• Buying Guides

AWD vs FWD - What's the Difference and Should I Get AWD?

By Michael O'Connor | April 18, 2022

When buying a new or used car, the type of powertrain is an incredibly important decision. Depending on the weather where you live and the type of driving you usually do, the drive system will play a big part in how well-suited that car is to you. It will affect the driving experience and handling as well as several other factors.

The main difference between an all-wheel-drive and front-wheel-drive system is how the power from the engine is distributed. In a front-wheel-drive car, the engine only powers the front wheels whereas an all-wheel-drive vehicle supplies power to all four wheels. Understanding how these different configurations work and how they can change how a vehicle handles can help you decide which is the better choice for you.

Types of Wheel Drive Systems:

Aside from FWD and AWD, there are other types of drive systems. They all have their own unique characteristics and will be beneficial in some ways as well as detrimental in others. Knowing the differences between these drive systems is important when shopping at a dealership or looking for used cars.

Front-Wheel-Drive (FWD):
FWD vehicles get all of the engine’s power directed at the front wheels of the car. There is no connection between the actual drivetrain and the rear wheels of the vehicle, which can help reduce oversteer by preventing the back wheels from sliding in a turn. The majority of the weight and power is coming from the front end, which pulls the car along instead of pushing it. Most modern cars come with front-wheel-drive at their most basic level since it is usually the least expensive drive system to manufacture as well as the simplest. There are very few steps between the engine creating the kinetic energy and that energy being expended by the car.

Rear-Wheel-Drive (RWD):
RWD vehicles used to be more common than they are today and many of the muscle cars and sports cars of the ‘60s and ‘70s are rear-wheel-drive as are many large trucks and high-performance luxury cars made today. In these vehicles, the engine turns a driveshaft that then turns a differential on the rear axle.

RWD systems offer precise handling due to the weight being distributed evenly throughout the vehicle. They also free up the front wheels for fine-tuning, which can result in better, more responsive steering that can be easily adjusted to suit your specific needs.

All-Wheel-Drive (AWD):
AWD systems are complex and dynamic and are an option for many new cars. While AWD delivers power to every wheel on the car, it does not deliver the same amount of power to each axle. Oftentimes, the ratio will be around 80/20 depending on the vehicle and what it has been set at. Most AWD systems can divert more power to the different axles if necessary, such as when one of the tires starts to slip because of winter weather conditions.

For the most part, the driver will not have to do anything to make these power changes happen and it will all be taken care of by sensors and electronic control modules. All-wheel-drive cars offer better traction control on things like ice, snowfall, and wet roads and usually have better, more responsive handling than two-wheel-drive cars.

Four-Wheel-Drive (4WD or 4x4):
4WD vehicles use a similar principle as AWD cars in that they distribute power to all four wheels. However, unlike AWD, a 4WD system distributes that power evenly throughout all four wheels regardless of the traction needed or the road conditions. 4WD vehicles usually have differentials on the front and back axles as well as a transfer case and different gear ratios that the driver can choose from depending on their needs. Some systems also give the driver the ability to switch between 4WD and 2WD since driving with 4WD engaged on regular asphalt can sometimes cause damage to the drivetrain.

Pros of AWD

Perhaps the most beneficial thing about driving an AWD vehicle is the fact that they are very dynamic and adaptable to almost any kind of terrain or road conditions. Since the driver doesn’t have to make any decisions about how the power is distributed to the wheels, you can simply drive your car and rest easy knowing that the drive system is making the best decisions for slippery conditions or off-road driving.

All-wheel-drive systems also give you better traction and handling no matter what the road conditions are like. You can be sure that the car will respond to any moves you make with the wheel and that it will always be running at the ideal ratio. It can also help eliminate the need for things like snow tires if you live in an area that only gets light snow. This is why AWD vehicles made by Subaru and Honda are so popular in wet regions and places where the weather can change rapidly.

Cons of AWD

Perhaps the biggest downside of AWD crossovers, SUVs, and sedans is the fact that they are not as fuel-efficient as 2WD cars. Because they are distributing power to two more wheels, this will burn up fuel much quicker. The improved traction can also be detrimental to fuel economy because of the higher amount of rolling resistance on the vehicle. The more the tires stick to the road surface, the less fuel-efficient a car is going to be.

AWD vehicles can also be less useful if you want control over the configuration and drive system of your vehicle. Four-wheel-drive systems allow you to make decisions based on what you know about the road you are going to be driving on. An AWD system is powered by electric motors and sensors that use the information to make those decisions. If you know that you only need 2WD on a certain road, it is beneficial to be able to make the change in real-time.

Pros of FWD

Perhaps the biggest benefit of a front-wheel-drive vehicle is the fact that it will be cheaper to buy as well as cheaper to maintain. FWD vehicles require fewer parts and are usually offered as the base model by automotive manufacturers. They will also use up less gas because power is only going to the front tires instead of all four. Many FWD cars also have better cornering abilities because of the lack of oversteer caused by not delivering power to the rear wheels.

FWD cars may also be quicker due to the decreased weight. When you have power going to all four wheels, this requires more equipment and heavier parts, which will almost always translate into slower acceleration times. If you want your car to be as quick and light on its feet as possible, a front-wheel-drive configuration may be your best bet.

Cons of FWD

One of the biggest disadvantages of front-wheel-drive cars is their lack of traction control. If you live in an area that regularly gets rain, ice, or snow, you may need to use all-season tires or winter tires when the weather starts to get bad. AWD vehicles are very stable and have a lot of powered contact points with the road whereas FWD cars only have powered contact points at the front, which can cause the rear wheels to slip.

FWD cars will also have a lower towing capacity than 4WD or AWD cars as well as less maneuverability in off-road situations. If you are outdoorsy or want to take your vehicle off the beaten path out in nature, an AWD car, minivan, or pickup truck is going to be a much safer bet. FWD cars pull themselves along instead of pulling and pushing, so if the front wheels aren’t making as much contact with the road from uneven terrain or a heavy towing load, you may not have as much power or control.

When to Choose All-Wheel-Drive

AWD vehicles are a good choice if you live in an area that gets snow, ice, and rain. Having that extra traction can be a major relief and can help you feel more confident on the road. The fact that the car will automatically make the necessary adjustments to give you the best ratio of power to each of the axles.

AWD is also a better option if you are planning on doing a lot of towing or off-road driving with your car. Since AWD cars have a higher towing capacity, they will perform better and give you better gas mileage in the long run when towing, even though they use up more power on all four wheels. If you are someone who regularly uses your vehicle for outdoor adventures or hauling, all-wheel-drive is going to be your best option.

When to Choose Front-Wheel-Drive

Many people believe that AWD is always going to be a better option, however, that is not necessarily the case. If you are a commuter or someone who drives a lot, a FWD vehicle may be the better option. The better fuel efficiency will save you money as will the lower cost of purchasing your vehicle. Many people don’t need an AWD or 4WD vehicle if they are doing easy highway driving.

If you live in an area that doesn’t get a lot of snow or rain, FWD will be perfectly suitable for your situation. There is no need to have an AWD system if you aren’t regularly driving in rough conditions. Dry areas or regions that don’t get snow are perfect for FWD cars and you can save yourself money at the pump in the process.

Final Thoughts

Most cars manufactured these days will have an option of AWD or FWD. Depending on your circumstances and your driving habits, one will most likely be better for you than the other. Understanding the difference between AWD vs. FWD can help you make the right decision for your lifestyle and needs.