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Updated by TorontoRidesOTP on Sep 11, 2017
Headline for Front Wheel Drive? Rear Wheel? All Wheel? What's the difference?
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Front Wheel Drive? Rear Wheel? All Wheel? What's the difference?

Don't believe the hype; there's a downside even for 4WD vehicles. Here are the four different drive types, and the benefits and drawbacks for each.

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Front Wheel Drive (FWD)

Front Wheel Drive (FWD)

On a front wheel drive vehicle, power from the engine is delivered to the front two wheels, usually from a transverse engine. That is, the engine is mounted at a 90 degree angle to the long axis of the vehicle. When power is delivered to the front wheels, the rear two wheels aren’t spun by the engine when you hit the gas. They’re spun by the movement of the car.

What’s the benefit of FWD?
Fuel economy. Front wheel drive vehicles are generally lighter, and because the transmission sits over the driven wheels, they tend to offer better traction in slippery road conditions. For most people’s driving habits, FWD makes the most sense.

What’s the drawback of FWD?
Most consumer-based FWD vehicles aren't as heavy on the acceleration, and the handling can be rudimentary. But don't worry. If you’re not a performance driver, this probably won’t concern you very much.

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Rear Wheel Drive (RWD)

Rear Wheel Drive (RWD)

On a rear wheel drive vehicle, power from the engine is delivered to the rear two wheels, usually from a longitudinal engine. That is, the engine is mounted in line with the long axis of the vehicle. When the power is delivered to the rear wheels, the front wheels are spun by the movement of the car, and not by the engine.

What's the benefit of RWD?
RWD vehicles do offer better acceleration - think of how easy it is to push a heavy wheelbarrow, as opposed to pulling it behind you. Additionally, RWD vehicles allow for fancy cornering techniques on the race track, but since you’re driving on public roads, that probably won’t concern you very much. Be that as it may, RWD tends to be popular among gearheads and muscle car enthusiasts. Additionally, many pickup trucks advertised as 4X2 are RWD vehicles as well; since the box is so light, if the weight was all in the front, it would unbalance the vehicle and make driving difficult. Additionally, when there’s items in the truck’s box - think an ATV - or towed behind it - think a boat or an RV, putting power in the rear wheels helps distribute the weight and acceleration more evenly.

What’s the drawback of RWD?
RWD vehicles can be tricky on slippery or snowy roads. You might have an uncle with a vintage RWD muscle car that puts it away for the winter, and with good reason. Without cargo weighing down the rear axle (think sandbags), a RWD vehicle might fishtail on a snowy road. However, with modern cars adding features like hill start assist, electronic stability control, and limited slip differential, RWD vehicles are becoming more safe to ride in the winter.

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Four Wheel Drive (4WD)

Four Wheel Drive (4WD)

A four-wheel-drive vehicle sounds exactly like what it is: Driving with four wheels. That is, the engine power is delivered to all four wheels. Often times, you’ll find the terms 4WD and AWD used interchangeably, but they are not the same. 4WD is used for off-roading conditions and low-traction surfaces, like dirt and snow. Some 4WD vehicles also have what are called “differentials,” which allow the wheels to spin at different speeds.

What's the benefit of 4WD?
4WD is incredibly useful for towing or carrying heavy loads, which is why the most popular pickup trucks advertise themselves as 4X4: with the weight hanging out on top of, or behind the vehicle, having power to all four wheels not only helps acceleration, but in many cases can increase the total towing and carrying capacity.

What's the drawback of 4WD?
The problem with 4WD vehicles is that they’re much heavier - sometimes a thousand pounds or more - than the front wheel drive (and can hundreds of pounds heavier than the rear wheel drive). If you’re driving a heavier vehicle, your fuel economy drops, and you’re paying more money for gas. And you’ll rarely find yourself in the conditions in which you would need a 4WD vehicle - that is, in heavy snow, rocks, dirt, or even sand. So if you’re not the off-roading type, and the box of your pickup truck is going to be empty 90% of the time, it might make more sense to save your money.

Additionally, if you are driving a 4WD vehicle that allows you to switch from FWD to AWD on the fly, definitely don’t turn on the 4WD while you’re driving on dry pavement. In the natural course of your driving, some of the wheels are going to turn faster than others, and if you switch on the 4WD under normal conditions, you could find yourself in the shop with some pretty expensive repairs.

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All Wheel Drive Vehicles (AWD)

All Wheel Drive Vehicles (AWD)

An all-wheel drive vehicle also delivers power to all four wheels, but there is a difference. It doesn’t direct the same amount of power to all of the wheels at the same time.

What's the benefit of AWD?
Most modern AWD vehicles prioritize the power between the front and the rear axles, depending on the conditions. If the weather is crappy and one of the axles is slipping, the AWD system diverts it to the other axle, to find more traction. The type of AWD can vary, depending on both the car and the manufacturer. Subaru vehicles, for example, always deliver at least 20% of the total power to the rear wheels. Other manufacturers keep the power on the front wheels, and only divert power to the rear wheels when one or both of the front wheels are slipping. Either way, AWD helps with acceleration and can improve handling?

What's the drawback of AWD?
The thing about AWD systems, as with 4WD systems, is that they’re heavier and drag down the fuel economy of the vehicle. And here’s something else that most dealers in Canada won’t tell you: AWD vehicles aren’t necessarily better in the snow.

Here is why.

Almost every time I’ve sold an AWD vehicle, I’ve asked “Will you be adding winter tires,” and almost every time, I get the answer “Why would I need winter tires with AWD?”

Well here is the problem. Heavier AWD vehicles often have longer stopping distances, and when only equipped with all-season tires, they are outperformed by FWD vehicles equipped with winter tires. AWD helps you move, but it’s your tires that help you stop. Granted, the best scenario would be an AWD vehicle equipped with winter tires, but it’s so often that people think the AWD makes them invincible, that they’ll just skip it and leave on the all-season tires.

All this to say: winter driving isn’t a drawback of AWD vehicles, but the mentality of their drivers can be. Whether you’re speeding down a snowy highway in your 4Runner or a FWD car, you can end up getting pried out by the jaws of life either way. So, you know, get your winter tires.

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So which is the best vehicle for you?

So which is the best vehicle for you?

Which is the best pick for you? That all depends on what you’re using your vehicle for. If you’re using your car for your daily commute? FWD will get you the best fuel mileage. If you’re towing or off-roading? 4WD. If you’re not worried about the fuel mileage and you expect to drive in snowy and messy conditions? AWD. If you’re driving a pickup and only towing occasionally, or if you want a performance vehicle that you bring to the track every so often? RWD.

If you know ahead of time what you’ll be doing with your car, how comfortable you are with rising fuel costs, and how to best protect yourself in bad weather conditions, you’ll be just fine regardless of which option you choose.