All Wheel Drive Vs. Front Wheel Drive—What's the Difference?

All Wheel Drive Vs. Front Wheel Drive—What's the Difference?
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Nearly half of the vehicles sold in the United States have all-wheel drive (AWD) systems. While you might expect the Honda Pilot, for example, to offer all-wheel drive, you can find AWD on vehicles as varied as the Honda Civic, Ford EcoSport and Toyota Prius—cars you typically expect to feature front-wheel drive (FWD). So what’s the difference between AWD and FWD? We break it down so you can better figure out which is right for you.

The difference between AWD and FWD explained

Manufacturers offer front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive configurations in the same vehicle to appeal to different kinds of buyers. A subcompact crossover shopper might be interested in paying extra for AWD, while the next customer in the same vehicle may want FWD. Not wanting to limit buyers, manufacturers often offer both drive types for the same model. The all-wheel drive versus front wheel drive debate mainly centers around the pros and cons of where the engine sends its power: to the front wheels for FWD or to all four for AWD. Let’s go in-depth to try and answer which is better.

What is FWD?

Front-wheel drive is a drivetrain design where the engine powers only the front wheels. FWD commonly uses a transverse (sideways) layout in the engine bay, with a compact transmission attached, sending power through the CV joints to the front axles and the front wheels. The compact FWD design means more efficiency because it limits the number of heavy parts spinning to get the power to the rear wheels.

While front-wheel drive has been around nearly as long as the automobile itself, the concept didn’t catch on in the US until the 1960s, with models like the 1959 Mini and 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. With the gas crisis of the 1970s, economy cars rapidly switched to FWD for the higher miles per gallon and lower price points, thanks to smaller, lighter driveline components. Midsize sedans and minivans joined the FWD trend in the early 1980s, with FWD soon becoming the dominant driveline layout in the car market.

Modern front-wheel drive cars include the Ford Focus and Fusion, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Corolla and Chevrolet Malibu. You can also find FWD in crossovers such as the GMC Terrain, Toyota Highlander and Hyundai Tucson. You’ll even find it in trucks, such as the Honda Ridgeline and upcoming Hyundai Santa Cruz.

What is AWD?

All-wheel drive is a drivetrain design where all four wheels receive engine power. Your AWD car still has the same engine and transmission configuration as above and sends power to the front wheels. However, the AWD version has additional components sending power to the rear.

In a common simple example, a transfer case centered in the vehicle drives equal amounts of power to the front and back via driveshafts. That’s fine for a Jeep Wrangler, but the Volvo S90 and Audi A8 use a complex, electronically controlled clutch pack to instantly transfer power to the front or rear—or side to side—as the computer detects power is needed. In other words, there are multiple ways to distribute power to all four wheels depending on a vehicle’s intended use, design and price point.

All-wheel drive was there at the beginning of the automobile, too, but it took a while to catch on. Mainly reserved for logging trucks and industrial vehicles traveling horrible roads, mechanical AWD systems didn’t catch on in the US until the success of the Willys Jeep, and even then, its popularity remained with that segment of off-road enthusiasts. The SUV explosion of the 1990s helped AWD find more buyers, and the system trickled down to the lighter, electronic AWD systems found in the crossovers, sports cars and sedans of today. Now you can find AWD in the Chevrolet Traverse, Subaru Impreza, Ford Bronco, Dodge Charger, Nissan Rogue and Tesla Model 3.

All wheel drive vs. front wheel drive: Pros and cons

Plenty of vehicles are available with FWD and the option to upgrade to AWD. So, what is the difference between AWD and FWD in the real world? Which has more drawbacks? Which should you buy? Neither system is perfect, so before dropping your hard-earned cash, read on to see which is right for you.

FWD pros

Front-wheel drive is the clear winner when comparing prices. AWD is an extra-cost option, making FWD the cheaper deal. However, there are a few other bonuses to FWD.

  • Better fuel economy: Because of the smaller and lighter components, FWD engines can power their vehicles more efficiently.
  • More common: Searching for a FWD Honda Civic LX? They’re everywhere. Looking for an AWD Civic Type R? Good luck.
  • Lower maintenance costs: FWD systems have fewer parts, and that means less to wear out.

FWD cons

Front-wheel drive isn’t all fun and savings. There are a few drawbacks.

  • Lower resale value: AWD costs more when new, so used vehicle buyers pay a premium for this option, too.
  • Less traction: If severe weather strikes, or you need to drive up a muddy road, you want the extra grip of AWD. FWD may slip.
  • Usually a base trim: Optional AWD gets tucked into higher trim levels, meaning a FWD ride might not have other features you want, such as heated seats or leather interior.

AWD pros

All-wheel drive wins in WRC rally racing, and it’s great on the street, too. The bonuses include:

  • Traction: This is the big reason buyers want AWD. With four wheels receiving power, you can still get home from work in terrible weather or drive down that muddy, washed-out road.
  • Safety: With increased traction comes increased safety, or at least perceived safety.
  • Higher resale value: The above two pros make AWD a desirable option, and buyers will pay extra when it’s time to sell.

AWD cons

However, all-wheel drive does have a couple of drawbacks.

  • Lower gas mileage: The additional parts contribute to more weight and decreased drivetrain efficiency, meaning you fill up slightly more often than with FWD.
  • Increased maintenance: AWD systems require more maintenance than FWD. Get a flat? You might have to replace all four tires—otherwise, mismatched tires could damage the drivetrain or mess with your traction control system.
  • Higher purchase price: That strong resale value is great when you sell, but it also hurts when you buy an AWD vehicle.

Do I need AWD?

For a vehicle buyer, the difference between AWD and FWD comes down to driver preference, what kind of driving you do and where. Narrow down your search by seeing which type of driver you identify with below.

You might want AWD if …

  • You drive in rapidly changing weather conditions.
  • You often cover uneven rural roads or terrain, but not quite “off road.”
  • Gas mileage isn’t a high priority.
  • You want to maximize your resale value.
  • The above benefits are worth a little extra maintenance.

You may be fine with FWD if …

  • You mainly stick to urban streets.
  • Your region doesn’t see much snow or ice, or you don’t mind switching to winter tires as needed.
  • Gas mileage is a high priority in any vehicle you buy.
  • Resale value isn’t a consideration or you want the lowest possible purchase price.
  • You want a vehicle with minimum maintenance needs/costs.

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At Bumper, we are on a mission to bring vehicle history reports and ownership up to speed with modern times. A vehicle is one of the most expensive purchases you'll likely make, and you deserve to have access to the same tools and information the pros use to make the right decisions.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.