Front-wheel, Rear-wheel, All-wheel Or Four-wheel Drive?< Back to blog
Understanding the difference between each drivetrain available on a car will take you one step closer to finding your ideal new motor. There are three to choose from – front-wheel drive (FWD), rear-wheel drive (RWD), all-wheel drive (AWD) and four-wheel drive (4WD).
Each drivetrain affects a vehicle’s performance in terms of handling, fuel consumption and off-road abilities. Read on to find out which one suits your driving style most.
It would be rude not to start with the oldest and most traditional drivetrain out of the four. Up until the 1970s and 80s, RWD was the most popular choice for cars.
Today, RWD is most commonly found on sport and performance cars which have been engineered to have a driver-centric setup.
In RWD vehicles, power is delivered from the engine to the rear wheels via a driveshaft linked to the rear axles. Most RWDs feature a front engine which delivers the torque (power) to the back of the car. The front wheels are then free of any load to manoeuvre the car.
RWDs are considered the most versatile option, as well as being the most fun to drive. This is because the weight distribution is more balanced, unlike in FWD, where the front of the car is loaded by the engine being located over the powered wheels.
It’s become popular for sportier cars and performance vehicles to be fitted with RWD. This is because the weight transferred to the back of the car during acceleration loads the rear wheels and increases their grip.
Cars fitted with RWD aren’t without their disadvantages, however. In adverse weather such as snow and ice, traction control is a lot less than in FWD or AWD/4WD. The latter put greater weight on the driven wheels in order to do this.
Vehicles with an RWD setup tend to have a lot less interior space because more room is taken up by the driveshaft and transmission tunnel. The same goes for the boot, which is often compromised in order to make space for equipment necessary to power the car being stored here.
As mentioned earlier, a lot of vehicles with RWD tend to be small sport cars or performance SUVs and Saloons.
The Mazda MX-5 is one of the most exemplary cars to feature this drivetrain. Over the years it’s been held in high esteem thanks to its agile handling and plentiful torque delivered by aspirational engines.
However, if the two-seater setup doesn’t accommodate you, the BMW X3 is available in RWD and has the practical advantage of being a family SUV. The dominant riding position, spacious interior and 450-litre boot as standard will be enough to turn any driver’s head.
Unlike RWD, FWD delivers power from the engine – mounted in front of the front axle – to the front wheels of the car. This is the most popular type of drivetrain in modern cars.
The compact and one-unit fitting of FWD engines makes it the most efficient option for manufacturers to make.
The main benefits of FWD is the traction that you gain in conditions such as snow and rain, which is considerably better than RWD. The weight of the engine over the driven wheels gives the car the extra traction.
A compact unit design means more space can be gifted to the interiors of FWD cars. With RWD more interior space is needed for the driveshaft tunnel and rear differential. FWD cars are also often lighter due to having fewer components, making them more fuel efficient than the more complex RWD systems.
If you’re looking to use your next car as a towing vehicle, FWD probably isn’t the best option for you. Due to it being ‘nose heavy’, FWD cars tend to have a traction disadvantage as there is less weight on the driving wheels if you had a tow truck on the back.
Since all the weight is located at the front of FWD vehicles, there is more of a risk of understeer (where a car does not turn enough based on your steering input).
Some of the most popular FWD vehicles are hatchbacks with low running costs, spacious interiors and a no-frills driver setup.
The Volkswagen Golf is one of the most celebrated cars in this class thanks to an efficient mild-hybrid engine as standard and fun ride handling.
Making the list of aspirational FWD models is the Ford Focus. Particularly mid-range Zetec models are kitted out with lots of safety equipment, including cruise control, cornering front lights and voice control for the infotainment system.
With AWD, all four wheels are always powered from a front, rear and centre drivetrain.
Different manufacturers offer variations on the theme, such as ‘part-time’ AWD, whereby the car operates mostly on RWD, and only applies AWD when extra traction control is needed.
As the name states, AWD is an ideal choice for if you live in areas with challenging terrain and adverse weather conditions. Or for better handling while driving in general.
Despite the perception that AWD is essentially for any surfaces off-road, most car manufacturers offer AWD as an option on cars due to its popularity. Especially as car fanatics value its handling capabilities for day-to-day driving.
One thing we all do in a car is accelerate. In AWD vehicles, any form of acceleration, particularly in slippery conditions, will be more accurate than in a two-wheel drive motor. The main reason for this is that traction is equally distributed among all tires the moment you press on the accelerator and even beyond this.
The downside to AWD is that it’s often the most expensive option, simply because of its ‘all-round’ suitability on any roads or terrains.
In addition to this, cars fitted with AWD tend to burn through fuel quicker as more power is needed to keep all four tires moving. Something to consider if you want to keep your running costs down.
A lot of hype often surrounds vehicles with AWD and their abilities to perform in all types of weather. However, advertisement from manufacturers might not always be 100% accurate for the car you’ve got. So, be sure to read the owner’s manual of your new motor and do your research to know exactly how to drive in adverse conditions properly.
AWD vehicles come in all shapes and sizes, with some manufacturers offering this drivetrain on its smallest hatchbacks. However, you’ll find the most successful vehicles in this category are tough as old boots and like to take on challenging territory.
Speaking of which, an esteemed AWD vehicle is the Subaru Outback. Driving on UK roads is as easy as 123 thanks to full-time AWD which gets rid of wheelspin on roads with grit and thick mud.
On a more premium level you have the Audi A4 Allroad which has great ground clearance and lavish wood finishes inside. Leather seats, a raised suspension and HD 10″ infotainment system with smartphone connectivity are standard features and make it one of the most sought-after vehicles in its class.
There are often questions over the difference between 4WD and AWD. Although they’re alike in terms of which wheels they send power to, 4WD uses two differentials (a device which splits engine torque two ways) in the front and rear. On the other hand, AWD employs three differentials in the front, centre and rear of the vehicle.
Commonly referred to as a ‘four-by-four’ (or 4×4), 4WDs, like AWDs, transfer power to both the front and back wheels of the car. It’s a particularly useful feature which can get your vehicle over challenging terrain such as snowy, rocky and muddy surfaces.
Typically, the 4WD can be found on larger vehicles that manufacturers design with all-land capabilities, including off-road SUVs, trucks and HGVs. The extra traction control and torque make it ideal when towing large loads, descending downhill slowly and off-road adventure driving.
Given the nature of the 4WD’s functionality, not many people looking for their next car can justify the additional cost when compared to more traditional drivetrains.
Unlike AWD, 4WD is reserved for vehicles which aren’t as popular, especially not for private use. For example, pickup trucks with 4WD tend to be reserved for mountainous landscapes such as Alaska and Wyoming in the USA.
Durable, reliable and an absolute rock of a car. We’re talking about the Toyota Land Cruiser.
Not many SUVs can match the Cruiser when it comes to off-road driving. Its formidable presence can be felt merely by standing next to it, but stepping up onto the door sill plate lets you know you’re riding in a Goliath of a car.
The only downfall of the Cruiser is that it only has a single 2.8-litre diesel engine available. However, it averages 40mpg and you’ll be grateful for a DAC (Downhill Assist Control) function which keeps the car in check if you’re taking this car into its natural habitat.
If frills are important to you, there’s always the likes of the Land Rover Discovery 4×4 available.
Going off the beaten track is a lot more stylish here, mainly because the British manufacturer offering a leather interior on mid-range SE models upwards. That’s not all, either, with a 360-degree parking aid, gradient acceleration control and hill launch assist.
Which drivetrain is for me?
There’s no right or wrong choice, and it entirely depends on what your preference is as a driver. What surfaces you’ll be driving your new car on is an important thing to consider, too.
If you’re after a fun sports car, RWD is going to give you this over the more popular FWD. But if you’re on a budget, the popular FWD will no doubt save you money compared to the other two. It’ll also offer you good practicality due to its compact design.
Is good handling and performance what you’re after? Then an AWD sports car is worth considering. This will come at a cost, though!
Much like AWD, investing in a 4WD will give you the versatility of being able to drive off-road or carry large loads without negatively impacting your driving experience.
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