What are the differences, and which should you choose?For the first half-century or so of automotive history, rear-wheel drive was the only drivetrain you could buy, with very few exceptions. It didn’t matter whether you wanted a big car, a small car, a foreign car, or a domestic car: whatever you bought was almost certainly rear-wheel drive .
But those days are over, and nowadays we’re been spoiled by choice of drivetrain types. Today it's mostly pickups, SUVs, sports cars, and big four-doors that still rock the age-old rear-drive design; nearly all small cars and crossovers use front-wheel drive.
If you’re not much of a car person, you might wonder why this rear-drive/front-drive divide came about and if one drive system is better than the other. To explain the major differences between two-wheel drive vehicles, rear-wheel drive and front-wheel drive, we’ve gone ahead and highlighted some of the more noteworthy aspects of each drivetrain. If you're interested in four- or all-wheel drive, this article breaks down the differences between 4WD vs. AWD.
Rear-Wheel Drive (RWD)Rear-wheel drive is the simplest of all the drivetrains . Carmakers just drop an engine under the hood, affix a transmission behind it, and from there add a simple rotating driveshaft to the rear axle to power the rear wheels. That, in a nutshell, is rear-drive . There’s no engineering complications to puzzle through. There’s no pricey hardware or fancy packaging necessary. It’s relatively easy for an automaker to produce a rear-drive car.
In most situations, rear-drive doesn’t feel that much different than front-drive: during calm and dry conditions, rear-drive cars tootle along without any indication to suggest the rear wheels are getting the power.
Where rear-drive struggles - literally - is during inclement weather. This is due to weight and physics. With RWD cars, the driven wheels are, of course, the rear pair, located under the trunk or truck bed. Unless you’re loaded up the cargo area, this is nothing more than an empty cavernous space. That empty space doesn't provide much mass to push down on the rear wheels.
This is quite the opposite from the front of the car, which is weighed down with the engine. Because there’s comparatively little weight over the rear wheels, traction is at a premium. Without any substantial weight pushing down on the rear end, It’s easier to spin the rear tires when you jab at the throttle during slippery conditions.
To mitigate these winter traction issues, many owners of rear-drive cars throw sandbags in their trunk. You can also purchase chains or studded snow tires to get better grip. In fact, winter tires are a great idea no matter which wheels are driven, because they offer such superior grip compared to all-seasons.
A particularly notable attribute of rear-drive is its handling tendencies. Generally a rear-driver offers the best handling from a performance-minded standpoint, but it also requires the most finesse to drive well without error. It’s the old risk and reward gambit - the reward is better handling but the risk is that it’s easier to lose control if you don’t know how to handle the horsepower at your disposal.
The riskiest thing is if you’re too generous with the throttle mid-corner. By applying too much gas you can send enough power out back to overwhelm the rear tires - in other words, that’s the point when you lose control. The rear will start sliding because there’s more power than there is traction. When this happens the car starts turning more abruptly than you bargained for.
It’s at this point you attempt to frantically correct your mistake by sawing at the wheel. If you get lucky, you straighten back out. If you’re not so lucky, into the ditch you go. Either way you’ll arrive to your destination a little sweatier than you’d like.
Because of its limitations during snowy or icy conditions and its tendency to be more of a handful in the event control is lost, rear-drive has these days been largely confined to performance cars. But for those who care deeply about handling, dynamics, and other more technical aspects of driving, rear-drive remains the standard.
Rear-drive is also the best drivetrain for anyone planning on towing. If you look at the tow rating charts for any full-size truck, for instance, you’ll see that the highest-rated towing combo always occurs in a RWD model, no matter the bed length, cab style, or powertrain. This is because the weight of the rear trailer forces the rear downward, putting added traction onto the rear tires. This makes it easier for the rear tires to push the truck forward while simultaneously pulling the trailer.
Were a front-drive truck - such as the Honda Ridgeline - to try towing the sort of mountain-moving weight a domestic heavy-duty truck can lug, it would tear up its transaxle trying to pull all that weight - and that’s not to mention the added stress of having to turn the front tires while also providing forward momentum. It’s partly why trucks remain RWD and why the best towing rigs will always be rear-drivers.
Front-Wheel Drive (FWD)Coming into vogue in the 1980s, front-wheel drive has underpinned many of the most popular cars of the last thirty-plus years, including crossovers as well as compact and mid-size sedans.
The reason for its ubiquity lies in its inherent packaging benefits. Unlike rear-drive, which requires space to be carved out under the back of the vehicle for various large pieces of drivetrain hardware, front-drive cars package everything up front and under the hood. This means that nestled in the engine bay is all the hardware necessary to power, drive, and steer the front wheels. This leaves a flat floor in the backseat and a more spacious trunk than an equivalent rear-drive car.
By driving the front wheels, the traction troubles plaguing rear-drive cars is also taken care of, thanks to the sheer weight of the engine and transaxle (the part that takes the engine’s power and routes it to the front wheels). The combined mass of these components, which naturally press down on the front wheels, is enough to prevent wheelspin in all but the most extreme of circumstances.
Front-drive also eliminates the potentially hairy handling situations that a powerful rear-drive car can present: all that weight on the front wheels means that rather than oversteer - the situation described within the rear-drive section, when the car steers more than you’d like - you get understeer, which is when the car steers less than you’d like. It feels like the car is going wide in a corner, or plowing through it. Compared to oversteer, understeer is harder to accidentally instigate. If it does occur, it’s also safer and easier to control.
The fuel economy of front-drive cars is almost always better than comparable all-wheel drive cars. This is due to lower weight - thanks to the lack of all-wheel drive hardware - as well as less driveline friction. By having just two driven wheels, front-drive - as well as rear-drive - will save at the pump compared to all-wheel drive.
What front-drive isn’t so great at is delivering impressive handling and performance. The attributes that make it safer than rear-drive - understeer and lots of weight over the front end - also make it less well-suited to track days and spirited driving.
Front-drive also suffers a phenomenon known as torque steer: mash the gas of a FWD car with decent power and there’s a tendency for the car to dart towards one of the shoulders. The reason for this is that surge of power to the front wheels overwhelms the steering components, causing the car to steer in one direction and making it feel like the steering wheel is being yanked from your grip. Typically it’s only FWD performance cars that may do this, as more modestly powered FWD vehicles usually don’t have the power to redirect the front tires.
This isn’t not to say that there aren’t any fun front-drivers - there are plenty. But rear-drive is generally the superior drivetrain for anyone looking for performance.
States With the Most Two-Wheel Drive Vehicles
|iSeeCars States With the Most 2WD Vehicles|
|Rank||State||% 2WD Vehicles|
Florida and Hawaii tie for the top spot as the states with the most two-wheel drive vehicles, which comprise nearly 80 percent of the vehicles on the road in both states. “Both states are known for their tropical climates, so drivers don’t need vehicles that are able to perform in harsh weather conditions,” said Ly.
Breakdown of FWD Vs. RWD
|Breakdown of FWD Vs. RWD|
Among these states with tropical and mild climates, all states prefer FWD vehicles. “This suggests that drivers in these states are most likely to opt for passenger cars or crossovers without the all-wheel-drive option,” said Ly.
Louisiana and Texas are the states with the most RWD vehicles nationally. “This suggests that these drivers are most likely to drive trucks or sports cars,” said Ly.
The Bottom LineRear-wheel drive was originally done out of necessity and the limitations of automotive engineering knowledge. Once front-drive became mainstream about forty years ago, RWD has found itself more and more relegated to trucks, SUVs , and some large sedans.
It’s no surprise FWD usurped RWD in car manufacture. With its superior packaging efficiency and better traction and surefootedness in bad weather, front-wheel drive vehicles are more practical and pragmatic for the ordinary consumer.
Yet there’s not a front-drive car extant that can match a well-sorted rear-wheel drive sports car for driving pleasure. For those for whom things like steering feel, chassis engagement, and handling prowess matter, rear-drive remains the superior choice. It’s why iconic cars like the Miata, Mustang, Corvette, BMW sport sedans, and other high-performance cars have remained RWD.
For these reasons, if you’re a performance junkie you’ll want to opt for a rear-wheel wheel drive car. Rear-drive is also the superior choice for truck buyers due to its higher payload and towing capacities over four-wheel drive.
If you’re more interested in a practical package that will maximize interior space and minimize the chances of getting into hairy situations during bad weather, front-wheel drive is the answer. It does everything well and, while not as satisfying at the limits, is perfectly adequate in every ordinary situation that doesn’t include big-tonnage towing.
If you want something more rugged than the two-wheel drive types profiled here, you may choose to opt for a four-wheel drive (4WD) or all-wheel drive (AWD) vehicle. You can read up on all the details regarding 4WD and AWD here (insert link to other article once completed).
If you’re in the market for a car, you can search over 4 million new and used cars with iSeeCars’ award-winning car search engine that helps shoppers find the best car deals by providing key insights and valuable resources, like the iSeeCars VIN check report. You can narrow down your search by selecting your drive type of choice, or you can compare vehicles across all drive types.
iSeeCars.com analyzed over 11 million vehicles in the 50 US states and the District of Columbia between January and August of 2019. The drive type of each car was tabulated to calculate the share of each drive type within each state.
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