Breaking down different drive types: what’s best for you?

As cars advance further and further into the future, the litany of features that they’re offered with gets increasingly confusing. However, one of the things that has stayed the same for decades (thankfully!) is drive type options, as there’s only so much you can do with four wheels.

The different drive type options are: All-Wheel-Drive (AWD), 4-wheel drive (4WD), Rear-Wheel-Drive (RWD), and Front-Wheel Drive (FWD). Each of these options offers different performance advantages and disadvantages in different situations, and this article will cover all of those things and more. 

How Does Drive Type Change the Way a Car Drives?

A 4-wheel drive system

The drive type of a car does have a substantial impact on the way that the car drives, but in many cases, this impact is smaller than many people may think—and there are other things at play that have just as big if not a bigger impact on handling. We’ll touch on that later though; for now let’s go over the effects that drive types really do have, as well as the magnitude of those effects (the latter being the one that is often over-stated). There are five main things that drive type will affect on a car: 

  • Straight Line Traction
  • Handling Characteristics
  • Wet/Snowy Road Performance
  • Everyday performance/safety
  • Efficiency

Additionally, the drive type will often affect cost… but that’s not quite a performance characteristic. Just know that in most cases, the more driven wheels, the higher the cost, assuming all other things are equal. 

The above five things are directly impacted by drive type, so let’s now briefly go over the differences between each drive type, as well as which drive type is preferable in each situation.  Finally, we’ll discuss why the effects of drive type are often over-stated or assumed to be greater than they really are. 

Differences Between Each Drive Type

The general differences between each drive type are pretty easy to gather simply by their name, but to be extra clear what each one means, we’ll go over them all briefly right now.

Rear-Wheel Drive: RWD cars send the engine’s power to the rear wheels and the rear wheels only. This means that the two back tires, on their own, are responsible for generating forward traction and for putting as much of the engine’s power down to the road as they can. For normal cars, this is no problem, but for higher horsepower cars, RWD can pose a traction issue. If you’re trying to drift or do a burnout, this is great! But if you’re just trying to pull away from a stoplight with some gusto, RWD might not do the trick if your car has a substantial amount of power. 

Front-Wheel Drive: FWD is like the opposite of RWD: all of the engine’s power goes to the front wheels only. This means that the front wheels are responsible not only for steering, but for power application too—which makes FWD a poor choice for a car that is supposed to handle well.

All-Wheel Drive: AWD cars send the engine’s power to all four wheels all the time. There are some AWD systems that will let you choose a RWD mode, like the new BMW M5’s, but this is quite a rare option. AWD cars generally split the power between the front and back wheels somewhat evenly, but this split largely depends on the car’s goals as well as the manufacturer. Performance cars generally have a RWD bias, and lower-tier AWD systems, or systems that are based on a FWD platform, will favor FWD. 

4-Wheel Drive: 4WD is almost exclusively found on trucks and SUVs. 4WD systems are RWD by default, but give the user the option of selecting a 4WD mode when needed, such as when stuck in snow or mud. Many 4WD vehicles will have a 4-low and 4-high option, allowing you to choose whatever gearing is needed for the situation at hand. 

What Drive Type is Better in What Situations? 

Different drive types will perform very differently in a straight line.

Now that we’ve described what the difference between each drive type is, we can go over which drive type is more effective in each of the areas that we discussed above: straight line traction, handling characteristics, wet/snowy performance, everyday performance/safety and efficiency. 

Straight line performance winner: AWD

Quite simply, AWD is king when it comes to straight line performance. This is because AWD cars will struggle much less with putting the engine’s power down to the ground to generate forward motion, as they are able to use all four wheels rather than just two. This means that—assuming all tires are the same width—they have double the amount of contact with the road to work with. Because of this, they can generate far more traction than a RWD car, assuming that power and tire type are equal. This means less wheelspin and more forward motion. However, one downside to AWD cars is that they are heavier than 2WD cars. This means that their traction advantage from a dead stop is almost negated by a weight disadvantage when moving. However, we’re nearing a racing physics discussion, and that is not what this article is for! So let’s end by saying that, for most people and in most situations, AWD is best for straight line traction.

Handling characteristics winner: RWD

RWD cars offer the most balanced handling out of any drive type, plain and simple. This is why almost all modern high-performance cars are RWD. RWD cars are lighter and more balanced which gives them preferable handling characteristics. More specifically, RWD cars will, in most cases, oversteer when the driver reaches the car’s limits. This means that the rear of the car will start to slide. This is not only fun, but quicker around a track than understeer, which is what a FWD car will do at its limits. AWD cars can do funny things at their limits, and what they do largely depends on the type of AWD system. Regardless, RWD is the most dynamic when it comes to handling, so it is the winner in this category. 

Wet/snowy road performance winner: AWD/4WD

4WD/AWD rule the day when it comes to snow and ice.

This category is actually a tie between AWD and 4WD, as they behave basically the same, assuming that the 4WD system is actually in 4WD mode. These two are best when driving on slick roads because they can use the contact patches of all four tires in order to generate traction, rather than just two wheels.

Everyday performance/safety winner: AWD

AWD is the best for everyday performance, as it is the most adaptable and thus suitable in all situations. At the risk of sounding repetitive, this is again because AWD cars have four wheels’ worth of traction to work with, rather than just two. This means that if you’re caught in a rainstorm, or need to make a quick change in direction, the AWD car will be better suited to handle these situations. While 4WD can do the same, it has to be manually activated—something you won’t have time to do when you notice an object in the road at 50mph and have to quickly swerve to avoid it. If you were to make a move like this in a FWD car, you may understeer and still hit it, and a RWD car may spin out, whereas an AWD car will be able to handle the sudden load change.

Efficiency: RWD/FWD

The two-wheel drive options are the most fuel-efficient, as well as the most efficient when it comes to actually transferring the engine’s power to the ground. This is because AWD or 4WD cars (assuming the 4WD is activated) need to use the engine’s power to spin twice the number of wheels as a 2WD car. This makes the engine work harder, and thus use slightly more fuel. Additionally, 2WD cars have more efficient drivetrains, in that the actual amount of horsepower the engine generates will be more completely transferred to the wheels in a 2WD car, as opposed to an AWD or 4WD car. This is because the latter have a transfer case that the power needs to be sent through, which means that it has to “travel” a longer distance, with some being lost along the way. Because of this, the actual power at the wheels can be up to 5% greater in a 2WD car as opposed to a 4WD/AWD car.

The Caveat: How Big are these Differences Really? 

This may surprise you, but there is one thing even more important to all of the above categories than drive type: TIRES! If you know me, you know that I’m almost as much of a tire enthusiast as I am a car enthusiast. This is because absolutely nothing will change the way that a car drives and performs as much as a high-quality set of tires. For example, even though AWD won the wet/snowy road performance category, a RWD car with good winter tires will outperform an AWD car with not-so-great all-seasons in snowy conditions. Additionally, a RWD car with high-performance summer tires—or if we want to be extreme, drag radials—will have just as good straight-line traction as an equally powered AWD car with all seasons. 

As you hopefully are able to gather by the above examples, tires are so important to the way that your car drives and performs, and this brief mention of tires only scratches the surface. So, if you want to learn more about tires (which you should), check out this article that breaks down the different types of tires available, as well as what each type of tire is best suited to do. And if you want to go even further, this article goes into things like tire ratings, and how to check your tires’ wear. 

Final Thoughts

In conclusion: drive type is an important thing to look for when shopping for a car, and should not be overlooked—certain drive types are definitely better than others in certain situations. However, many people overstate the importance of drive type while overlooking the true traction and handling hero: tires. So just know that the number of driven wheels on your car is important, but is not the be-all end-all of traction.

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