Pros & Cons: Rear Drive, Front Drive Or All-Wheel Drive?

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Should you buy a rear-wheel-drive car, a front-wheel-drive car — or an all-wheel-drive car? The answer depends on what kind of a driver you are, the conditions you typically drive in — and what you expect the car to be able to do best.

Here are the main pros and cons of each layout:

Rear Wheel Drive

There are two main advantages to owning a RWD car. The first is that RWD is both simple and rugged — especially if it’s a solid axle design — and can take a lot of abuse without needing expensive repairs. Accidentally run over a curb in a solid axle RWD car, for instance, and you probably won’t break anything. But hit a curb (or even a deep pothole) in a FWD car and the odds are much higher that something expensive will be damaged. This is why cop cars and other “service” vehicles are overwhelmingly RWD.

The other advantage RWD cars offer is better balance — and because of this, better handling. While a FWD car has most of the weight of the engine and transaxle (the transmission and axle assembly are one unit in a FWD car) over the front wheels, a RWD car spreads the weight of its drivetrain more evenly front-to-rear. This is why most sports cars — and virtually all race cars — are RWD.

And cons? As anyone who has owned one will tell you, RWD cars are at their weakest in poor weather — rain and snow. Even with modern traction control, a RWD car is more prone to loss of traction on slick roads. In snow, RWD cars are best left home.

Front Wheel Drive

As with RWD, FWD offers two main advantages — just very different ones. The first is economy. It is cheaper to design and build a FWD car. There are fewer parts — and the drivetrain is easier and cheaper to install as the car rolls down the assembly line. FWD also helps cut down the car’s weight by eliminating the separate transmission and axle assemblies used in a RWD car. This, in turn helps the car get better gas mileage. This is why FWD is most commonly found in economy-type and lower-cost cars.

The other FDW plus is better traction than a RWD car can deliver — especially in rain and snow. The front wheels pull the car instead of the rear wheels pushing it. And, the weight of the engine/transaxle sits on top of the (front) drive wheels, which further helps the car get a grip. FWD cars are typically very capable in poor weather — even excellent, when fitted with snow tires.

Cons? FWD cars are nose-heavy, which isn’t optimal for handling — especially high-speed, high-load handling. A related problem is that the front wheels have to do two things at once — put the power to the ground and steer the car. This, too, is not optimal for a performance/sporty car. In a high-powered FWD car, it can sometimes be difficult or awkward to keep the car pointed straight ahead as the car accelerates. The front wheels may jerk to the left or right — a problem called “torque steer.” Modern FWD cars are less prone to this thanks to electronic traction control, but it’s still not the hot set-up for performance applications — which is why very few “serious” performance cars are FWD.

The final thing to know about FWD is that it’s relatively fragile. Half-shafts and constant velocity (CV) joints are more susceptible to injury than a rugged lump of cast iron — as in a RWD car’s solid axle. While a RWD car’s axle may outlast the car and never require service beyond the occasional lube change, it is far more likely that a FWD car will need new CV joints/boots or something else as the years roll by.

All Wheel Drive

The best thing about AWD is that it gives you some of the advantages of both RWD and FWD — while minimizing the weaker points of either of those layouts.

The number one advantage of AWD is excellent traction — both on dry pavement and in poor weather. This is why AWD appeals to both the performance-minded enthusiast as well as the person who just doesn’t want to get stuck in the snow. Some AWD systems are based on RWD layouts (examples include the Mercedes Benz E-Class) while others are built around FWD layouts (such as any new Subaru). The RWD-based versions are usually more performance-oriented but all AWD vehicles do an impressive job of balancing handling/driving dynamics with “go anywhere, anytime” bad weather capability.

But there are downsides — the two biggest ones being weight and cost. AWD cars can weigh several hundred pounds more than an otherwise identical RWD or FWD car. This hurts the car’s acceleration — at least, when compared with an otherwise identical RWD or FWD version of the same car. And the added weight means the car will use more fuel — especially if the engine’s power has been increased to compensate for the added weight.

The last downside with AWD is the cost. AWD, when offered as an option, usually adds significantly to the car’s sticker price. If it’s standard equipment, the car will usually cost more than otherwise equivalent FWD or RWD cars. And because there are more components, there are more things that will need to be serviced — and which may eventually fail and hit you up with a big bill as the car gets older.

So, you’ll pay more up front — at the pump — and down the road. But that may be worth not getting stuck every time it snows — and still being able to tear into corners when it’s nice out.


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21 Responses to “Pros & Cons: Rear Drive, Front Drive Or All-Wheel Drive?”

  1. kyle says:

    fwd is always terrible awd and rwd is all that should exist fwd fight physics and physics always wins

  2. Schwinn says:

    Speaking specifically with respect to adverse road conditions:
    The biggest other problem with FWD is that it forces the front wheels to do "twice" the work. So, this means that if you start slipping the front wheels, not only are you losing speed-control, but you also lose steering control. A good driver with RWD can compensate for this since losing speed-control on a RWD still allows you to steer the car.

    Secondly, because a RWD is less grippy, the driver doesn't get a false sense of security at their current speed. If the driver knows what they are doing, they will feel the car starting to slip, and know that they are going too fast for the conditions. FWD and AWD vehicles don't always provide this information as clearly, so those drivers tend to drive faster than they should. This is very evident with AWD people, as they REALLY over drive their vehicles for the conditions.

    Of course, in our "dumb-it-down" society, we prefer to have the FWD car situation, as it allows for the driver to simply hit the other object head-on (they can't turn the car, remember, and they are less likely to spin it like an RWD) which is, of course, the safest way to get into an accident. However, I still ask – isn't it better to NOT have the accident in the first place?

    In the end, you should always remember one thing – some cars may have FWD, RWD, or AWD… but they ALL HAVE 4-WHEEL BRAKING AND 2-WHEEL STEERING (for the most part). For this reason, just because you have AWD, doesn't mean you can stop/steer any better than someone with RWD or FWD!

  3. George says:

    The old hillbilly saying of the front wheels steer, and the rear push is incorrect.
    If the rear wheels did not steer, the first time the you turned the front, the car would oversteer off the road.

    Front wheel drive is a good 'fuse' for traction. Moving forward is a negative feedback situation. A greater you accelerate, the less traction you have. So when you hit the limit, you are capped.
    Rear drive is a positive feedback when moving forward. The greater the acceleration, the greater traction, so you can accelerate quicker…
    But in a rear drive vehicle like a Crown Victoria which has roughly a 55/45 weight distribution, the vehicle can not initially accelerate enough to get into that positive feedback.
    A typical front drive car has a 60/40 weight distribution, so you have 1/3 more the initial traction. That means front wheel drive goes, where rear drive is stuck.
    In actuality, the 'worst' (best balanced, least traction) of front wheel drive cars are only 60/40 front/rear, and the most front heavy are about 65/35 (old Pontiac Grand Prix with 3800 anvil). Though certain, chunky, minivans are down to 57/43. (and the Mazda5 with a manual shift transmission)
    Rear drive cars can range from 38/62 in a rear drive Porsche 911-like a front drive car backwards, to 45/55 Porsche Boxster-mid engine fun, to 47/53 the older Maserati Quattroporte with rear transaxle, to 50/50 of certain, not all BMWs.
    To the worst rear drive car currently on the market, the Ford Shelby GT500 58/42

  4. southernboy says:

    In close to 30 years of winter driving I have to say that FWD is far better in the slip & slide of winter than RWD . Or even AWD in most on road related driving .

    AWD is helpful on off road and in getting power to the ground through all 4 wheels on a good computer controlled system but wastes energy, a lot of fuel compared to either FWD or RWD .

    So for best year round traction & fuel efficiency in most driving situations on todays gasoline or diesel powered cars FWD wins every time . But if want to get the power to the ground most efficiently in a race car AWD like the Audi Quatro , Porsche all wheel drive or VW 4 motion system is the way to go . To me RWD serves no real purpose on an everyday driver as it sucks on the wet and icy .

  5. andy says:

    Subaru AWD: copypasta

    Manual transmission: It uses a center viscous differential that normally has 50/50 power split. It can shift power front to rear, but can not do any side-to-side transfer. I believe max power split can be anywhere close to 100/0 or 0/100….in actuality, 90/10 & 10/90 is the closest thing you'd get.

    With the addition of limited slip differentials in the front or rear, you can obtain that side to side power transfer.

    This is a pretty basic system, and is pretty much still the same today as when it was introduced in the first legacies.

    Automatic transmission: It uses an extension housing on the end of the normal FWD auto transmission. The rear housing has a separate clutch pack, and a line that feeds pressurized tranny fluid to the clutch packs. There is a solenoid there to control how much pressure is applied to the clutch packs, essentially controlling the torque split fore & aft.

    On the older transmissions the torque split is 90% front, 10% rear. The most it can transfer in one direction or another is 50/50.

    The newer autos have VTD (variable torque distribution) and act more like a true AWD setup. They normally have 45% front, 55% rear. Again, I believe max torque split f/r is 50/50.

    Both of these setups again only allow power transfer front to rear……they provide no side to side transfer, and again a LSD can be used to help with side to side power transfer.

    This is subaru's current setup for AWD…..there is one setup I have left out, which is the VDC

    Older Subaru AWD system:
    -No side-to-side power transfer
    -Manual trans. 50/50 split normally
    -Older Auto trans. 90/10 split normally
    -Newer (VTD) Auto trans. 45/55 split normally

    Brand new VDC AWD system:
    -Newer (VTD) Auto trans. 45/55 split normally
    -ability to transfer power side-to-side

  6. Jeff says:

    I like the people who buy RWD vehicles in snow belt states and are too cheap to install snow snow tires for winter.

    • George says:

      A lot of people truly believe all-seasons work well from -25F to 125F.
      Some don't even know that their are summer & winter tires.
      Some don't realize that your non-winter tires will last 50% longer when they are sitting in the basement for 4 month of the year.

  7. Jeff says:

    Didn't AMC come out with the first true full time 4WD systen in 1973 (Jeep Grand Wagoneer)?

  8. Kira says:

    I Love FWD!!!

  9. Ron D says:

    Not bad, but there really aren't that many RWD cars left with solid axles. The Ford Mustang and the Ford Crown Vic and Mercury Grand Marquis are notable exceptions. Most modern RWD cars have IRS these days unless you are counting pickup trucks.

    Personally I prefer RWD or AWD to FWD. Both my RWD vehicles (Porsche Boxster S and Cadillac CTS) have IRS by the way not solid rear axles. My Jeep Grand Cherokee with AWD does have a solid rear axle though.

  10. Kit Gerhart says:

    One advantage of FWD you didn't mention is space efficiency. Front drive cars have less intrusion into both front seat foot space, and rear floor space, and generally less space wasted by "nose length." In smallish cars, compare a Chevette with a similar era Golf/Rabbit. In larger cars, compare the interior space of a Crown Vic with a similar size last-generation Park Avenue.

  11. Todd says:

    FWD is good for a compact economy car.

  12. Ted says:

    A question about cons of AWD concerning tires and replacement. Subaru service said all four tires had to be replaced at the same time or the tranny could (would) be damaged. Is the same true of all manufacturers AWD ? This is based on a difference in the diameter of a new tire and a worn older tire. Needless to say that now all tires are regularly rotated.

  13. Schwinn says:

    Good question… I would think that wear would result in a rather small size difference – not significant enough to warrant replacing all 4 tires, though.

    In some cars (for example, friction-disc type AWD systems) I would expect a more significant size difference can shorten the life of the clutch packs. In the Subaru, with its viscous coupled system, I doubt it would cause any problems whatsoever.

    I'll let someone else answer more definitively, but I don't think "wear" is a problem on any AWD system… if you put on a very different size, then yes, you should rethink that…

  14. Anthony says:

    Okay i have a question I'm getting a 1988 Camaro RWD and taking engine out putting a 454 in (possible friend has done it) getting new suspension and stuff everything new and drag wheels and everything so don't nit pick at that stuff.
    but main question if i put all that stuff in their will it be able to be a Subaru Impreza in a drag.

  15. Schwinn says:

    It's not that hard to put a 454 into an old Camaro… it's been done many times before.

    The Impreza will always get you off the line, since it has AWD and much less weight than the Camaro. However, if you have enough power, and can actually put it to the ground, and you don't waste too much time spinning the wheels, you should be able to take the Impreza by the 1/4 mile mark on a track. But it's gonna take a lot more work on the Camaro to do all that, beyond a new motor, and that's only against a stock WRX… STIs will do better still, and the Subies are easy to mod. My modded Legacy GT clocks in at a 13.5, and that's with a slipping clutch.


    You'll note that the Camaros listed there are pretty fast, and not anywhere near stock for that year… while the WRX/STIs in the list were stock-only (I selected it this way). You can search/compare for yourself at that site…

    So, in summary – you CAN get there with an '88 Camaro, but it's gonna take a lot of things (and a good launch) to get there. Heck, for that matter, you can almost make anything go faster than something else… it's all a matter of time, money, and skill…

  16. Sierra says:

    I must take issue with the statement "In snow, RWD cars are best left home"
    While I don't want to start the usual RWD vs FWD battle, that statement is utter rubbish. I have a 120 hp RWD car, just been on a 60 mile drive over very snowy roads, and hadn't the smallest problem at all. Sure, the tail does drift (and only when I wanted it to) but if you know what you are doing, it's nothing a bit of counter-steering cannot handle. Point in fact, a FWD small hatchback couldn't get up a snowy hill due to the weight transfer towards the back wheels tied to the angle of the hill. Thankfully, I did not have any problems, as the same weight transfer meant my drive wheels were planted to the ground.

    Surely there are advantages to both systems, and I don't want to say FWD is terrible( it is for me, but suits others) but I do want to tell the people who think RWD is terrible in rain and ice to go and hire a RWD car and drive it in the rain as you obviously have no idea what you are talking about. The truth is( and i've driven both FWD and RWD for long enough to know) that if you know your car, and you don't drive like a complete imbecile, there is absolutely NOTHING dangerous about a RWD car. I mentioned 'knowing your car;' I understand there are many people who don't want to be bothered and think of a car as simple transportation, maybe FWD is the best for them. But for those of us who are sensible enough to know our own limits, and the limits of our tyres and chassis, a RWD car, even a family sedan, can be a very rewarding drive. If RWD was as 'dangerous' as some people make out, it's a wonder RWD lasted so long, and is still used in many sports cars that do drive through the rain as well, it's not as if one sees lines of RWD cars in accidents each time is rains.

    And as an after-note, all season tyres, if you buy good ones, are proven to work better than cheap winter tyres, and make a lot of sense if you don't have the space to store sets of tyres, and yes, they do work in the summer as well.

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