Front-wheel-drive and rear-wheel drive are two of the most common engine and transmission layouts for motor vehicles, and each has its benefits and drawbacks. The layout you should pick when buying your next car depends on your driving preferences and how you plan to use your vehicle.
What Are FWD and RWD?
Most modern cars have front-wheel drive. Typically, the engine and transmission in FWD cars are mounted at the front of the vehicles transversely, and these parts send power to the front two wheels, which pull the vehicle on their own. By contrast, rear-wheel drive cars transfer power from the engine to the rear wheels only. Most RWD cars built have the engine mounted in the front, but some rear-drive vehicles have engines in the middle or rear of the car instead – most typical in sports cars.
The Benefits of Front-Wheel-Drive
One of the main advantages that front-wheel-drive cars have over RWD vehicles is their improved traction, which results from their weight distribution. In front-wheel-drive vehicles, the weight of the engine above the front tires allows the tires to grip the road more effectively. This extra traction makes front-drive cars useful when it snows or when you need to navigate poorly paved roads. Since pulling is more effective than pushing when a vehicle has to dislodge itself from mud or snow, FWD vehicles are especially great for getting out of low-traction parking spots. When equipped with winter tires, a front-wheel-drive vehicle can manage winter trips much more reliably than RWDs.
In addition to better traction, FWD cars typically have more room than vehicles with rear-wheel-drive. That's because the transverse engines in most FWDs don't extend to the interior compartment space, unlike in rear-wheel-drive cars. Many RWDs require a central tunnel through the middle of the car that creates a hump in the floor of the passenger area, to cover the driveshaft joining the rear wheels and engine. This extra room in front-wheel-drive vehicles ensures passengers are more comfortable and allows for extra storage space. FWD cars also tend to be cheaper to manufacture. Since front-drive powertrains are produced as single units, building FWDs requires fewer parts, making for less expensive assembly. Front-drive powertrains are also lighter than the transmission and axle assemblies in RWDs, so they get better gas mileage, saving you money. Many economy cars are FWDs because they're more cost and space-efficient. The more compact designs of FWDs also ensures they can be manufactured smaller than RWDs.
The Drawbacks of Front-Wheel-Drive
One of the most significant drawbacks of FWDs is their handling. Although their traction is superior in bad weather, they don't take corners as precisely as rear-drives do. The pressure that both power and steering mechanisms put on the front axle tends to tax the front tires, creating a less dexterous feeling while driving. Sometimes, you might even feel the car is not responding to your steering very well or has a tendency to have a delay in your inputs. This problem is most noticeable when driving fast. Front-drive models wear out their tires quicker as a result of their front-loaded hardware, costing you more in repairs in the long-term. Also, the nose-heavy layout of FWDs sometimes makes them succumb to torque steer, a condition in which rapid acceleration causes the vehicle to drift left or right on its own. 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.
When driving a front-wheel drive vehicle, you may notice that the car turns too wide, as transversely mounted engines allow less space for the front wheels to turn. That makes large FWD sometimes challenging to make U-turns in.
The Benefits of Rear-Wheel-Drive
Rear-wheel drive vehicles represent the most historically traditional layout of the automobile, even though cars with RWD aren't as conventional in the 21st century. For most of the automobile's history, this wheel drive system was the only one available, so many classic cars are RWD by default. The key advantage of the rear-wheel layout is that each set of tires has just one task, ensuring an equal amount of stress on both: The front set steers, while the rear set provides power. Rear-wheel cars can manage turns more smoothly as a result. To make especially tight turns, the driver of an RWD can raise or lower throttle to create a power slide, although this technique is usually illegal on public roads. The balanced feel of RWDs is why performance cars use the system.
Rear-wheel-drive cars can tow trailers more efficiently than FWDs because the weight of the trailers gives the rear tires of the RWD more traction. Plus, the RWD's front tires, being less burdened than those of an FWD, can usually more accurately maneuver the trailer through traffic. Rear-wheel-drive vehicle platforms have more flexible designs, as the engine can sit in the front, middle or back of the car, whereas front-wheel cars require the engine to sit at the front. RWDs can also handle larger engines because the weight and power of that larger powerplant are less likely to burden the front wheels.
The ability to handle more power is why many law enforcement agencies continue to use rear-wheel-drive sedans as pursuit vehicles, even though changes in vehicle construction over the decades has made the durability differences between front and rear-drive cars less significant.
The Drawbacks of Rear-Wheel-Drive
Although rear-wheel-drive cars have many advantages over FWDs, their inferior traction remains a big drawback, especially when it rains or snows. 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. If you plan to drive a rear-wheel-drive car just about anywhere during the winter, make sure the car has winter tires. Otherwise, you're apt to slide all over the road and pose a danger to you and others on the streets. Also, rear-wheel systems are more complex than front-wheel ones, so they cost more to make and are more expensive on the lot. Also, most fuel-efficient modern cars don't have the power required to make advanced driving techniques easy to pull off with RWDs.
Which Wheels Are the Best Wheels to Drive?
Whether you prefer the fuel economy and fine traction of front-wheel-drive vehicles or the handling and performance aspects of rear-wheel drive ones can help you decide which system is right for you. Most modern cars have front-wheel drive, which probably best suits drivers who have no interest in track days or autocross courses. However, rear-wheel cars have a classic feel many professional racers and proportions that luxury car enthusiasts find essential.
If neither layout works for you, perhaps you're best off with an all-wheel-drive vehicle. AWD vehicles 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. All that matters is that you find a system that suits you.