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.