fly four-wheel-drive system. While it’s a common feature, some machines require stopping before the drive mode is changed.

Ensure Safe Operation

Before you begin a test drive, it’s important to know safe-operation tips. Most are specific to the type of equipment. Here are guidelines that apply for almost all compact equipment.

  • Before operating any type of compact equipment, read the Operation and Maintenance Manual. Pay close attention to capabilities and load capacities.
  • Always follow instructions on vehicle safety signs to avoid situations that can cause serious injuries or death.
  • Wear tight-fitting clothing that cannot get caught on controls or in working components of the vehicle. When working in some areas, hard hats and eye protection may be necessary.
  • Always face the vehicle when getting into it. Use grab handles and steps that are provided, and maintain a three-point contact.
  • Use the seatbelt — fastening it snugly for restraint.
  • Pay attention to all gauges and warning lights. A vehicle may need servicing before operation.
  • Never attempt to start the engine or operate the controls from outside of the vehicle.
  • Always look to the rear before backing up; check each side before swinging or turning. Your work area should be clear of bystanders, and no one should ever approach the vehicle as it’s working.
  • Run at a reduced speed until you understand and can control the vehicle.
  • Never allow riders on the utility vehicle unless they can be seated one per seat on the vehicle.
  • Never stand on or lean out of a utility vehicle while it is running. Keep all arms and legs inside the operator’s cab.
  • Be aware of any overhead power lines or obstacles. Contact utility companies to have them mark underground utility lines before digging.
  • If you must work in an enclosed area or building, make sure proper ventilation is provided.
  • Move slowly uphill and downhill, with the heaviest part of the vehicle uphill. (Remember, when some vehicles are empty, the heaviest part may be the rear of the vehicle).
  • Avoid steep side slopes and drop-offs; avoid going over rocks, culverts and stumps.
  • Avoid sudden stops, starts and turns.
  • When finished working, stop the vehicle on level ground. Always lower the attachment before leaving the utility vehicle (if equipped).
  • Engage the parking brake and stop the engine before leaving the unit.
  • When exiting, face the vehicle, use grab handles (if applicable) and steps, and maintain a three-point contact.
  • Always follow manufacturer’s instructions for transport: loading, unloading and securing equipment to a trailer.
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