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Rear Wheel, Front Wheel, and All Wheel Drivetrains – The Breakdown

December 7, 2018 | By |

A vehicles drivetrain is a collection of moving parts that work together to transfer power from the transmission to the wheels. This power is what’s responsible for making a vehicle move. While this sounds like a fairly straightforward concept, there are actually various types of drivetrains available today. Rear wheel drive, front wheel drive, and all wheel drive are the most common types of drivetrains available — each with their own pros and cons.

Rear Wheel Drive

Rear wheel drive is most commonly associated with sports and luxury cars. This is due to the fact that rear wheel drive provides the best “off the line” performance, which means that the engine’s power is sent to the rear wheels allowing for better traction and off the line acceleration.  Vehicles equipped with rear wheel drivetrains utilize a driveshaft (a rotating shaft that transmits torque to the engine) that sends power along the length of the vehicle to the rear, which allows the rear wheels to spin independently and at different rates. With the front wheels free of the driveshafts torque, steering is much tighter, and handling becomes more precise making it the preferred drivetrain of performance car enthusiasts. More experienced drivers will be able to manipulate the power from acceleration to perform drifts and slides. While rear wheel drive vehicles have advantages in the performance and towing capability categories, there are some tradeoffs.

Having a vehicle with a rear differential creates extra weight and results in poorer fuel economy.  A bulky driveshaft running the length of the car also creates a large “hump” in the middle of the vehicle which leads to a decrease in interior space. Although traction in a rear wheel drive vehicle is great in dry conditions, performance may be diminished significantly in the rain and snow. With the rear wheels “pushing” the vehicle, if traction is lost there is little the car can do on its own to move.

Front Wheel Drive

Front wheel drive is one of the most common drivetrains available on vehicles today.  Main advantages of front wheel drive include better fuel economy, increased interior space, and a lower MSRP. These advantages can all be attributed to eliminating the need for a separate transmission and axle like is used in a rear-wheel drive drivetrain. This leads to fewer drive components and less weight, allowing for a lower price tag and increased fuel economy. Power from the engine only needs to travel from the front of the vehicle to the front tires – it doesn’t need to travel along the length of the car to the back tires. Front wheel drive vehicles also have a predictable handling pattern which makes correcting driver error or loss of control much more recoverable than that of a rear wheel drive vehicle. Moreover, as a result of the front wheels “pulling “the vehicle, FWD equipped vehicles generally perform better under poor weather conditions than their RWD counterpart. While road performance and handling with a front-wheel drive car is typically less sporty when compared to rear wheel drive, they are significantly less expensive to buy and maintain than that of a rear wheel drive vehicle.

All Wheel Drive

All wheel drive has become best known for its use in SUV’s as it provides the most versatility across all driving conditions. Most all-wheel drive SUVs will use a front wheel drive layout, while sedans and sport-tuned vehicles likely feature a rear wheel layout. Some sports vehicle brands have started to employ all wheel drivetrains in vehicles with larger engines for increased stability. All-wheel drive systems utilize aspects from both front wheel and rear wheel drive layouts. Having AWD in a performance vehicle might seem unnecessary, but vehicles with large engines simply put out more power than many casual drivers can otherwise handle. Having a rear wheel based all wheel drive system affords the average driver the confidence to push a large engine without fear of spinning out or unexpectedly losing control.  Although AWD provides the best all-around solution for most drivers, there are drawbacks.

Getting the best of both worlds means you’re going to have to pay a bit more due to an AWD system requiring more components.  On top of that, the extra weight from the added components means fuel efficiency is going to suffer.  It should also come as no surprise that with more parts and complex systems, the higher the chance of something getting damaged or needing replacement is far greater.

In the end, picking a drivetrain is based on many different factors — fuel efficiency, handling, and price point are just a few to name. If you plan on using your vehicle in an area that experiences multiple seasons (looking at you New England), an all wheel drivetrain makes the most sense. If you’re trying to keep your costs low out the door and on the road, a front wheel drivetrain may be the best option for you. For a performance enthusiast who’s all about having a thrilling drive experience, a vehicle using a rear wheel drivetrain should satisfy them. At the end of the day, the decision is yours to make and should vary based on your preferences and conditions you drive in.

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