FWD vs. RWD vs. AWD: How the wheels that turn change the way you drive

Front-wheel drive (FWD), rear-wheel drive (RWD), and four- or all-wheel drive (4WD or AWD): you’ve probably heard these terms kicked around before. These are the three main types of engine and transmission layouts for motor vehicles and it’s one of many key ways vehicles are classified and grouped. There are many methods of vehicle classification, but this method essentially is one of the more prominent, as it separates them based on which axle the engine and transmission sends its power to (the drive wheels).

Obviously, not all layouts are created equal and they certainly all do not perform the same. That’s because each layout comes with its own inherent handling characteristics, significantly affecting the way a vehicle handles and behaves. Though handling isn’t just affected by which axle(s) receive power. The handling behavior of each layout is also affected by where the engineers specifically place the engine. That’s because it can alter the weight distribution of a vehicle, playing a huge role in handling, especially in inclement weather or during high-performance driving.

So, what do these terms mean, especially in terms of road-handling performance?

Overall, each layout generally has its own reputation. But before we get into that, let’s go over the basics.

What is rear-wheel drive (RWD)?

Rear-wheel drive, abbreviated as “RWD,” is the oldest type of vehicle layout, where simply, the engine sends its power through a transmission to the rear axle of a vehicle. Its origins date back as far as the first automobile, as far back as the 1885 Benz Patent Motor car from the initial days of Daimler-Benz (what we now know as Mercedes-Benz) and the 1895 Panhard, a company that essentially predates PSA Peugeot Citroen.

What is front-wheel drive (FWD)?

fwd vs awd rwd front engine layout
Wikicommons

Front-wheel drive, or abbreviated as “FWD,” basically means that the engine sends its power to the front set of wheels. Front-wheel drive surfaced in the 1900s in various prototype forms and is also French in origin, and only really existed in the early years of motorsports. However, the first truly successful production vehicle application of front-wheel drive surfaced thanks to a small British automaker called Birmingham Small Arms Company. Other companies from Germany and America took notice and began adopting the design themselves. Over the years, notable front-wheel drive vehicles include early vehicles from Auto Union (now known as Audi), Citroen and its famous 2CV, and more. It wasn’t until the 1970s that front-wheel drive truly became popular due to the formation of Corporate Average Fuel Economy rankings after the 1973 Oil Crisis.

What is all-wheel drive/four-wheel drive (AWD/4WD)?

fwd vs awd rwd front engine 4wd copy
Wikicommons

All-wheel drive and four-wheel drive, abbreviated as either “AWD” or “4WD,” basically means the power gets sent to all four wheels for the utmost traction. While “four-wheel drive” can be used to describe a specific type of system usually found on trucks, it can also be used as a general term that also encompasses “all-wheel drive,” just to basically describe that a vehicle sends its power to all four of its wheels. Four-wheel drive originated mainly for use in utility vehicles, trucks, and SUVs. But thanks to the advent of all-wheel drive, which is significantly different to truck-based four-wheel drive systems, all-paw traction is now more readily available on normal road cars, such as sedans, wagons, and even SUVs. See our piece on the specific differences between “four-wheel drive” and “all-wheel drive.”

Which is better?

Ah, one of the most loaded questions and hotly debated topics in the automotive world. The truth is, it really depends on the situation and the application of the system. For instance, any type of four-wheel drive system is perceived as superior for any sort of low-traction situations. That makes it most favorable for those who live in regions where it snows quite a bit, or where paved roads are a luxury. More recently, all-wheel drive has become more prominent in performance applications for the sake of increased traction.

When it comes to two-wheel drive layouts and the argument of front-wheel drive versus rear-wheel drive, the debate becomes even more complicated. Because of its age and history with the origin of the automobile, rear-wheel drive was once the most prominent type of drivetrain because of its simple and cost-effective design. Though as technology evolved, cheaper development costs made front-wheel drive more popular due to packaging and fuel economy. That’s because front-wheel drive vehicles require less parts since the power- and drivetrain are typically all one unit that sits at the front of the vehicle. There’s no such thing as a rear-engine, front-wheel drive vehicle because it makes zero sense in terms of engineering complexity.

As for which is better, well, again, it depends on the situation. Both front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive vehicles have their disadvantages, but both have proven themselves well, especially when the car is equipped with the proper tires for the weather.

Bred for the right conditions

The focus of comparison really involves how well they perform during inclement weather. This issue is what concerns most vehicle buyers as they want a car that can get them from point A to point B reliably. Any four-wheel drive vehicles are typically preferred since they’re typically “all-weather” vehicles and can be driven in any situations. But not every car comes with a type of four-wheel drive and they often demand a price premium.

So, as between front and rear-wheel drive, if you had to really split hairs…

Front-wheel drive vehicles tend to perform better in everyday driving situations, particularly during inclement weather. That’s because both the engine and the transmission sit over the front axle, adding weight to the drive wheels, which increases traction for slippery situations. Most manufacturers of standard cars have resorted to front-wheel drive because they’re cheaper to make, more efficient in operation, and provide better traction to the everyday driver.

Rear-wheel drive vehicles, despite being the original layout and preferred in the earlier days of motoring, have disadvantages to the everyday driver and become trickier to handle when bad weather sets in. Not everyone is capable of handling a rear-wheel drive vehicle during inclement weather.

It’s not as clean-cut as some might like, but in many ways, your environment and daily routine will dictate which drivetrain is right for you. The biggest factor to consider would be if you live in either a fair-weather or mild four-season climate (modest levels of snow and rain), the truth is that you can get away with pretty much any drivetrain choice.

Performance driving behavior

When it comes to driving fast and motorsports situations, such as on racetrack or on a dirt rally, all three layouts have their advantages and disadvantages. But mainly, they all differ in term of how they’re handled by the driver, particularly at the limits of adhesion. Front-wheel drive vehicles are often stigmatized because they handle differently than rear-wheel drive vehicles.

Front-wheel driven vehicles tend to exhibit what’s called “understeer,” or when the vehicle resists its own ability to steer because the front axle is overloaded. This is what we know as the sensation of “turning the steering wheel and nothing happens,” and Newton’s first law of inertia physics comes into play. That’s because front-wheel drive vehicles put a lot of demand on the front axle, requiring it to both deliver power and manage steering, which can easily overwhelm the front tires.

Truth be told, front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive both have proven themselves as tried and tested in motorsports. Examples of legendary front-wheel drive racing includes the original Mini Cooper during the famous Monte Carlo Rallies and more recently, the British Touring Car Championship, which almost exclusively features front-wheel driven racing cars.

Rear-wheel drive is preferred in performance applications since its layout offers the most flexibility and versatility without any sacrifice in performance. In other words, rear-wheel drive cars can have their engine sit either at the front of the car, in the rear-middle of the car, or in some unique cases, the rear of the vehicle (like the Porsche 911 or original Volkswagen Beetle).

For performance drivers, it also provides the most “balanced” feel, wherein vehicle handling characteristics of rear-wheel drive vehicles are very predictable with the right talent behind the wheel. That’s usually due to weight distribution and the fact that you’re not asking a set of wheels to do more than one action. Also, because the rear wheels are the drive wheels, they often exhibit what’s called “oversteer,” which occurs when the rear of the vehicle rotates around a curve because the rear drive wheels lose traction, causing the weight of the vehicle to shift and break the rear end loose. For performance drivers, this is preferred over understeer since oversteer can be recovered a lot more easily – again, if you know what you’re doing behind the wheel.

Cars

The 2019 Acura MDX can be yours for $44,300, with new A-Spec variant

The 2019 Acura MDX hits showrooms today, starting at $44,300 for the front-wheel drive model and $54,800 for the all-wheel drive version. Accompanying the updated MDX is the new MDX A-Spec from the NY Auto Show.
Home Theater

Dish Network or DirecTV: Which is the better choice for you?

So, you’ve chosen to go with a satellite television provider. Check out our quick rundown of what both Dish Network and DirecTV offer in terms of content, hardware, and pricing, and why you might choose them over streaming services.
Gaming

Xbox One S vs. Xbox One X: Is the costly upgrade worth the money?

The Xbox One X is officially here and pretty much everything rumored about it was true. Is the higher price point worth it, or does it put it out of reach for most consumers? Here's how it matches up to the Xbox One S.
Computing

The ZenBook S is one of Asus' best laptops, but does it beat the Dell XPS 13?

We pit the Asus ZenBook S against the Dell XPS 13 to see which of these thin and light Windows notebooks offer the best combination of performance, battery life, and build quality. Does the XPS 13 still hold the crown for best laptop?
Music

Spotify vs. Pandora: Which music streaming service is better for you?

Which music streaming platform is best for you? We pit Spotify versus Pandora, two mighty streaming services with on-demand music and massive catalogs, comparing every facet of the two services to help you decide which is best.
Emerging Tech

Man vs. machine: An A.I. algorithm attempts to break a world speed record

A new machine learning algorithm created at Switzerland’s EPFL is being used to design what its creators hope is the world's fastest bicycle. It will attempt a world record later this year.
Cars

The Cullinan is truly the Rolls-Royce of SUVs

At a private event in Los Angeles, CA, Rolls-Royce showed off its first-ever SUV. Built for wealthy families or height-inclined executives, the Cullinan is a groundbreaking model for one of the most esteemed brands on earth.
Home Theater

Are there reasons to own a projector when big TVs are so cheap? Glad you asked

Since no aspect of your home theater setup is more important than your display, we weigh in on the projectors vs. TVs debate. We've put together this comprehensive guide to help you find the right option for your lifestyle.
Cars

First self-driving shuttle coasts into New York’s Times Square

On July 17, Coast Autonomous, a new entry in the self-driving vehicle market, kicked off a day of demonstrations of its autonomous P-1 Shuttle on Broadway in New York’s crowded Times Square.
Product Review

How basic is too basic? Toyota tests the limits with its C-HR

We bond with Toyota’s C-HR subcompact crossover trekking across central Florida. It arrives as an entry-level model to battle the Honda HR-V, Mazda CX-3, Kia Niro, Chevrolet Trax, Hyundai Kona, Nissan Kicks, Jeep Renegade, and the Ford…
Product Review

With a stick shift and RWD, the Genesis G70 does luxury with a side of sporty

The 2019 Genesis G70 is Korea’s first attempt to take on the vaunted German trio of BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Competition doesn’t come much tougher than that.
Cars

Tesla's Model 3 is showing off a new track mode for all your drifting needs

Production of the Tesla Model 3 has officially begun. Tesla's long-awaited entry-level model is far cheaper than the Model S and will compete head-to-head with the Chevrolet Bolt EV. We drove it and concluded it lives up to the hype.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Roll-up solar panels, dream controllers, and more

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the Web this week. You can't buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Cars

Tesla Model S logs over 400,000 miles in three years, still going strong

A Tesla Model S operated by California-based shuttle service Tesloop has covered over 400,000 miles in just three years. Tesloop said the electric car has been much cheaper to maintain than comparable internal-combustion models.
Cars

Lamborghini’s Aventador successor goes semi-electric with a new V12 hybrid

It seems like it was only last year when Lamborghini didn’t think new models featuring electrified powertrains would be in their pipeline in the “short term.” Now, the company’s position on electrification seems to have changed.
Smart Home

Unlock your door with one touch thanks to the Kevo Contemporary

Smart locks are already decidedly 21st century, but now, they're getting some contemporary flair in terms of their aesthetics, too. On Monday, Kwikset debuted its newest smart lock model, the Kevo Contemporary.
Cars

Uber drivers could soon be considered Uber employees, and that could get expensive

Uber drivers may finally be recognized as official Uber employees. Officials in New York have ruled in favor of three former Uber drivers who filed a complaint against the company when their unemployment insurance claim was denied.
Cars

San Francisco is drowning in electric scooters. Will permits help?

We could soon be seeing many more electric scooters on the streets of San Francisco, now that the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) has announced that it is looking to issue electric scooter permits by next month.
Outdoors

Pirelli is recycling car tires into ebike tires

Pirelli introduced the Cycl-e tires for electric bicycles. Designed for city use, the new tires come in five varieties and a full range of sizes and weights. The Cycl-e tires are made in part from recycled rubber bits from automobile tires.
Cars

Massive data breach exposes trade secrets from Tesla, Toyota, and others

Security researcher Chris Vickery found about 47,000 sensitive files posted on a backup server by a Canadian company that specializes in automation. The 157-gigabyte batch included sensitive documents from Ford, Tesla, and other brands.
Cars

Hydrogen cars are here. Now how long until you can actually fuel one near you?

Until recently, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have been a science fair project. We met with the California Fuel Cell Partnership to learn how they plan to make hydrogen mainstream.
Cars

Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne unexpectedly resigns as health worsens

Sergio Marchionne, 66, has resigned from his position as Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles CEO due to health problems. The influential, outspoken executive was scheduled to retire next year.