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If you’re shopping for a new or pre-owned vehicle, you will probably need to choose between front-wheel-drive (FWD) and all-wheel-drive (AWD). It’s helpful to know what you want before you visit a dealership, to be sure you don’t end up paying for equipment you don’t need.

With a little information, you can decide which driveline is best suited to your needs. Before you make your buying decision, let’s take a more detailed look at FWD vs. AWD. And for more information on what features to consider before buying check out our article on comparing cars beyond spec and price.

FWD Versus AWD: What Are the Differences?

Most passenger cars on the road today use fuel-efficient front-wheel-drive. That means the engine and transmission power the front wheels to make the car go. Front-wheel-drive designs have been around since the earliest days of automobiles; however, the front-wheel drivetrain did not become popular until the 1970s. Before that time, most cars drove the rear wheels (RWD). This is because the front wheels do the steering, and there was no cost-effective way for the front wheels to both steer and move the vehicle.

Advantages of front-wheel-drive include:

  • Better fuel economy.
  • More interior space.
  • Good all-season handling.
  • Easy to service

All-wheel-drive cars send power to all four wheels to make the car go. Until recently all-wheel-drive was more difficult to implement, so it was rare and comparatively expensive. Once automakers learned how to make affordable and reliable AWD systems, this drivetrain quickly became a popular choice.

Advantages of AWD include:

  • Best wet-weather handling.
  • Better traction on ice and snow.
  • Better off-road capability.

One important thing to remember is that many AWD vehicles are also available with FWD as an option. This is especially true of small crossover SUVs. If you don’t need AWD for traction, you can always purchase the same vehicle equipped with FWD and save some money.

Is AWD the Same As 4WD?

Subaru offroading near wind turbines

All-wheel-drive is different from four-wheel-drive. In general, pickup trucks and larger SUVs use 4WD. The biggest difference is that all-wheel-drive is always active and happens automatically. The driver does not have to do anything to make the AWD system engage.

In most cases, smaller SUVs and passenger cars tend to use AWD. Leading examples of AWD vehicles include:

For complete information on AWD vs. 4WD, see our article on that traction comparison.

Remember this: In general, 4WD is better for extreme off-road and low-gear situations. AWD provides better all-season road performance.

Is every AWD system the same?

There are many different ways to implement all-wheel-drive. There are substantial differences between brands, specifically in how each one engineers their particular AWD system. Here are some examples:

  • Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel-drive is always working. This system distributes power to all wheels as needed using a center differential in the transmission. Subaru offers this system on many models from the 2019 Impreza compact sedan to the 2019 Ascent midsize SUV.
  • The 2019 Ford Edge uses a system called AWD Disconnect to completely decouple the rear axle when it’s not needed to enhance traction. When AWD is not active, the Edge operates in front-wheel-drive mode. This system allows the Edge to save fuel by reducing the extra work associated with driving all four wheels.
  • Mazda uses a “predictive” AWD system that always keeps the rear wheels lightly engaged. Comprehensive sensors distributed around the vehicle provide information that helps the Mazda decide when to deliver more power to the rear wheels. This system is available on the 2019 Mazda CX-5 and CX-9 as well as the all-new 2019 Mazda3 compact car.
  • Some hybrid vehicles like the 2019 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid sedan or the 2019 Lexus RX450h SUV offer an all-electric AWD system. This system uses electric motors to drive the rear wheels. The 2019 Tesla Model S electric vehicle simply places electric motors at both ends of the vehicle.

Are There Drawbacks to AWD?

There are a few things to keep in mind about AWD vehicles:

  • Higher purchase price than FWD.
  • Price difference can be several thousand dollars.
  • Insurance costs are often higher.
  • Fuel costs will be higher.

Remember this: AWD helps get your car moving, and helps keep your car under control. However, when it comes to stopping, an AWD car is exactly the same as every other car. Sometimes drivers become overconfident with AWD and skid when they use the brakes.

AWD Vs. FWD, Which Is Better Off-Pavement?

All-wheel-drive is better for driving on unpaved surfaces. Driving on gravel, grass, or any soft surface means less grip for your drive wheels. All-wheel-drive systems are optimized to find traction on any surface.

That being said, front-wheel-drive vehicles still do pretty well on mild off-road surfaces. A few miles of dirt road won’t stop a new FWD car or SUV.

Remember this: AWD is not magic. You can still get stuck in the mud.

AWD Vs. FWD, Which Is Better In the Rain?

In general, all-wheel-drive is better for driving in the rain. The reflective paint used to create crosswalks and guidelines often becomes slippery when it’s wet. Other factors like oil floating to the surface of the road and the presence of wet leaves can also pose hazards.

All-wheel-drive vehicles sense wheel slip and adapt to wet weather very well. AWD is better than FWD in the rain. You will notice the difference right away.

Remember this: AWD helps keep your car stable on wet pavement. Even part-time AWD engages quickly when wheels start to slip.

AWD Vs. FWD, Which Is Better In Ice and Snow?

car driving on icy road in the snow

All-wheel-drive is usually better in ice and snow because it engages all four wheels to get started and to keep you moving. With modern traction and stability controls, an all-wheel-drive vehicle can handle most snow and ice conditions.

Front-wheel-drive cars are also good in the snow because the engine is located over the drive wheels. The extra weight helps provide traction. If you live in an area with mild to moderate winter weather, you may be able to save money by purchasing a front-wheel-drive car and a set of winter tires.

Remember this: An AWD car or SUV is better than a 4WD pickup truck or SUV on ice and snow.

AWD Vs. FWD: Do You Need Winter Tires?

If you invest in winter tires such as the Bridgestone Blizzak or Yokohama iceGUARD, you may not need AWD. These winter tires use soft rubber compounds and special tread designs optimized to create grip on snow and ice.

Traction tests consistently show that good tires make the biggest difference in traction. A FWD vehicle with winter tires may outperform an AWD vehicle with standard all-season tires. Of course, the best performance will always happen with AWD and a good set of winter tires.

Remember this: A good set of winter tires is the best investment you can make if you must drive on snow and ice.

AWD Vs. FWD: What About Traction and Stability Controls?

Here’s another factor to consider: all modern cars have great traction and stability controls. These are electronic systems that monitor your car’s wheel motion at all times. If one wheel starts to slip, the system transfers torque to the remaining drive wheels to maintain traction.

All new passenger vehicles include traction and stability control as standard equipment. With the right tires, this technology can go a long way to equalize the difference between FWD and AWD vehicles.

AWD Vs. FWD: What About A Pre-owned Vehicle?

Muddy car tire

If you want an AWD vehicle on a budget, consider a pre-owned car or SUV. A certified pre-owned AWD vehicle has been checked and reconditioned at the dealership service department. Buying certified pre-owned is a great way to save money and get the features and options you want.

Remember this: You will usually pay more for an AWD vehicle, but it will also be easier to resell or trade in later.

AWD Vs. FWD: Which Is Right for Your Family?

It’s easy to make an initial decision about whether your family needs all-wheel-drive or not. There are a few questions to ask:

  • Do you frequently encounter snow and ice in the winter?
  • Do you often need to drive up to higher altitudes?
  • Does your area get a lot of rain?
  • Do you frequently drive on gravel or dirt roads?

If the answer to those questions is no, you probably don’t need all-wheel-drive. If you answered yes to one or two questions, you should consider it. If all those conditions apply, then it’s smart to choose AWD.

Remember this: If you don’t need AWD, there’s very little reason to spend the extra money. If you do need it, you’ll be glad you spent the money to have it.

Good Reasons to Choose AWD Or FWD

To close, let’s look at the best reasons to choose AWD or FWD. You know enough to make the best decision for your needs at this point.

All-wheel-drive:

  • Improved traction on ice and snow.
  • Easier resale and better resale value.
  • More capable off-pavement.

Front-wheel-drive:

  • Less expensive to buy
  • Better fuel economy
  • Lower insurance premiums
  • Winter tires make a big difference

Modern vehicles have never been better, especially when it comes to safety and all-season traction. When choosing AWD vs. FWD, there are good options from every manufacturer and at virtually every price point. Today’s selection of new vehicles makes it easy to choose the right car, truck, or SUV to meet your needs. Once you have all the information, you can choose the best vehicle for your family.

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FWD vs. AWD (A Simple and Full Explanation)
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FWD vs. AWD (A Simple and Full Explanation)
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FWD vs. AWD is a great question to ask when considering a new vehicle. We'll explain how your choice can affect the safety, performance, and mpg of any car.
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Jeff Zurschmeide has been covering the automotive industry for more than 15 years as a writer, editor, and photographer. His work has appeared in numerous newspapers, magazines, and websites, and he has written nine books on automotive topics. Because cars cost money, Jeff is also a keen student of personal finance. In fact, he went to graduate school for an MBA degree just to understand how the auto and finance industries work. Jeff makes his home in Tillamook, Oregon.

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