In rear-wheel-drive vehicles, the vehicle power is transferred to its rear wheels, whereas in front-wheel-drive vehicles, power is transferred to the front wheels.
Most vehicles today, including cars, crossovers, SUVs, and pickup trucks, offer either FWD or RWD; however, when looking at RWD vs FWD, which one is actually better? Let's weigh up the options and look at RWD vs FWD in more detail.
FWD vs RWD
So, which is better in the battle between FWD vs RWD? It is tough to argue because the answer all comes down to personal driver preference and is a matter of choice and usage.
If you are looking for a fuel-efficient vehicle that is easy to drive and typically requires less maintenance, then a front-wheel-drive may be better.
However, if your daily routine requires towing, hauling, or performance-style driving, then a rear-wheel-drive vehicle may be a more robust option.
If you are shopping for a new or used car, the questions below may help you lean towards the best choice for your needs:
Which handles better? Rear-wheel-drive vehicles
Which offers stronger acceleration? Rear-wheel-drive vehicles (high-performance vehicles like muscle cars or sports cars are almost always RWD)
Which offers more towing capacity? Rear-wheel-drive vehicles
Which handles slippery road conditions better? Front-wheel-drive vehicles
Which is better in snowy weather conditions? Front-wheel-drive vehicles (generally...the weight of the engine pushes down on the driven wheels, giving you more traction)
Which offers a better fuel economy? Generally FWD vehicles have better gas mileage
The drivetrain layout you should choose when buying your next car depends on the following:
- Driving preferences.
- Weather conditions where you live.
- Typical road conditions.
- Your daily driving routine.
- How you plan to use your vehicle.
Front-Wheel Drive Systems
FWD is standard across many vehicles for several reasons. The transmission sends the engine's power to the front wheels with this drivetrain. This means the car is basically pulled down the road. The rear wheels of an FWD car do not receive power on their own.
FWD cars have the engine mounted transversely in the engine compartment. The differential is incorporated into the gearbox, with one axle exiting each side of the transmission to drive the vehicle's front wheels.
Most modern cars, SUVs, and crossovers on the road today have front-wheel-drive.
Below are a few examples:
- Toyota Corolla (and most cars and crossovers manufactured by this automaker)
- Chevrolet Cruze
- Chevy Sonic
- Chevy Equinox
- Nissan Altima
- Ford Fusion
- Hyundai Elantra
- Hyundai Sonata
Suppose most of your daily driving is during rainy or dry weather conditions. In that case, a front-wheel-drive vehicle is all you need, especially if you do not need a performance vehicle or one with a high towing capacity.
The Pros of Front-Wheel-Drive Systems
Better traction: The engine and transmission system are located directly above the car's front wheels. This helps provide better traction on the road, especially when driving during slippery conditions or when climbing hills. Some front-wheel cars feature all-wheel drive. In this instance, all four wheels will get power when you need it, giving you better traction.
More interior space: Front-wheel-drive cars lack a prominent driveshaft that runs from the engine in front to the rear wheels, which naturally creates a raised center console and large hump in the rear floor. With all of the main components upfront, there is more space and legroom in the back of the car.
More fuel-efficient: FWD vehicles have fewer components than any other drivetrain setup, which means the vehicle is lighter in weight and on fuel. This is the reason why most fuel-economy-type cars are typically front-wheel-drive.
Greater tactile feedback: FWD cars offer greater tactile feedback through the steering wheel if the vehicle's wheels are slipping.
Less expensive: FWD systems are less complicated than other drivetrains, which means they are cheaper to maintain and buy.
The Cons of Front-Wheel Drive Systems
Understeer: Since all of the weight lies at the front of the car, FWD cars tend to understeer.
Torque Steer: During sudden acceleration, front-wheel-drive cars tend to move to the left or right because of torque steer (oversteer). As a result, most high-performance sports cars choose rear-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive layouts. Fortunately, electronic traction control in many modern FWDs helps to mitigate torque steer and related problems.
Lower towing capacity: FWD vehicles typically have a lower towing capacity than RWD, 4WD, and AWD vehicles.
Poor acceleration: FWD cars offer a more sluggish acceleration than RWD cars.
Difficult handling: With the weight of the engine up front, the handling of FWD cars can be a challenge.
Faster wear and tear: The CV joints/boots in front-wheel-drive cars wear out sooner than rear-wheel-drive cars.
Rear-Wheel Drive Systems
Rear-wheel drive is another type of two-wheel drive system and the opposite of front-wheel-drive. The transmission sends the engine's power to the rear wheels with this system. This means the car is basically pushed down the road. Upon acceleration, the weight of the car is transferred to the rear; this helps boost traction.
RWD vehicles generally have an even weight distribution, which offers several benefits for the vehicle and its driver. Some RWD cars feature a 4WD system, which sends power to all four wheels when needed.
The ability to handle more power is why many law enforcement agencies continue to use rear-wheel-drive sedans as pursuit vehicles. A rear-wheel drivetrain is typically favored in sports cars and performance vehicles. Many pickup trucks and large SUVs employ a rear-wheel drivetrain with a higher towing capacity.
Below are some examples of RWD vehicles:
- Dodge Challenger
- BMW 5 Series sedans
- Kia Stinger
- Toyota Supra
- Mazda MX- Miata
- Most pickup trucks except the Honda Ridgeline, Ford Maverick, and Hyundai Santa Cruz
The Pros of Rear-Wheel Drive Systems
Better handling: During dry road conditions, rear-wheel drivetrains improve handling because of the load transfer during acceleration and the vehicle's even weight distribution. The balanced feel of RWDs is why performance cars use the system.
No torque steer: You won't experience torque steer in an RWD car.
Higher towing capacity: Since the wheels doing all the pulling are located closer to the vehicle's load, towing large loads is easier in an RWD vehicle. An RWD car's front tires are less burdened than an FWD car, which means it can more accurately maneuver a trailer through traffic.
Improved steering: Since the back wheels provide all the power while the front wheels do the steering work, RWD cars offer better steering than FWD cars.
Drifting: While most drivers shouldn't be drifting around corners, it is easier to drift in a rear-wheel-drive car if you enjoy this sporty technique.
The Cons of Rear-Wheel Drive Systems
- Inferior traction control: Although rear-wheel-drive cars have many advantages over FWDs, their inferior traction remains a big drawback, especially in wet and snowy driving conditions. Severely bad weather, such as a snowstorm, can make rear-wheel-drive cars very difficult for drivers to maintain control.
Less traction also means RWDs can't climb steep grades as easily or keep as tight a course on muddy or poorly paved roads. Getting out of snowbound parking spots is especially tricky for RWDs, helped only by manually selecting gears or through a preset snow mode on some automatic transmission-equipped vehicles.
Less interior space: Because RWD vehicles require more room for the transmission tunnel and driveshaft, less interior space is available.
Less cargo space: Since more equipment for the rear-wheel-drive system lies below the trunk area, there is less cargo space available in RWD cars.
More expensive: Rear-wheel-drive systems are more complicated than front-wheel-drive systems. This means they are generally more expensive to maintain, and RWD vehicles carry a higher purchase price.
Less fuel-efficient: RWD vehicles typically burn more fuel than an FWD vehicle because it requires more fuel to move an RWD vehicle from a stop and keep it in motion.
Lost horsepower: The large spinning driveshaft and more rear axle componentry deprive RWD cars of horsepower. In fact, you can lose up to 30% of the engine's power between the crankshaft and the rear tires with an RWD car.
What About AWD and 4WD?
If neither FWD nor RWD works for you, perhaps you're better off with an all-wheel-drive vehicle.
AWD or four-wheel-drive systems provide power to all four wheels, ensuring a balance of traction and handling that's ideal for a wide range of driving conditions and the ability to handle high levels of power because of a differential that can distribute power between both the front and rear wheels. AWD systems require minimal input to operate, while 4WD vehicles might require more configuration depending on the road surface or off-road driving requirements.
You could get away with any drivetrain you want if you live in a reasonably mild location with four seasons and moderate rain and snow. However, suppose you live where slippery conditions prevail, like a region that historically sees harsh winters with lots of measurable ice and snowfall. In that case, a 4WD or AWD vehicle gives you more capability to conquer extreme conditions.
The History of RWD and FWD
The acronyms RWD and FWD refer to where a vehicle's engine drives power to move the vehicle, with front-wheel-drive vehicles sending power to the front wheels and rear-wheel-drive vehicles sending power to the rear wheels. The world's very first car was an FWD car, the 1769 Cugnot Le Fardier, which was a three-wheeled steam-powered contraption. The car could tow five tons at two miles per hour, as long as it could get enough traction with its single-driven steel-clad wooden front wheel.
In 1893, British engineer Bramah Joseph Diplock envisioned an all-wheel-drive car with four-wheel steering for a traction engine. Later on, in 1899, Loehner Porsche designed the first all-wheel-drive car, a gas-electric hybrid.
Mainstream front-wheel-drive vehicles became readily available in the 1920s. However, they really only penetrated the automotive market in the late 1960s with the introduction of the Cadillac Eldorado and Oldsmobile Toronado.
Despite FWD vehicles becoming more popular, most vehicles on the road at that time were rear-wheel-drive cars, at least until the early 1980s.
The turning point for the industry's move to more FWD cars happened after the immediate popularity of small fuel-efficient Japanese cars in the 1970s, like the first Toyota, Honda Civic, and Honda Accord models. Ever since then, front-wheel-drive cars have been more popular than rear-wheel-drive cars since it is the option that powers most modern vehicles, including crossovers, hatchbacks, and sedans.