Mash the gas to the floor. The tires hook up and off you go. But have you ever considered how the engine’s power is actually transmitted to the wheels? Yes, of course, there’s a transmission. But the difference is huge regarding where that power goes afterward.
How your car accelerates and handles has a lot to do with whether you have front-wheel drive vs. rear-wheel drive. What makes each style tick? Is one better than the other? Here’s what you need to know about the differences between fwd vs rwd.
What is front-wheel drive?
In vehicles equipped with front-wheel drive, the engine is typically mounted transversely, or crosswise in the engine compartment. The differential is incorporated into the gearbox, and one axle exits each side of the transmission to drive the front wheels. Other configurations are possible, such as a rear- or mid-mounted engine with FWD or a longitudinally mounted engine that drives the front wheels, but the typical design is a front-mounted transverse engine style.
Front-wheel-drive vehicle designs have been dabbled with since the turn of the 20th century, but its complicated engineering (not to mention the economic fallout of the great depression) made it difficult to make mainstream. It wasn’t until it reached a level of popularity overseas mid-century with Mini and Peugeot/Renault that it gained traction (pun intended) in the US.
The 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado kicked things off, and the flood of FWD models arrived soon after. Your best-selling Honda Civic, Dodge Omni and the roomier K-Cars gained momentum in the early ‘80s. Now, most compact cars and SUVs are manufactured with FWD as standard equipment.
Your average mass-market vehicle today will have front-wheel drive. The Toyota Corolla and most of their car and compact SUV lineup; the Chevy Cruze, Sonic and Equinox; the Nissan Altima; Ford Fusion; Hyundai Elantra, Veloster and Sonata. Literally hundreds of models have front-wheel drive as standard equipment. Far and away, it’s the most common driveline design in use as it reduces vehicle weight and provides better everyday economy and stability.
What is rear-wheel drive?
Rear-wheel drive means the rear wheels transfer the power from the engine to the road. Initial models featured rear-mounted engines that had direct-drive systems to propel the rear wheels. Today, engines are mounted up front with a driveshaft between the transmission and a differential that redirected the power 90 degrees toward the rear wheels.
Though older than front-wheel drive designs, rear-wheel drive has fallen out of favor for most cars. Today, you’ll find rear-wheel drive systems on a few sedans that have high-horsepower engines as well as sports cars and luxury vehicles, not to mention full-size SUVs and pickup trucks. The use of heavy-duty components make the RWD setup more reliable for larger vehicles or cars that are put under more stress than normal, but it simply doesn’t make sense for the average passenger vehicle anymore.
You’ll find RWD drivetrains in vehicles like the Dodge Challenger (Hellcat or not), BMW 5 Series sedans, the Kia Stinger, Toyota Supra, a bunch of Mercedes-Benz models, pickup trucks of almost all types (except the Honda Ridgeline) and the Mazda MX-5 Miata, for example.
FWD vs. RWD: pros and cons
One thing to clarify here: You won’t find an option to choose between front- vs rear-wheel drive in the same model lineup. Unlike the choice of transmissions or engine sizes in the engine bay, designing two different drivetrains for the same vehicle is redundant—the best option for the model has already been chosen by the engineers.
Your options are in different models on the market. Should you choose something equipped with front-wheel drive vs rear-wheel drive? It comes down to your needs and wants, and there are pros and cons for each.
Pros of front-wheel drive
For the majority of modern vehicles to use FWD, there must be good reasons. From weight reduction to steering feel, here are five of the pros of going with front-wheel drive.
FWD components are more compact
Today’s cars are trending smaller and the six-foot-deep engine bays from the ‘70s aren’t around anymore. With front-wheel drive, the engine, transmission and driveline all fit in the engine compartment, allowing for smaller vehicles.
FWD typically offers better fuel mileage
The design of FWD systems sheds hundreds of pounds off of a similarly powered RWD system. As with any weight savings on a car, there’s less mass to haul around at all times, trimming the amount of fuel the engine needs to burn.
The dreaded “hump seat” can be eliminated
Since all the drivetrain components are up front, under the hood, the interior floor can be flat. It makes it more comfortable to sit in the middle seat and even adds cargo space since the floor can be lower in the trunk or hatch area.
Front-wheel drive feels more stable to drive
With front-wheel drive, the wheels pull the car along rather than push it from the rear axle. The result is a more stable steering feel and acceleration is more linear.
There are fewer problems to encounter
FWD designs eliminate dozens of parts, if not hundreds. Things like a rear driveshaft, U-joints and a separate differential housing aren’t required. Reliability is improved as a consequence.
Front-wheel drive cons
As with anything, there are trade-offs for going with a FWD design.
Uneven weight distribution causes handling issues
When you put all the heaviest parts of a car in one central area between the front wheels, it reduces stability. One of the most desirable aspects of vehicle design for performance is a 50-50 front-to-rear weight distribution. With most of the vehicle’s weight up front, it allows the rear wheels to lose traction easier when cornering, especially in slippery conditions.
Torque steer is a problem for hard acceleration
If you hit the gas hard on a FWD car, you’ll feel the steering wheel jerk to one side or the other in a condition known as “torque steer.” It happens because of differences between the two front drive wheels, whether that’s tire pressure or traction. Torque steer can contribute to loss of control in extreme situations or it can just be uncomfortable.
Lighter-duty components tend to wear out sooner
To make FWD parts fit, they’re designed smaller and lighter-duty than their RWD counterparts. You’ll find that more maintenance is required to keep them from failing, such as replacing CV boots more frequently and changing the transmission fluid more often. Even the transaxle tends to experience more wear and tear for front-wheel-drive cars.
Acceleration potential is lower than other drivetrain options
FWD cars have the front wheels both accelerating and steering your car. That limits how much power you can achieve for sporty acceleration with a front-wheel drive model.
Towing capacity is less than RWD vehicles
When a trailer is hooked up to a FWD vehicle, it uses the rear axle as a fulcrum and pulls weight off the front wheels. That limits how well you’ll hook up when pulling a load, and to maintain control, you can’t tow the same capacity as a rear-wheel drive car.
Rear-wheel drive pros
Since rear-wheel drive was the best solution available for decades, there are several benefits for buying a car with this setup:
RWD offers better weight distribution for improved handling
Performance-car makers are always striving for as near to 50-50 front-to-rear weight distribution as possible for the best handling and control. By using some of a car’s heavy components at the rear axle, the vehicle’s balance is much closer to that target.
Heavier duty parts tend to need less maintenance
Cars, trucks and SUVs equipped with RWD tend to have more sturdy parts compared with FWD vehicles. Naturally, they tend to break less frequently.
RWD vehicles can handle more power
While you’re driving, the rear wheels are singularly focused on propelling the car, while the front wheels steer. By divvying up those duties, it’s possible for the rear wheels to handle more horsepower and torque without damaging components.
Torque steer isn’t an issue
Because the front wheels aren’t doing double duty with acceleration and steering, it eliminates torque steer from the rear-wheel drive’s vocabulary. The fixed-position rear wheels are isolated a fair distance away.
Load and towing capacities are much higher
Unlike a front-wheel-drive vehicle, putting weight over the rear axle when you’re towing or carrying a load increases traction rather than taking it away. For that reason, you’ll almost always find that RWD vehicles have higher towing capacities.
Tires last longer with rear-wheel drive
It takes a toll on front-wheel-drive cars to use front tires to steer, accelerate and brake. Since the drive wheels on a RWD vehicle don’t steer, it evens out the tire wear. You might find that tires actually last longer under similar driving conditions.
Rear-wheel drive cons
There are valid reasons that FWD is becoming the more popular drivetrain. These are a few disadvantages of rear-wheel-drive vehicles:
They tend to burn more fuel
Often weighing hundreds of pounds more than a FWD vehicle of a comparable size and use, it requires more fuel to move a RWD vehicle from stop and keep it in motion. How much more is proportional to the size of the vehicle.
More horsepower is lost between the engine and the wheels
In a RWD vehicle, a large spinning driveshaft and more rear axle componentry add areas that rob horsepower. You can lose up to 30% of the engine’s power between the crankshaft and the wheels with a RWD vehicle.
They’re prone to oversteer
When you’re driving a RWD vehicle in loose or slippery conditions, making a turn can push the rear wheels out of line with the rest of the car. The car’s back end swings out in a condition known as “oversteer” and many inexperienced drivers have a hard time regaining control.
You lose valuable interior space
The driveshaft and rear differential need clearance under the car. For that reason, rear-wheel drive vehicles tend to have higher floors and a driveshaft tunnel that both eat into passenger and cargo space.
Front-wheel drive vs. rear-wheel drive: Which is better?
It would be tough to argue that one is inherently better than the other. The decision of front-wheel vs rear-wheel drive is instead a matter of choice and usage. If you are looking for the most efficient, compact model that’s easy to drive and typically requires less maintenance, FWD might be right for you. If your lifestyle involves performance-style driving or towing and hauling, then RWD is likely the better option.
Both rear-wheel drive and front-wheel drive have benefits and challenges. If you’re shopping for a new or used car, you’ll find that the market is dominated by front-wheel-drive vehicles, but that doesn’t always mean they’re better. There are several RWD models available if that’s your penchant. It’s a personal choice you’ll have to make.