Are you confused, or looking for clarification when it comes to front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive vehicles? Which one should you buy, and how many of the benefits touted by various car manufacturers for each type actually true? Which one is the best?
Here are the main pros and cons of each layout:
Front Wheel Drive
FWD offers two main advantages to vehicle manufacturers. The first advantage is they’re cheaper to design and build – the entire drivetrain is contained within the engine bay and there are fewer moving parts. The engine, transmission and axle assembly is all in one space, unlike a RWD car. For you this means the car is more economical and should get better mileage.
The other benefit of FWD is they can offer better traction in most low(er) power situations – especially in rain and snow. The front wheels are pulling the car along and they have the weight of the heavy engine and gearbox sitting directly on top of them. All that weight translates to added grip, giving FWD cars the advantage particularly in poor weather conditions.
Downsides? Well, FWD cars are nose-heavy, which isn’t what you want when it comes to good handling. FWD cars tend to understeer terribly when pushed to the limit. Another issue is that the front wheels are essentially doing two things at once – putting power to the ground and steering the car at the same time. This too, isn’t ideal. In FWD cars with related problem is that the front wheels have to do two things at once — put the power to the ground and steer the car. In a high-powered FWD car, it can sometimes be difficult or awkward to keep the car pointed straight ahead as the car accelerates. The front wheels may jerk to the left or right — a problem called “torque steer.”
Like FWD, there are two main advantages to owning a RWD car. The first is that RWD is more simple and rugged. You’ve got the engine at the front, the gearbox in the middle and the drive axel at the rear. The other advantage RWD cars is that they offer better balance and handling. While a FWD car has most of the weight of the engine and gearbox over the front wheels, a RWD car spreads the weight of its drivetrain more evenly front-to-rear. This is why most sports cars, and virtually all race cars, are RWD.
And the downsides? Well, RWD cars can be more of a handful in slippery conditions – due to there being less weight over the rear wheels. Even with modern traction control, a RWD car is more prone to losing traction on slick roads. The other downside is less efficient packaging. RWD cars have a prop shaft running from the gearbox down to the rear axel, which means the interior needs a large transmission tunnel built into the floor, running down the middle of the cabin. This means less space for occupants, in particular leg room for people sitting in the middle of the back seat.
In theory, an AWD car gives you some of the advantages of both RWD and FWD cars, while minimising the weaker points of both layouts.
The biggest advantage of AWD is excellent traction. Whether it is wet or dry, either on paved road or on gravel, an AWD car will offer much higher levels of grip. This is why AWD cars appeal to both performance drivers and also families who care more about safety. Some AWD systems are based on RWD layouts, while others are built around FWD layouts – like the Subaru Impreza.
But, inevitably, there are downsides. The biggest two being weight and cost. AWD cars can weigh hundreds of kilograms more than similar FWD or RWD cars, and this affects the car’s acceleration and fuel economy. The other downside is added complexity and cost. There’s more components and more items that will need servicing, which means the car will be more expensive to buy and cost more to maintain over its lifetime.
As you can see, there’s no clear cut answer as to which type is best. But the drive type which is right for you depends on what kind of driver you are, the conditions you typically drive in and also what you expect the car to do.