There are three major drive types that you'll find in cars, SUVs, and trucks which include front-wheel drive (FWD), rear-wheel drive (RWD), and all-wheel drive (AWD)/four-wheel drive (4WD). We'll group the last two together for this purpose. Many car shoppers narrow down their options based on a specific drive type like AWD, believing it is better for performance or safety reasons. According to Edmunds, nearly half of passenger cars and trucks sold are equipped with AWD or 4WD. Is there any validity to this shopping strategy? We'll cover the differences between the three categories, the pros and cons of each, and how to decide which one is right for your needs.
In a front-wheel-drive vehicle, the transmission transfers power from the engine to the front wheels. This is a simpler set up than rear-wheel-drive or AWD because the engine is usually situated in the front of the car so it's easy to connect the powerplant with the front wheels. Examples of great front-wheel drive vehicles include the Volkswagen Arteon, Hyundai Veloster N, Volvo S60, Honda Accord, and the Volkswagen Golf GTI.
Pros of Front-Wheel Drive
Although front-wheel drive cars sometimes get a bad rep, if you're interested in one of the vehicles listed above or another FWD car, there is good news. There are many benefits to this drive system including price, fuel efficiency, and space. Because front-wheel drive vehicles are less complex and therefore cheaper to make, the cost to the consumers may be lower as a result. Another benefit of front-wheel drive vehicles is that they are typically more fuel-efficienct because the system is lighter. This means you'll save on both the purchase price and the cost to own. Typically, you'll find a front-wheel-drive car to be most spacious inside because all the mechanics are in the front and do not create a hump that interferes with rear passenger space. Finally, compared to rear-wheel drive, traction is better in FWD vehicles, especially when going uphill.
Cons of Front-Wheel Drive
Along with the benefits covered above, there are also drawbacks to FWD cars. Some vehicles will exhibit torque steer which is when the vehicle pulls towards one side when accelerating heavily. This occurs because of the uneven power being sent to the front wheels. Another disadvantage that you may find in some FWD cars is a greater turning radius than rear-wheel drive because the front wheels can't be turned as sharply due to the placement of the drivetrain equipment.
Who Should Get a Front-Wheel Drive Car?
Front-Wheel drive cars will accommodate drivers who mostly stay on paved roads, such as in city or suburban environments. Traction will generally be good for dry environments or those that get occasional rain or snow. Thanks to technology and features such as anti-lock brakes, traction control, and winter tires, most drivers find a front-wheel-drive car fits their everyday needs.
Rear-wheel drive was the first drive type of American vehicles, and it is still touted as the better option for anyone who cares about performance. Not surprisingly, you'll find most sports cars feature rear-wheel-drive. A RWD setup is essentially the reverse of a FWD car. The power from the engine is sent entirely to the rear wheels and the front wheels are only used to steer the vehicle. Some of our favorite RWD vehicles include the Ford Mustang, Chevy Corvette, Mazda MX-5 Miata, and the Kia Stinger.
Pros of Rear-Wheel Drive
Cars with RWD will typically handle better than FWD because the weight of the engine and of the rear differential is balanced more evenly. Acceleration off the line is usually better in a RWD vehicle because the weight is transferred to the rear over the drive wheels and traction is improved (in dry conditions) while torque steer is minimized. RWD is well-suited for larger engines which is why you'll commonly find it in powerful sports cars, large SUVs and rugged trucks.
Cons of Rear-Wheel Drive
Unlike FWD or AWD, RWD isn't well suited for most driving conditions and the everyday driver. RWD vehicles will also typically be less fuel-efficient and more cramped. This is because they require a driveshaft and a rear differential which take up space in the middle of the cabin and the extra weight reduces the car's mpg. RWD vehicles are difficult to drive in inclement weather like rain, snow, and ice because they are designed for maximum grip in dry conditions.
Who Should Get a Rear-Wheel Drive Car?
If you live in a climate with dry weather for most of the year, or if you're looking for a "fun car" in addition to a more practical daily driver, a RWD car may be for you. Performance-focused drivers will enjoy the exceptional handling and quick acceleration which is unique to this drive type. If racing or track driving is on your list of hobbies, there is arguably nothing better to take out on the track than a RWD sports car.
All-Wheel Drive/4-Wheel Drive
All-wheel drive has surged in popularity with many sedans, crossovers, trucks, and SUVs now offering this drive type. Although 4WD and AWD are sometimes used interchangeably, 4WD is generally found in larger, more rugged SUVs and trucks and is designed for off-roading. AWD can be had in two forms including part-time (automatic) and full-time AWD. Part-time AWD means the vehicle typically drives as a FWD car with power going to all four wheels only when needed. Full-time AWD sends power to all four wheels all the time and can come with torque vectoring which directs power to the wheels with the most tractions. Many vehicles offer AWD as an option for a higher cost. Subaru's lineup, including the new Subaru Ascent, comes with AWD in the base models while many Jeeps offer 4WD.
Pros of All-Wheel Drive
AWD and 4WD vehicles will be practical in many circumstances including off-roading and driving on slick or gravel roads. In some cases, towing capability is also improved with this drive type. Traction in conditions like snow is improved when accelerating in a straight line, but AWD offers little assistance when it comes to traction while braking or turning.
Cons of All-Wheel Drive
AWD is a more complex and heavier system than FWD which is found in most base model vehicles. This means costs go up and fuel efficiency goes down making the vehicle more expensive to buy and to own. According to Edmunds, adding AWD or 4WD to a vehicle can increase the price by anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000. It can also provide a false sense of confidence causing drivers to push their vehicles too hard in inclement weather.
Who Should Get an All-Wheel Drive/4-Wheel Drive Car?
If you're planning to do a lot of off-road driving, a 4WD SUV or truck can be your best bet. Those who live in climates with heavy rain and snow should consider AWD vehicles since they can provide some benefits for driving in slippery conditions, but these benefits should not be overestimated. In many cases, a good set of winter tires will provide better traction in snow than AWD can offer.