Muddy roads, foul weather, and dense snow can all make the driver wish they had more traction. You can choose between 3 unique drivetrain configurations: front-wheel, all-wheel, rear-wheel, and four-wheel drive. Once you know how these systems function in our article FWD vs AWD, you can make an informed decision.
Starting from the 2012 model year, all passenger vehicles found in the American market come powered by electronic stability control. Combine that with traction control and that would improve road-gripping capabilities significantly, regardless of which driving wheels are in use. Even so, there are distinct differences between the traction and driving characteristics of these wheels.
If the maximum grip is what you’re looking for, we’ve found that four- and all-wheel-drive systems offer great traction. It’s important to remember that tire choice impacts acceleration, braking, and road-holding to a great extent. When it’s time to replace the original tires, make sure to check out the CR ratings to find a model that actually performs well.
The primary difference between FWD vs AWD lies in where the engine transfers to. For FWD, the power transmits to the front axle. In contrast, the engine reaches both the rear and front axles in AWD. A lot of 2020 model year vehicles feature FWD. But, the number of vehicles featuring AWD is on the rise, and if you’re willing to pay a little more for AWD, this is a choice to consider.
Our goal is to help you decide whether the additional cost is worth it. Which is best suited for you? FWD or AWD? Keep in mind that in the end, the only thing that matters is what you like.
- Front-Wheel Drive
- All-Wheel Drive
- Rear-Wheel Drive
- Four-Wheel Drive
- FWD Or AWD?
- Winter Tires
- Are Winter Tires Worth It?
- Is AWD Safer?
- Reasons To Select
About Front-Wheel Drive
Most of the passenger vehicles we see on the roads these days use FWD or front-wheel-drive. FWD systems are cheaper to manufacture and save more space than rear-drive systems as the transmission, axles, and engines are bundled together inside the engine compartment. Coming to interior packaging, FWD rules out the need for a driveshaft hump and transmission going down the center of the cabin floor.
Moreover, the weight of the engine is distributed over the front wheels, giving this design an added benefit while driving up hills or on slippery surfaces. Occasionally, all-wheel drive is added to vehicles primarily based on FWD, and power is transferred to the rear wheels when there’s a need. FWD is the sporty performance many have grown to love but this design also strikes a remarkable balance for daily use.
About All-Wheel Drive
As the name suggests, AWD or all-wheel drive delivers power to every corner of the vehicle. Depending on the design of the system, AWD can offer the highest forward traction while a vehicle is accelerating. This comes in handy while driving over rough terrain or in slippery road conditions. It can help the car move through sand, mud, and similar loose surfaces.
The majority of AWD systems provide power to mainly a set of wheels, rear or front. If slippage is found at an axle, the power is diverted to the function one. Top-notch clutch systems paired with electric motors have allowed vehicles with AWD to have precise control over power received by each wheel. Although high-performance vehicles can send power to all corners of the car, this is variable based on the drive mode and conditions of the car.
Not all all-wheel-drive systems were created equal. AWD systems are particularly helpful while driving in snow and ice or dealing with rapidly changing weather conditions. It’s mainly found in car-based SUVs but there are minivans and cars with AWD systems too.
About Rear-Wheel Drive
RWD or rear-wheel drive is generally found on old-school trucks, full-sized pickups, truck-based SUVs, high-performance sedans, and sports cars. RWD allows the usage of heavy-duty suspension components and axles that help trucks carry large loads. On performance cars, RWD balances out the weight of the car, distributing the pressure equally across the front and rear. Thus, it improves handling significantly.
Since the front wheels aren’t assigned to double duty, designers are free to optimize the rear and front suspensions for their fixed roles. That being said, RWD systems don’t offer much traction on sloppy roads. With the rising popularity of FWD and AWD, RWD systems aren’t as relevant in everyday driving.
About Four-Wheel Drive
AWD and 4WD or four-wheel drive, are two terms that are often used interchangeably. Advertisements and sales literature might have convinced you that these systems are one and the same but there is a key difference. Usually, four-wheel drive is optimized for harsh off-road driving conditions like crossing deep water, climbing over boulders, and pass low-traction surfaces.
These 4WD systems come with heavy-duty transfer cases featuring a low and high gear range. The low gear range is used to raise torque for low-speed climbing. Some feature differentials too (which let the right and left wheels plus rear and front axles rotate at different speeds). You can lock these for maximum traction.
Modern-day 4WD systems are designed to be full-time, meaning they stay automatic, and engaged. The vehicle switches between four- and two-wheel drive mode automatically. Or, it requires the driver to do it manually. If a vehicle has a part-time system, it shouldn’t be driven in 4WD mode on dry pavement as this could damage the drivetrain.
Apart from serious off-road adrenaline junkies, most drivers never need the power a 4WD system offers. They wouldn’t even need anything more than an AWD system.
With the functions and features out of the way, let’s get down to the main business. What are the differences between FWD and AWD that would be of interest to you?
FWD vs AWD: Differences Between The Systems
The majority of the passenger cars on the streets today come with fuel-efficient FWD. FWD designs have been a vital part of automobiles since humans learned to use them, but the front-wheel drivetrain mainly gained popularity in the ‘70s. Before that, rear-wheel-drive systems had taken up the market.
Advantages of FWD includes:
- More interior space
- Easy maintenance and servicing
- Better fuel economy
- Good handling in all seasons
Until recently, AWD systems were harder to implement, making vehicles with these designs much more expensive and rarer. Once manufacturers knew how to produce reliable (and affordable) AWD systems, these drivetrains gained fame fast. Pros of AWD include:
- Better traction on snow and ice
- Better wet-weather handling
- Improved off-road capability
As mentioned before, many AWD automobiles are available with an FWD option, mostly small crossover SUVs. In case you don’t need the AWD, you can get the same vehicle featuring only FWD to save some coins.
We will be getting into the depths of these advantages and how they fare against each other in the next segments. This is what you need to keep in mind while making the pick.
FWD vs AWD: Which Is Better In Snow?
FWD vehicles bear more weight in the front, allowing better handling in ice and snow. But, there’s a crucial trade-off here. With improved handling in snow and ice, you must give up a bit of performance in everyday use.
The front wheels are responsible for both maneuvering and powering the vehicle, which isn’t the best for moving at high speeds or making sharp turns without reducing pace significantly. That’s why certain SUVs and most sports cars are equipped with a RWD system.
Experts suggest you choose a drivetrain based on your surrounding climate. If you live in a cold region where it’s snowing most of the year, an AWD would be the best bet. Throw in winter tires into the mix for best results.
For city driving, you aren’t dealing with as much rough terrain or snow so FWD vehicles should do just fine. While it’s not the ideal choice for rural settings or fording thick snow, it will save you money. Even with the recent boom in AWD drivetrains, these systems are still pricier than their counterparts. On top of that, they consume more fuel due to the added weight of the all-wheel-drive system.
A major advantage of FWD is that the lightweight drivetrain takes off a chunk of the vehicle’s total weight in addition to streamlining the assembly process. With lower manufacturing costs, these systems can be fitted into almost every budget-friendly passenger vehicle without a doubt.
The average everyday commuter living in an area that sees mild ice and snow each year should do okay with an FWD-based vehicle. Driving through the snow in automatic vehicles is pretty risky.
FWD vs AWD: Which Drives Better Off-Pavement?
AWD is definitely better for cruising on unpaved roads. When you drive on grass, gravel, or literally any soft surface, your drive wheels don’t get as much grip. AWD systems are optimized to establish traction on almost every surface. Having said that, FWD vehicles do quite okay on mild rough terrains. Let’s just say that a few miles of muddy or dirt roads can’t stop a new SUV or FWD car.
Despite all the traction hunting powers, AWD isn’t a magic system so it’s completely capable of getting stuck in the mud. The chances are simply lower.
FWD vs AWD: Which Is Better In The Rain?
From a general point of view, AWD systems are better for driving in a light drizzle or heavy downpour. When wet, the reflective paid used to make guidelines and crosswalks often get slippery. Count other factors such as the presence of wet greenery or oil floating on the road’s surface and there are hazards everywhere. AWD systems take not of wheel slip and are better suited for wet weather.
Without a doubt, AWD or 4WD is better in the rain than FWD. The differences are pretty stark. AWD helps to keep the car stable on slippery pavement. Even if the system is part-time, it engages impressively fast when the wheels begin to slip.
FWD vs AWD: Which Is More Fuel Efficient?
Engines produce rotational energy. The more time you have to alter directions before the wheels turn or the farther that energy should take you, the less efficient the systems become. So, in theory, the most efficient system is a transverse engine situated right by the axle powering it. That means a FWD or RWD system is the most efficient you can get.
Shafts linking the engine to an axle located at the opposite edge of the car increases inefficient rotational inertia and mass, and the worm or bevel-type gears are needed to redirect said rotational energy.
It’s a given that AWD systems can never be as efficient as a FWD system or even a system with a conventional internal combustion engine. However, there are noteworthy exceptions like the Tesla Model Y or Toyota RAV4 Prime. These feature AWD systems integrating electric motors at any of the axles.
FWD vs AWD: Which Is More Space Efficient?
Once again, a system with a transverse engine snugly fit against the drive axle would be the most space-efficient. With no transmissions, shafts, or other components taking up the cabin space, the floors of these vehicles are flat, and more of the vehicle’s length is devoted to holding passengers and luggage.
FWD vs AWD: What About Stability And Traction Controls
One thing to remember is that all modern cars are blessed with incredible stability and traction controls. These electronic systems monitor the vehicle’s wheel motion when it’s running. If a wheel begins to slip, the system moves torque to the other drive wheels in order to regulate traction. All new (model years 2012 and later) passenger vehicles come with stability and traction control as standard gear.
Here’s some food for your thoughts. With the proper tires, this update can and will go a long way to balance the variation between AWD and FWD vehicles.
FWD vs AWD: Which Is Right For Your Family?
If you want a family car, the choice becomes more difficult. Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you have to drive in snow and ice frequently?
- Do you get a lot of rain in your area?
- How frequently do you have to climb up elevated altitudes?
- Do you drive on dirt roads or gravel often?
If your answer to all of those questions is no, and AWD isn’t necessary for you. In case you answered yes to 1-2 questions, consider an all-wheel drive. Lastly, if all the conditions apply, it’s best to get an AWD. But do remember that buying and maintaining an AWD is expensive, so there’s no reason to splurge unless you absolutely need one.
Proposed Alternative: Winter Tires
AWD systems assist with inline traction. While not the best for driving in snow, it’s ideal for improve traction at ignition, making them a great fit for performance and sports cars. Any traction is welcome in icy and/snowy conditions, but winter tires are known to improve the overall handling, regardless of what vehicle you’re driving.
Winter tires come with tread patterns and rubber components that help the vehicle to turn and stop even when the road isn’t cooperative. The handling is surely better than what any AWD system has to offer. A FWD or an AWD vehicle will greatly benefit from a set of winter tires – that’s what experts claim. So let’s talk about that a bit more to understand the mechanics behind this.
Are Winter Tires Worth It?
Many car buyers have this perception that AWD system vehicles provide little to no response when navigating rough road conditions such as snow and ice. But when discussing stopping, steering, and overall performance in general winter conditions, experts agree that there’s little to no difference between AWD-based vehicles and their FWD-based counterparts.
On slippery, wet roads you can’t go wrong with AWD as this system helps the vehicle accelerate. But in comparison to an SUV, truck, or a two-wheeler – be it RWD or FWD equipped with all-season tires, all-wheel-drive systems don’t provide assistance in improving steering.
On the other hand, winter or all-season tires can raise a vehicle’s traction by a whopping 25% to 50% margin. While AWD does seem all fancy with some pretty cool benefits, it’s a dud on snowy and icy roads. Safety should always be your top concern. Quality winter tires can save you and other pedestrians from a plausible ugly accident. Remember to not use them all year round.
Granted, it is somewhat of a hassle to swap tires out based on the time of the year, but if you reside in an area known for snowy, chilly winters, get winter tires. Not only are they essential for enhancing the vehicle’s performance, but it’s also crucial for your safety.
The price of winter tires varies from one vehicle to another, mainly determined by size, but expect to pay anywhere between $80 to $200 per winter tire. You might be eligible for an insurance rebate (under a circumstance involving an accident) if you were using winter tires.
Is AWD Safer?
One of the reasons people choose to buy a conventional sport-utility vehicle is because it offers an AWD system’s traction wrapped in extra security. Unfortunately, many drivers fail to recognize the limitations of an all-wheel drive.
Having extra power supplied to every one of the four wheels improves straight-line tractions but it does nothing for the brakes, and very few of the systems have a minor impact on cornering.
Drivers might increase the speed foolishly while driving an AWD in slippery conditions only to discover that they were moving too fast when they try to hit the brakes. Trust us, you don’t want to realize something like that too late into the drive.
Because the additional traction can allow an AWD-based vehicle to accelerate faster in slippery states, drivers must be more vigilant. No matter what you’re driving, slippy surfaces demand more caution. Sometimes, good tires are more important than drive wheels.
Reasons To Select FWD Or AWD
Before you make the purchase, it’s best to weigh out the pros and cons of both options. A lot of money is involved, so you have to be smart. An all-wheel-drive offers:
- Better performance off-pavement
- Enhanced traction on snow and ice
- Better resale value
In contrast, a front-wheel-drive:
- Is cheaper to buy
- Comes in lower insurance premiums
- Saves fuel
- Winter tires power them up
Are FWD Or AWD Vehicles Worth It?
It truly depends on your driving conditions. Front-wheel system vehicles usually beat rear-wheel vehicles when it comes to safety. In the department of performance, rear-wheel system cars have it better (but AWD systems are a solid competitor).
AWD vehicles are good for moving in the snow or light off-road cruising. A four-wheel-drive vehicle should be the best bet if you’re tackling heavy snow or harsh off-road terrains. With their low gear range and high ground clearance, this is the system you will greatly benefit from. We already mentioned the difference between an AWD and a 4WD system – don’t mix those up!
Apart from terrain and weather conditions, you must consider fuel efficiency too. A major pro is choosing FWD over AWD is the better fuel economy. As the AWD system adds substantial bulk to the car, you end up making a trade-off between extra traction and better fuel economy.
Facts about Front-Wheel and All-Wheel Drive Cars:
- Front-wheel drive became popular in the 1980s due to increased emphasis on fuel efficiency.
- All-wheel drive is now becoming more common and is available on various classes of vehicles, including luxury cars.
- Front-wheel-drive systems are lighter, more fuel-efficient, and require less maintenance than all-wheel-drive systems.
- Front-wheel-drive cars tend to have more interior space compared to all-wheel-drive cars.
- Front-wheel drive provides better climbing ability, especially on hills, and better traction in rainy and snowy conditions.
- All-wheel-drive vehicles have better traction, acceleration, and resale value compared to front-wheel-drive cars.
- All-wheel-drive cars are more expensive, heavy, and require more frequent tire replacements than front-wheel-drive cars.
- Four-wheel-drive systems are generally more robust than all-wheel-drive systems, especially for off-road driving.
- Proper snow tires can offer nearly the same amount of traction as all-wheel drive for front-wheel-drive vehicles in similar conditions.
- Hybrid and electric cars are increasingly available with all-wheel drive and some models provide better overall efficiency than single-motor front- or rear-wheel-drive versions.
We can’t really choose a “winner” between FWD vs AWD as both of these systems are good for specific purposes.
For people who are simply looking to drive in the city, a two-wheel-drive car should be enough. Add in a set of winter tires for those months of snowfall to save yourself from the dangers of slippery roads. This would be the most budget-friendly option because AWD vehicles are priced much higher, are less fuel-efficient, ultimately increasing expenses with time.
A FWD vehicle has fewer chances of oversteering and is more versatile. If you reside in a dry, warm climate and love some performance from your vehicle, a rear-wheel-drive car may suit you the most.
However, nothing beats an AWD vehicle’s versatility. It’s the top choice if you want the best of both worlds – rural performance and urban driving. Call AWD vehicles the jacks-of-all-trades of the industry as they can power harsh weather conditions effortlessly (with a set of decent snow tires, of course).
Moreover, AWD vehicles redistribute power by themselves, so you don’t have to struggle with the many controls and concentrate solely on the road. At any point you want to sell them, they also have good resale value.