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Which is best – FWD, RWD or AWD?

Are you confused, or looking for clarification when it comes to front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive vehicles? Which type is best, how many of the benefits touted by various car manufacturers for each type actually true, and which one should you actually buy?

Well here are the main pros and cons of each layout:



Front-Wheel Drive

Front-wheel drive (FWD) offers two main advantages to vehicle manufacturers. The first advantage is that it is cheaper to design and build – as the entire drive-train is contained within the engine bay and there are fewer moving parts. The engine, transmission and axle assembly is all in one space, unlike a rear-wheel drive (RWD) car. For you this means the car is lighter and should get better mileage.

The other benefit of FWD is they can offer better traction in most low power situations – especially in rain and snow. The front wheels are pulling the car along and they have the weight of the heavy engine and gearbox sitting directly on top. That weight translates directly into added grip, giving FWD cars the advantage particularly in poor weather conditions.

Downsides? Well, FWD cars are nose-heavy, which means they tend to understeer terribly when pushed to the limit. Another issue is that the front wheels are essentially doing two things at once – putting power to the ground and steering the car at the same time. This too, is not ideal.

In a high-powered FWD car, it can sometimes be difficult or awkward to keep the car pointed straight ahead as the car accelerates – as the front wheels may jerk to the left or right – a problem called “torque steer.”



Rear-Wheel Drive

Like front-wheel drive (FWD), there are two main advantages to owning a rear-wheel drive (RWD) car. The first is that RWD is more simple and rugged. You’ve got the engine at the front, the gearbox in the middle and the drive axle at the rear. The other advantage RWD cars have is that they tend to offer better balance and handling. While a FWD car has most of the weight of the engine and gearbox over the front wheels, a RWD car spreads the weight of its drive-train more evenly front-to-rear. This is why most sports cars, and virtually all race cars, are RWD.

The downsides? Well, RWD cars can be more of a handful in slippery conditions – due to there being less weight over the rear wheels. Even with modern traction control, a RWD car is more prone to losing traction on slick roads. The other downside is less efficient packaging. RWD cars require a prop shaft to run from the gearbox down to the rear axle, which means the interior needs a large transmission tunnel built into the floor right through the middle of the cabin. This means less space for occupants, in particular leg room for people sitting in the middle of the back seat.



All-Wheel Drive

In theory, an all-wheel drive (AWD) car gives you some of the advantages of both rear-wheel drive (RWD) and front-wheel drive (FWD) cars, while minimising the weaker points of both layouts.

The biggest advantage of AWD is excellent traction. Whether it is wet or dry, on paved road or gravel – an AWD car will offer much higher levels of grip. This is why AWD cars appeal to both performance drivers and also families who care about safety in adverse conditions. But, inevitably, there are downsides.

The biggest two being weight and cost. AWD cars can weigh hundreds of kilograms more than similarly sized FWD or RWD cars, and this affects the car’s acceleration and fuel economy figures. The other downside is the additional complexity and cost involved with the AWD setup. There are more components and more items which will require servicing, which means the car will generally be more expensive to buy and cost more to maintain over its lifetime.

So which one is right for me?

As you can see, there’s no simple answer for which type of drive configuration is best for you. The drive type which is right for you depends on what kind of driver you are, the conditions you typically drive in and also what you expect the car to do.

If you’re after a family car which will be driven sedately on sealed roads – FWD will be more than sufficient. If you want a sporty, more balanced car then perhaps a RWD vehicle could be a better choice. Or, if you want road-crushing grip no matter what the conditions and don’t mind paying a bit more, you probably should be looking at an AWD vehicle.

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