RWD, FWD, 4WD, or AWD: Decide Which Drive Type Is Right for You

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Driving in the rain or on a race track? Through a muddy field, through the snow, or through rush hour traffic? Hauling a trailer load, or half of the soccer team? Fair weather or foul? Peak performance or “just get me there safely and efficiently”?

Cars, trucks, and SUVs feature four categories that describe how they apply power to the wheels. Four different drive types:

Rear-Wheel Drive (RWD), Front-Wheel Drive (FWD), Four-Wheel Drive (4WD), and All-Wheel Drive (AWD).

Each arrangement comes with its own balance of characteristics: performance, poor-weather handling, fuel economy, ability to handle a heavy payload, durability, and associated costs. Which drive type is right for you depends entirely on your driving conditions and personal preferences.

Rear-Wheel Drive (RWD)

There was a day when most cars and trucks on the road were rear-wheel drive. In this traditional arrangement, the engine and transmission are located at the front of the vehicle and transfer power through a drive shaft and rear axle to the rear wheels. The rear wheels then push the rest of the vehicle forward.

RWD offers some excellent benefits, which is why it is included on a number of performance vehicles (and virtually all race cars) today. Besides being durable and relatively simple, RWD vehicles are well-balanced because the weight of its components is distributed evenly underneath the vehicle. This allows for improved handling on the road (or on the track) and makes a RWD setup the drive type of choice for many luxury and performance vehicles. RWD trucks also have a significant weight savings over other drive type options.

On the downside though, RWD vehicles are fair-weather friends. They may handle well on dry pavement, but on wet or snowy roads? Not so much. This is especially true of RWD trucks when they have no payload to haul. The minimal weight of a pickup bed is no help to traction.

If you are looking for a less-expensive option for a truck, or if you relish a sporty, high-performance ride – and you drive in good weather – you might opt for a RWD vehicle.

Front-Wheel Drive (FWD)

Front-wheel drive vehicles are the most common in service today and are (as the name would suggest) driven by the front wheels. Most passenger cars and crossover SUVs include this drive type. In this arrangement, the engine is transverse-mounted, meaning it is turned sideways so that its rotation is in line with the wheels. A transaxle mounted to the engine transfers torque through small axles (Constant Velocity, or CV axles) to the front wheels, rather than through a heavy transmission and drive shaft the way other drive types do.

Because a FWD vehicle is pulled forward by the front wheels, traction on wet or snowy roads is improved significantly over that of RWD. Traction is also aided because the engine and transaxle are mounted between the front wheels, so their weight is on the front tires. With less-bulky components, a FWD vehicle also tends to be lighter, offering improved fuel economy.

FWD vehicles do have some disadvantages. Performance characteristics are diminished from those of a RWD vehicle. First of all, they are not as well-balanced because most of their heavier components are located in the front. While they have fewer heavy components, they are a bit more complex and their components tend to be lighter-duty, more prone to damage when hitting curbs or potholes. FWD vehicles also suffer from a condition called “torque steer”, where the vehicle pulls to one side on acceleration.

Still, a FWD vehicle is the arrangement of choice for most drivers due to their efficient economy and handling ability in most driving conditions.

Four-Wheel Drive (4WD)

If you like playing in the mud, this is your drive type. Seriously, with power to all wheels and a taller profile, rugged 4WD trucks and SUVs are your best option for off-road driving. 4WD also provides better towing ability and usually allows for hauling heavier loads. Most 4WD vehicles offer a selection between two-wheel (RWD) mode for normal driving conditions and four-wheel mode for travel off road, in the snow, or pulling a heavy trailer.

On the flip side, 4WD vehicles are heavy and suffer from poor fuel economy. Some have an increased likelihood of rollover because of their higher center of gravity. They also require (in some cases) more service because they have more components. And 4WD vehicles generally cost more than their RWD counterparts.

All-Wheel Drive (AWD)

Becoming increasingly popular are all-wheel drive vehicles. AWD offers the best of both the performance of RWD and the traction of 4WD. In this arrangement, power is applied to all four wheels all the time, with the greatest torque going to the wheels that need it most. While AWD does not offer the off-road ability of its 4WD cousins, it does provide superior traction on the road.

Unfortunately, the performance and traction of AWD comes with its own costs. These vehicles tend to be heavy, have decreased fuel economy, require more service to their complex systems, and are expensive. They are also not as robust as most full 4WD vehicles.

But, if you enjoy a sporty drive or you contend with a good deal of rain and snow, you might appreciate the advantages of AWD.

Which Drive Type Is “Best Wheel Drive” For Me?

So, which drive type is the one for you? That question depends on the purpose of your vehicle. For some, the decision is pretty simple. For instance, if each morning you make your way to a construction site with a trailer full of equipment and a full payload of building materials, you are likely to own a 4WD truck. If you simply commute to work or school and your highest priority is fuel economy, FWD is your friend. Willing to sacrifice some gasoline for better handling and traction? AWD. Want the best performance on the street and don’t have to hassle with cold and wet conditions? RWD may be for you.

Contemplate your driving needs and desires. Consider your climate. Keep in mind your bank account. Then choose the vehicle drive type that is best for you.

This article is intended only as a general guidance document and relying on its material is at your sole risk. By using this general guidance document, you agree to defend, indemnify and hold harmless Hogan & Sons Tire and Auto and its affiliates from and against any and all claims, damages, costs and expenses, including attorneys’ fees, arising from or related to your use of this guidance document. To the extent fully permissible under applicable law, Hogan & Sons Tire and Auto makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, as to the information, content, or materials included in this document. This reservation of rights is intended to be only as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the laws of your State of residence.

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