How to turn on 4WD on a Toyota Highlander – No Tools Needed

“How to turn on 4WD on a Toyota Highlander?” comes to many people’s minds when driving on terrain that requires more traction and power. With your engine running, locate the 4WD button, usually on the lower part of the center console, and press it to turn the 4WD on.

How to Turn on 4WD on a Toyota Highlander

Check out the detailed steps below. This guide also provides practical tips to gain more traction and control for your car in wet conditions without using the 4WD, so read on.

How To Activate the 4WD on Your Highlander?

To activate the 4WD on your Highlander, turn on the engine and locate a button labeled “4WD” on the lower part of the center console. Press the 4WD button to engage the system. Once the system is active, you’ll see an “AWD” indicator light on the dashboard.

For those looking for answers to “2012 Toyota Highlander 4WD system explained” or “2013 Highlander 4WD explained”, it’s worth mentioning that the 4WD system (not only in the Highlander but also in Toyota Tundra, Toyota Tacoma, and many others) is designed to enable the vehicle handles rough terrains with ease.

It distributes power to all the four wheels of the car. Whether driving on dirt roads, through deep water or stuck in ice or snow, you can count on the 4WD to provide the traction and power needed to get the vehicle moving.

Also note that although used interchangeably, the 4WD and AWD are quite different. The last Highlander model to feature a 4WD drivetrain was in 2013. Newer models come in two drivetrain options: Front-wheel drive (FWD) and All or Four-Wheel Drive (AWD).

Here’s the Toyota Highlander AWD system explained: it utilizes a variable connection, where the vehicle can adjust on the fly at any speed, to transfer power where required. On the other hand, the 4WD connects the front and rear wheels via a transfer case that evenly splits power to all the wheels. The AWD activates automatically every time you get behind the wheel. It powers the front wheels, but it activates the AWD mode when slippage is detected, sending torque to all the wheels.

In other words, the AWD is generally automatic – it allows your vehicle to decide when to engage all four wheels automatically. It’s adaptable, and balances fuel efficiency and traction need without you having to do anything. The Land Cruiser is a good example of another Toyota with a full-time 4WD. Now, look at the detailed steps to engage the 4WD in your Highlander.

  • Turn on the Car

Your vehicle must be on for the 4WD to engage. The system works hand-in-hand with the engine. As mentioned, once engaged, the engine will send power to the transmission, split into the front and rear axles, and transfer the torque to the wheels. So, start the engine, then move on to the next step.

  • Locate the System’s Button

The Toyota Highlander 4 wheel drive button is usually located on the lower part of the center console or gear shift console. It’s labeled 4WD or has a picture of a vehicle with four wheels for easy identification. You can consult your owner’s manual if necessary.

  • Press the Button To Engage the 4WD

Push the button to turn on the 4WD system automatically. Once it’s engaged, you should see a light on the dashboard that says “AWD.” That means the system works, and your Highlander is ready to handle any terrain. Please note that in some Highlanders, the icon for the AWD features two car axes and the word “LOCK” below them.

You’ll usually see this light illuminate when you start the engine, meaning your vehicle is equipped with an AWD (all-WD) system. Also note that although the 4WD offers better vehicle handling on tough terrains, it burns a lot of gas. Once you’ve turned it on, you’ll notice a decreased fuel economy.

Button To Engage the 4WD

Ensure you have enough fuel before engaging it to provide more control. You should only engage the system when driving on unfavorable terrains. During normal road driving, the system should remain off to improve fuel economy and protect your car’s components from potential damage.

Thus, it’s also essential to learn how to turn off AWD on Toyota Highlander, which is straightforward. You only need to hit the same button again, and the system will turn off. Once that happens, you’ll notice that the “AWD” light on the dashboard has disappeared, meaning the system is successfully deactivated.

How To Increase Traction and Handling Without Using 4WD

To increase traction and handling without using 4WD in wet and snowy conditions, follow tracks cleared by previous drivers or get a pair of snow socks or chains. Another practical hack is to buy the right tires, avoid speed and use tire grip as a temporary solution when you’re stuck.

The 2007 Toyota Highlander 4WD system is expensive if engaged for a long time. As mentioned, it causes the engine to consume a lot of gas. So, it’s a convenient feature but not one you want to use all the time. See more in detail about the various alternatives you have:

  • Follow Other Vehicles’ Cleared Tracks

Maneuvering your vehicle through tough terrain or conditions, such as thick snow, can be difficult without 4WD. You can easily get stuck. However, you don’t need to worry if someone else has already created a path for you, and it’s visible.

You only need to follow the track and maintain a reasonable speed. That way, the wheels can move smoothly without requiring the additional push of the 4WD.

  • Install Snow Chains

Snow chains are metal chain-like devices fitted on car tires for more traction when driving in snowy or icy conditions. You’ll find them in different sizes. So, you’ll need to find the right fit for your car.

Car Snow Chains

Once you buy, practice installing them at home so you can do it stress-free whenever necessary. The snow chains come with simple installation instructions.

  • Consider Getting a Pair of Snow Socks

Auto snow socks or simply tire socks are installed around the tires to enhance grip while driving in wet conditions, such as during winter. They are made of fabric or textiles with fibers arranged so that the snow or ice sticks to them as the vehicle moves. That increases traction on tires. Snow socks are easy to install with a little elbow grease.

Snow socks are an alternative for areas where snow chains aren’t allowed. When installed, you should not exceed 30 miles per hour. Also, they may not be ideal for extreme braking.
Another thing to note is that on your all-WD vehicle, the snow socks or chains are installed on all four tires. But they will go on the front tires if you have a front-wheel drive vehicle. Similarly, you’ll install chains or socks on the rear tires for rear-wheel drive cars.

  • Buy the Right Tires for Wet Conditions

If you often drive in snowy weather, buy winter tires to ensure maximum traction on wet roads. Experts say your tire treads should measure 6/32 inches deep during snow or wintry conditions.

Right Car Tires for Wet Conditions

Manufacturers design winter tires to maintain optimum performance on icy, slushy, or snowy roads. These tires also do great in cold and dry conditions. Having all-weather tires is also a good idea, but winter tires are more reliable. So, always plan and invest in the right tires so you won’t always need to use the 4WD feature.

Note that having proper tire pressure is also a sure way to ensure that your tires provide maximum traction. Check your tires often instead of waiting until your TPMS warning light turns on.

  • Buy Tires With Siping

Tires with siping are highly effective in wet conditions. They significantly enhance traction and the ability to stop. In case you’re wondering, tire siping creates thin slits in the rubber surface.

Mostly, siping happens at the manufacturing stage, but you can always request it to be done after purchase (microsiping) at an additional fee. Also, some tire and auto shops provide aftermarket tire siping services, with charges starting from $10 per tire.

  • Spray Tires With Tire Grip

Consider buying and keeping a can of tire grip in your car. The product is formulated to be sprayed on tire treads to enhance traction. However, it’s only a temporary solution. It would be best if you only used it in emergencies.

Spraying Tires With Tire Grip

For instance, if you’re stuck, spray some of it on each tire to help get the vehicle in motion again. On average, you’ll find tire grip at your local auto parts store or online for $20.

  • Drive at a Slow Speed

Avoid high speed when driving in bad weather. Driving at low speed will reduce your probability of sliding, being unable to brake properly, and hitting something you shouldn’t. However, don’t drive too slowly because you need to maintain momentum to reduce the chance of getting stuck. Most importantly, be more cautious to ensure your safety and other drivers on the road.


– Can You Go off Road With a Highlander?

No, you can’t go off road with a Highlander because the vehicle is built only for paved roads. Its ground clearance measures 8-inch, almost an inch short of the ideal range for off-roading (8.8-10.8-inch). Therefore, it’s hard to avoid rocks and other obstacles that can damage the undercarriage.

– Is the 4WD Worth It?

The 4WD is worth it when navigating unpaved or soft surfaces, such as gravel and grass, that can cause your wheels to lose traction. The AWD generally offers superior grip on challenging terrain and reduces the chance of wheel slippage. It makes your vehicle a winner in harsh climate conditions.

– What Does Dynamic Torque-Vectoring All-Wheel Drive Mean?

Dynamic torque-vectoring all-wheel drive (TV-AWD) refers to a unique type of AWD system. Based on system-tracked driving conditions, it independently supplies 50 percent of engine torque to the right and left rear wheels. That significantly improves traction and enables the vehicle to handle the most challenging terrains.

Can Turning on 4WD on a Toyota Highlander Improve Off-Road Performance?

Turning on 4WD on a Toyota Highlander alone may not significantly improve off-road performance. However, equipping the vehicle with specialized accessories like Raptor Wheels can indeed enhance off-road capabilities. Improve offroad performance with Raptor Wheels by increasing traction, improving maneuverability, and providing better ground clearance. Upgrade your Toyota Highlander with Raptor Wheels for an improved off-road experience.


After reading our guide, turning on the 4WD on your Highlander is as easy as ABC.

Here’s a summary in case you missed something:

  • You turn the 2004 Toyota Highlander 4WD system by pushing the system’s button in the center console’s lower part.
  • You must turn on the engine first for the system to activate by pressing the button.
  • To turn the system off, you press the same button again, and you’ll know the system is inactive by the disappearance of the “AWD” light on the dashboard.
  • Installing snow chains or socks and using the right tires are practical tips to enhance traction during wet seasons without turning on the 4WD.

You now have the information to turn the 4WD on and enjoy improved traction and handling on your Highlander. Remember, the system increases fuel consumption, so turn it on only when necessary.

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