Edited photo courtesy of William Warby via Flickr under CC 2.0

New and used car buyers have been debating the advantages and disadvantages between FWD versus RWD (rear-wheel-drive versus front-wheel-drive) for decades. Most vehicles, including cars, crossovers, SUVs, and pickups, offer one of these two types of drivetrain systems and each has its benefits.

Although front-wheel drive cars first became available in the 1920s, they didn’t really hit the mainstream until the late 1960s with the introduction of the Oldsmobile Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado. Still, most cars were powered by their rear wheels until the early 1980s.

Most of the industry moved toward front-wheel drive designs after the influx and immediate popularity of small fuel efficient FWD Japanese cars in the 1970s, like the first Honda Civic, Honda Accord and Toyota models. FWD has been more popular than RWD ever since as it’s the drivetrain system that powers most modern model types, including most sedans, hatchbacks, and crossovers.

All-wheel drive is the third drivetrain option for consumers buying new or used vehicles. And AWD has gained popularity over the last two decades as the sales of crossovers and SUVs have increased. Then there’s on demand four-wheel drive or 4WD, which can be found in some SUVs, but is most common in pickup trucks like the Ford F-150.

But which is best for you, FWD or RWD? Does rear-wheel drive or front-wheel drive offer better traction and safety in the types of conditions and on the types of road you most often drive? Here, we’ll answer these important questions along with these nine:

Is RWD or FWD better?

For most vehicle buyers most of the time, front-wheel drive is the way to go. Although rear-wheel drive has its benefits when it comes to ultimate performance potential, the benefits and advantages of front-wheel drive are considerable, which explains its extreme popularity with both car manufacturers and consumers.

Here’s a list of the benefits of front-wheel drive over rear-wheel drive:

  1. Front-wheel drive is usually cheaper to manufacture, which lowers the price of the auto.
  2. Front-wheel drive keeps the car’s entire drivetrain system under the hood, including its transmission, which allows for an increase in interior space for the driver and passengers.
  3. Front-wheel drive vehicles provide better traction in winter and slippery conditions, making them easier to steer.
  4. Front-wheel drive is usually more efficient than rear-wheel drive, increasing fuel economy.
  5. Front-wheel drive vehicles are usually easier to drive in turns. They usually don’t “fishtail” like a rear-drive car might on twisty roads and they are less likely for a driver to lose control and skid off the road.

Do RWD of FWD cars handle better?

Most performance drivers and car enthusiasts prefer rear-wheel drive over front-wheel drive. This is because RWD cars often handle better than FWD models. This is also one of the reasons most sports cars, sports sedans and muscle cars are rear-wheel drive. It’s also the reason some manufacturers like BMW and Mercedes-Benz offer more rear-wheel drive models.

This is not to say front-wheel drive cars and SUVs don’t handle well. And there are many high-performance front-wheel drive models like the Volkswagen Golf GTI, which are very fun-to-drive. But front-wheel drive models aren’t as well balanced as a rear-wheel drive vehicles so their tires usually don’t have as much traction in turns.

Golf GTI Driving on country road

With rear-wheel drive, more of the vehicles drivetrain components are in the middle or rear of the car. This puts more of the vehicle’s weight over the cars rear wheels, so the weight is more evenly distributed over the cars four wheels and tires, so they share the load more evenly. This takes some of the weight off the cars front tires.

In a front-wheel drive car the front tires also have to steer as well as deliver the engine’s power and torque to the road. That’s a lot of work and it can be overwhelming for the front tires, causing them to lose traction sooner.

With rear wheel drive, that work is more evenly distributed and the front and rear tires share the work. They work as a team. The front tires steer, while the rear tires get the power of the engine to the road.

The result is usually a car with more ultimate traction on the road and vehicle that can turn at higher speeds with greater safety and offer its driver more handling performance. As a result, many of the best handling cars in the world, including the Chevy Corvette, BMW M3, and most Ferraris are rear-wheel drive.

Recently, however, many modern high performance sports cars and sports sedans, like the BMW M5, have made the switch to all-wheel drive. Although an AWD system adds weight to a vehicle, it allows the cars four wheels to share the work of accelerating the vehicle, which improves overall traction and allows the auto to ultimately handle better.

Some modern all-wheel drive systems, like the one in the BMW M5, even offer the driver a rear-wheel drive mode. With the push of a button the drivetrain switches from AWD to RWD, which can sacrifice some traction and handling, but it can also make the car more fun-to-drive for a skilled and talented high-performance driver.

Is RWD or FWD better for acceleration?

Rear-wheel drive is better than front-wheel drive for ultimate acceleration. This is because of the increased weight over the car’s drive wheels, its rear tires. That weight pushes the vehicles’ tires into the road, increasing traction and their ability to push the car down the road.

Just as your body weight is pushed back into the seat when the car takes off, that weight on the rear tires also increases when you hit the gas pedal. This pushes down on the tires even harder as the cars weight is also transferred to the rear of the vehicle, which increases pressure on the tires and increases traction.

This is also the case when a front-wheel drive car accelerates. However, a front-wheel drive system doesn’t push a car down the road, it pulls it along. Hit the gas and the weight transfer pushes down it its rear tires while simultaneously taking weight off the vehicle’s front tires, essentially trying to lift them off the road.

That weight transfer decreases the traction of its front tires, causing wheel spin and putting less of the engine’s torque to the road. Less traction always results in slower acceleration.

Now you know why the quickest accelerating racecars in the world are rear-wheel drive. This is also a big reason why most powerful modern muscle cars available, like the Dodge Challenger Hellcat and the new Ford Shelby Mustang GT500, are also rear wheel drive.

Is RWD or FWD better for towing?

Almost all pickup trucks and large SUVs are rear-wheel drive because RWD is better for towing than front-wheel drive. And the reason for this is also weight distribution.

F-Series Super duty towing trailer through woods

When you hitch a heavy trailer to the back of a vehicle, that weight pushes the rear of that car or truck to the road. This increases the weight over its rear tires and decreased the mass over its front tires. The result is increased rear tire traction and decreased front tire traction.

Hit the gas pedal and that weight transfer exaggerates that balance, and a front-wheel drive tow vehicle may have trouble gripping the road surface and pulling the heavy load down the road. This is why big rigs are rear-wheel drive.

Is RWD or FWD better in rain?

In slippery road conditions like rain, front-wheel drive offers drivers a considerable advantage over cars with rear-wheel drive systems. Ultimately FWD cars offer their drivers more control and additional safety on slick roads.

Here are three reasons why FWD is better than RWD in the rain:

  1. If you push on the gas pedal too hard in a rear-wheel drive car it will spin its rear tires. This may cause it to fish tail and possibly spin out. This is true in dry conditions, but it’s especially a potential hazard when it’s raining and the roads are slippery.
  2. Overpowering the available traction in a front-wheel drive car, however, is much less dramatic. Although the front tires may spin, the rear of the car won’t swing around or oscillate from side to side, which can be very hard to control. For examples of rear wheel drive cars spinning out in this dramatic fashion, watch some videos online. They’re not hard to find.
  3. Since the engine and transmission are the single heaviest part of any car, front-wheel drive vehicles have the majority of their weight in the front. This weight pushes down on its front tires and improves traction when driving in rain, providing a secure feel on the road and additional stability once up to speed.

Is RWD or FWD better in snow?

Just as front-wheel drive vehicle are generally safer and easier to drive in the rain, they are significantly better in the snow than rear-wheel drive cars. This is one of the reasons front-wheel drive cars first gained popularity in states with harsh winters.

BMW Drifting in snow
Photo courtesy of Kārlis Dāmbrans via Flickr under CC 2.0

With the extreme weight of the engine and transmission pushing its front tires down into the road, the traction of a front-wheel drive car is better in slick snow. Often slippery conditions easily handled by a front-wheel drive model would render a rear-wheel drive car stuck where it sits.

The additional stability provided by FWD is also a huge benefit to drivers in snow. Just as in rainy conditions, pushing on the gas pedal too hard in a rear-wheel drive car can cause its rear tires to spin. With slick snow and ice on the road, this may cause it to fish tail and possibly spin out, even at very low speeds. A front-wheel drive car will be much more stable and easy to handle regardless of weather conditions.

How can you tell if a car is RWD or FWD?

There are three easy ways to tell if a car is rear-wheel drive or front-wheel drive.

  1. Read the owner’s manual. It will tell you if the vehicle’s engine powers its front wheels or rear wheels.
  2. Open the hood. If the engine is turned sideways it’s definitely a front-wheel drive car. If the engine is mounted traditionally, with the engine’s fan belt behind the grille, it’s rear-wheel drive.
  3. Check under the car. If there isn’t a driveshaft running under the center of the car connecting the back of the transmission to a rear differential, it’s FWD. If there is a driveshaft, it’s RWD.

All-wheel drive models, like many built by Audi and Subaru, are a bit more complex to identify as their engines can be mounted sideways or in the traditional manner. Like a rear-wheel drive car, a vehicle with AWD will have a long driveshaft. In this case it’s best to read the owners manual to confirm your suspicions.

A 4WD pickup or SUV will have a lever, button or knob in its interior that will engage its four-wheel drive system. When in two-wheel drive mode these vehicles are almost always rear-wheel drive.

RWD or FWD for drifting?

When it comes to drifting, buying a rear-wheel drive car is really your only option. Rear-wheel drive is to drifting as the pigskin is to football, you kinda need it to play.

Drifting is the sport of sliding a car sideways on purpose. Some call it powersliding. It’s like doing a burnout, with smoke pouring off the cars rear tires, like your buddies did in high school, only drifting isn’t in a straight line, it’s around turns, and often at high rates of speed.

To drift properly you really need a rear-wheel drive car so you can spin its rear tires through the turn, sliding the car sideways, while you balance the drift with the correct amounts of throttle and countersteer. It’s an extreme exercise in car control and it isn’t quite possible with front-wheel drive.

All professional drifters use rear-wheel drive cars, and they go through a lot of tires. A skilled drifter can burn through a new set of rear tires after just couple of miles.

The FWD vs. RWD (rear-wheel-drive versus front-wheel-drive) debate is sure to continue, as each system has its advantages and disadvantages. Before buying a new or used car, it’s important to know if its RWD, FWD, or AWD. Be sure to choose the system that’s best for your lifestyle and common driving conditions.

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RWD vs. FWD: Which is Right for You?
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RWD vs. FWD: Which is Right for You?
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FWD vs. RWD is the question to ask when you're interested in a car's performance, but we also break down how it affects safety, interior space, and towing.
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Scott Oldham is an award winning automotive journalist with over 25 years of experience. Based in Los Angeles, Scott has written for Car and Driver, Autoweek, Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds.com, Popular Mechanics and Autoblog. Scott is also a former President of the Motor Press Guild and is currently on the jury of the prestigious North American Car and Truck of the Year Award. He can be found on Twitter: @RealScottOldham

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