Choosing between a front-wheel-drive (FWD) car or a rear-wheel-drive (RWD) model largely depends on whether you value things like traction and fuel economy offered by FWD vehicles over the performance and handling prowess of RWD models.
When determining which is best for your driving needs, you should ask yourself where you demand the most power.
What Are FWD and RWD?
Most modern cars, SUVs, and crossovers 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 car 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 them in the middle or rear of the car instead, a layout mostly seen 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 cars, the engine's weight above the front tires allows the tires to grip the road more effectively. This extra traction makes front-drive cars more capable 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. And that's before winter tires are installed.
In addition to better traction, FWD cars typically have more room than vehicles with rear-wheel-drive. They lack a prominent driveshaft that runs from the engine in front to the wheels in the rear, which naturally creates a raised center console and large hump in the rear floor. The engine can be positioned in some vehicles transversely to make the car's front end shorter, allowing more space for passengers and cargo with similar exterior dimensions.
Front-drive powertrains are also lighter than the transmission and axle assemblies in RWDs, so they get better gas mileage or can travel farther on one tank of fuel. Many economy cars are FWDs because they're more cost and space-efficient.
The Drawbacks of Front-Wheel-Drive
Although their traction is superior in bad weather, they don't take corners as precisely as rear-drive cars 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 tends to delay your inputs. This problem is most noticeable when driving fast.
Front-drive models wear out their tires quicker due to the weight of the engine on them, costing you more in repairs in the long term. Having the front wheels handle all of the power and most braking also puts more strain on some steering and suspension components.
Also, the nose-heavy layout of FWDs sometimes makes them succumb to torque steer or understeer, 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.
Front-wheel-drive cars can also have relatively large turning circles, as transversely mounted engines allow less space for the front wheels to turn. That makes large FWD sometimes challenging to make U-turns.
The Benefits of Rear-Wheel-Drive
For most of the automobile's history, rear-wheel-drive was the default configuration for vehicles. The main 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 rears handle the power. Rear-wheel-drive cars can manage turns more smoothly as a result because the drive wheels aren't overtasked. The balanced feel of RWDs is why performance cars use the system.
Rear-wheel-drive cars sometimes have more towing capacity 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 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-drive vehicles require the engine to sit at the front. RWDs can also handle larger engines because the weight and power of that larger powertrain 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. But because of vehicle construction changes over the decades, the durability differences between the front and rear-drive cars are 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 to avoid sliding on the road.
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.
What About AWD and 4WD?
If neither layout works for you, perhaps you're best 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 for off-road driving.
You can pretty much get away with any drivetrain you want if you live in a reasonably mild location with four seasons and a moderate amount of rain and snow. But if you live where slippery conditions prevail, such as in a region that historically sees harsh winters with lots of measurable ice and snowfall, a 4WD or AWD vehicle lets you more confidently climb behind the steering wheel, even when it's nasty outside.
The Bottom Line: FWD vs. RWD: Which is Best?
Ask most folks in the automotive world for an opinion on whether FWD trumps RWD or vice versa, and you'll get strong arguments for or against it since this is one of the most loaded queries in the industry. As we've shown, both front-wheel-drive and rear-wheel-drive have benefits and drawbacks.
The layout you should pick when buying your next car depends on driving preferences, the weather conditions where you live, typical road conditions, your daily driving routine, and how you plan to use your vehicle.
The bottom line is that all that matters is that you find a car with a drive system that works for your needs.