With front-wheel-drive, the engine only sends power to the front wheels, while all-wheel-drive gets power to all four wheels, depending on the conditions. Depending on your needs and the kind of driving you do, one of these will be better for you than the other.
It may seem like AWD will be the better option no matter what. However, there are some downsides to it that can make FWD your best bet when it comes to efficiency and performance.
When buying a new or used car, there are a lot of options for you to sift through. Everything from interior materials to engine displacement can have a big impact on whether your new sedan, crossover, sports car, or SUV will suit you well. One of the most important things to look out for, though, is whether a vehicle has a front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive.
The key to making a smart car purchase is to be informed about all your available choices, including the wheel drive system. By knowing the difference between AWD and FWD and what each one has to offer, you can make an informed choice at the dealership.
Understanding Your Wheel Drive System Options
The type of drivetrain that your vehicle has will determine things like whether it has enough traction control for off-road applications, how well it will perform in winter weather and other poor weather conditions, and its fuel economy. If you are going to make the smart choice, you should know what each of them brings to the table and how they can affect a vehicle’s driveability and practicality. Understanding your options is the first step toward making a solid purchase.
Front-wheel-drive cars get all their power from the front wheels with none of the engine’s energy being distributed to the rear wheels. Because of this, the vehicle gets pulled along instead of pushed, which can improve cornering and reduce any oversteer coming from the back wheels.
This will almost always be the most efficient drive configuration as well as the least expensive since it doesn’t require a rear differential or driveshaft. Most base trim levels for new cars come with front-wheel-drive and have AWD as an available option with the higher trims.
All-wheel-drive cars are generally considered higher-end than front-wheel-drive ones because of their dynamic driveability and adaptability to different road conditions. Most AWD vehicles don’t deliver a 50/50 split of the power to the front and rear wheels and many of them will divert power to the axles as needed, which makes all-wheel-drive systems very desirable.
All-wheel-drive vehicles have excellent traction control and are incredibly responsive in corners and when accelerating. Many hybrid vehicles have an AWD configuration where the front wheels are driven by the internal combustion engine and the back wheels are driven by one or two electric motors.
While RWD vehicles are not nearly as popular as they once were, many heavy-duty pickup trucks and high-end luxury cars still use a rear-wheel-drive system. With these drivetrains, the engine’s power is distributed to the back wheels with a driveshaft and a differential.
This type of configuration is generally reserved for cars that need a lot of fine-tuning in the front wheels because the space is freed up and there are no drive components up front. RWD vehicles are also incredibly well-balanced and have fairly responsive, precise handling, which is ideal for motorsports and other high-performance driving applications.
Four-wheel-drive systems are similar to all-wheel-drive in that they deliver power to both the front and rear axles. However, 4WD systems distribute this power to both axles evenly and will have a differential in the back as well as the front.
The driver can select how the power is distributed using different gear ratios and a transfer case, which makes these systems desirable for people who want to go off-roading and need to be able to adapt to different conditions and have better traction on the fly. In some cases, you can even switch between four-wheel-drive and two-wheel-drive if you want your vehicle to be more fuel efficient.
Benefits of AWD:
One of the biggest benefits of owning an AWD car is the fact that they can adapt to almost any type of weather or road automatically. Cars with AWD configurations have sensors and equipment that distribute energy from the powertrain to different axles as conditions change.
When driving in wet or icy conditions, having an AWD car is much safer and you can feel how much traction it has on the road. This may eliminate your need to put snow tires on the car every winter and is one of the main reasons why automakers like Honda and Subaru are most popular in rainy parts of the United States.
AWD cars are also very responsive and have tight, easily-controlled handling. An all-wheel-drive vehicle will perform much better on windy roads than a front-wheel-drive vehicle and will generally be more fun to drive. AWD systems give cars better cornering and drivers can have a lot more confidence, even at higher speeds. Having power delivered where the car needs it most can make all the difference when driving on roads that might otherwise be stressful to be on.
Downsides of AWD:
In a world with ever-changing fuel prices, an AWD car might not be your best possible choice. Because an AWD configuration has to distribute power to both sets of wheels, they tend to burn more fuel in the process.
They also have more rolling resistance because of the increase in traction on the road. If you want a vehicle that is fuel efficient, FWD could be a better bet with the exception, of course, of an AWD hybrid.
Modern AWD systems also don’t give you the choice of what type of handling you want unless the vehicle has several different driving modes like some high-end trim levels do.
If you are looking to have control over the way power is distributed to your vehicle, four-wheel-drive will usually be a better choice. If you don’t want to be worried about how the power is being distributed at all, FWD will be the easiest way to set it and forget it.
Benefits of FWD :
FWD vehicles are some of the easiest and cheapest cars to buy and maintain. There are very few moving parts that could potentially malfunction and since the power is only going to the front tires, they will generally wear evenly.
The amount of money you can save on fuel when comparing FWD vs. AWD is also incredibly important. If you are concerned about the true cost of ownership for a car on top of rising gas prices, buying a front-wheel-drive vehicle is going to be your best bet.
In some cases, an FWD vehicle will also be quicker and more agile than an AWD car. While this isn’t always true since some AWD cars have other high-performance specs and components, an FWD car will be lighter and have less oversteer, which can often translate to better acceleration times. Knowing a vehicle’s zero-to-60 time can help you decide which drive system is going to be quicker and how important that is to you as a driver.
Downsides of FWD :
Traction control tends to be a big issue with front-wheel-drive vehicles. If you live full-time or even part-time in a place that gets a lot of rain or tends to have icy roads, an AWD vehicle will probably be better for your safety and peace of mind. Even with winter tires, an FWD vehicle will not have as much traction on the road and you may find yourself slipping and sliding when the road conditions are bad. Test drive any vehicle you are thinking of buying in less-than-ideal conditions so you can know how it responds when the roads are slippery.
The other major downside of an FWD car is that it won’t have nearly as much towing capacity as an AWD or 4WD vehicle. If you are interested in towing a camper or trailer for fun or work, FWD is not going to be your best bet. Because there is no power going to the rear wheels, there isn’t the same push-and-pull action going on between them, which is detrimental to towing situations. You may also find that you have less control when carrying a heavy load or transporting multiple passengers. If you are looking to use your vehicle for multiple purposes and want something versatile and practical, make sure it has AWD for the best traction and capability.
Who Needs an AWD Vehicle?
Before you buy an AWD vehicle, you must know what your needs and expectations are for your new car.
If, for example, you live in an area that gets a lot of rain or snow, AWD is almost always going to be your best option. You can be sure that you will always have the best possible traction on the road and that you will have complete control of the vehicle.
Also, if you are planning on doing any kind of hauling or towing, all-wheel-drive will give you more options and better command of the vehicle when carrying a load.
Who Needs an FWD Vehicle?
FWD vehicles will be best for people who want something economical and efficient and aren’t worried about poor weather conditions or towing.
Since FWD vehicles almost always get the best mileage, they are best for people who are trying to keep the true cost of ownership for their car low and don’t want to worry about as many costly repairs should something go wrong with the drivetrain.
As long as you are someone who lives in an area that has mild weather and doesn't require extra traction, a front-wheel-drive vehicle should be more than sufficient.
Buying a car is all about knowing what your needs are and understanding what all the different options have to offer. By knowing the difference between AWD and FWD, you can be confident in your next car purchase.
Having the right drive type will help keep you safe on the road and ensure that your vehicle has the capabilities you need. Whether you are buying new or used, choosing the right AWD or FWD car for your particular driving needs will ensure that you can get where you are going without any problems.