Rear-wheel drive vs Front-wheel drive vs All-wheel drive - Which is best?

Rear-wheel drive vs Front-wheel drive vs All-wheel drive - Which is best?

Most of us drive front-wheel drive vehicles. That’s because for the majority of vehicles manufactured it’s the simplest and cheapest solution. But what exactly is the difference between front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive and all-wheel-drive?

Front-wheel drive (FWD)

Advantages of FWD

Front-wheel drive is cheap

This is by far the cheapest of the three options. The engine and transmission are combined into a single unit making manufacturing as cost-effective as possible.

Lightweight

There is no driveshaft in FWD vehicles as no power gets transferred to the rear axles. This helps to save a huge amount of weight - improving efficiency and performance.

More interior space

Since there is no driveshaft directly under the passenger seats there is also more room in the back, especially in the footwell.

Good in poor conditions

Naturally, FWD vehicles will have more weight over the front wheels. This results in increased traction over the axle that is powering the vehicle. When driving in rain, sleet and snow, this added traction will help to prevent slides, keeping you safe.

Disadvantages of FWD

Lots and lots of understeer

One of the huge downsides to FWD is that the job of steering and powering the vehicle is assigned to the same axle. This means that when travelling at high speeds through corners there is often a great deal of understeer. Understeer is when the front wheels cannot get enough traction to steer and the vehicle ends up going straight on. Unlike oversteer, there is little you can do to try to correct understeer once it begins.

Torque steer

This phenomenon is when there is so much power passing through the wheels at the front that they actually steer slightly in one direction.

This only really affects vehicles with higher powered engines; usually 300bhp+ and usually only when trying to accelerate very quickly, especially from a standing start or at low speeds. If you’re in the market for a Ford Fiesta though, you can ignore this one. 

Not as fun as RWD

Because the vehicle is driven from the front axle it is rare you will be able to “kick the back out” and many drivers prefer the personality of a rear-wheel drive car.

Not as much grip as AWD

Although FWD vehicles tend to have better traction than their RWD counterparts, they still lag behind AWD vehicles, which hold the crown when it comes to grip. If you live in a climate that sees lots of rain or snow, or you plan on doing a lot of off-road driving, an all-wheel drive vehicle may be your better option.

Rear wheel drive

Advantages of RWD

Good weight distribution

Rear-wheel drive cars have great weight distribution. The engine is usually still at the front (with a few exceptions - the famous rear-engined Porsche 911 being one) and the differential is at the rear. This helps to spread the weight evenly across the whole vehicle. Better weight distribution means better balance, and better handling.

More fun than FWD

Because RWD cars have more weight over the rear axle, and the rear-wheels drive the car, then if you overcook it into a corner you will usually end up with oversteer rather than understeer. Oversteer is easier to control than understeer if you know what you’re doing. That said, your better option is still just to slow down before entering a corner…

Separate axles doing steering and propulsion

Separating the propulsion from the steering allows for better handling and makes the vehicle more durable. Also, high performance vehicles struggle to put the power down and steer at the same time.

Disadvantages of RWD

RWD cars are more expensive

Because of the additional hardware (such as a driveshaft to transfer power to the rear axle) and the extra engineering involved, the cost of manufacturing RWD cars tends to be higher than FWD ones. Naturally, this cost is passed on to the consumer.

Less traction in snow and poor conditions.

One major grievance with many rear-wheel drive owners is the lack of traction on rainy days. With even the slightest hint of rain, and especially in sleet or snow, your fun and frolicky rear-wheel drive sports car will suddenly turn into your worst enemy. The lack of grip will send you oversteering and spinning off with even the slightest of presses on the accelerator. Of course, if you’re an experienced and assertive driver and you know what you’re doing then this is something you can factor into owning a RWD car without it being too much of a burden.

All-wheel drive (AWD)

Advantages of AWD

Grip, grip, and more grip!

The first and probably the biggest benefit of all-wheel-drive is the fact that is has so much traction. The better grip improves handling and performance dramatically. At the end of the day the amount of power your vehicle has is irrelevant if it can’t get it down onto the road. As a result AWD vehicles are usually much quicker off the line than both fwd and rwd.

All-wheel drive vehicles are safer

This is an obvious one really. All that grip means one thing - they’re safer. No matter whether it’s a glorious day or its pouring down with rain, if you own an AWD vehicle you know you’ll have the maximum amount of grip available. You’ll notice you have less understeer and oversteer than FWD and RWD vehicles.

Disadvantages of AWD

Heaviest of the three options

The biggest downside to AWD? Put simply, it’s weight. They have even more additional hardware than RWD vehicles to be able to apply the power to both the front and rear axles. This means that even though they have more grip, you’ll be carrying a lot of extra weight which will affect your handling and performance.

Most expensive of the three options

Because of the added complexity with making a vehicle AWD you’ll also be paying the added cost, which can be several thousand pounds more than an equivalent FWD or RWD vehicle.

Electric AWD

As a side note, new electric cars sometimes offer “through-the-road” AWD - where there is no driveshaft transferring some of the power to the rear. Instead they have a separate motor over each axle. This helps to remove a huge amount of weight. Genius?

Summary

In summary, there's no right or wrong when it comes to choosing a drivetrain. For many, the tried and tested, cheapness and easability of front-wheel drive make it a sound investment. It won’t empty your wallet, will keep you safe in the snow and with modern suspension will provide ample performance and handling for the majority of drivers.

For those who are after a more sporty drive, or simply prefer the racing pedigree of rear-wheel-drive then this might be worth splashing a bit of money on. You’ll certainly enjoy it more in the corners and enjoy the larger engines on offer. Just don’t get too upset when you’re having to order an Uber to work when there’s some slight drizzle outside.

And finally, if you want the best of everything - and are happy to pay for it - AWD seems to have pretty much every base covered. It can handle copious amounts of power, keep you safe and provide plenty of fun. It seems it has to be the one to opt for. Just don’t tell your neighbour with the BMW M4 or Mercedes-AMG C63s, as they’ll probably give you a huge spiel about why any true performance driver would only ever choose rear-wheel-drive. That said, a lot of the more modern AWD sports cars - such as the new BMW M5 - have a setting for RWD only mode. That’s problem solved!

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