As a car accelerates, power is fed to the wheels via the transmission. This power can propel the front wheels, rear wheels, or all four at any one time.
With major differences between each setup, the best option depends on the driving conditions and type of vehicle an owner is looking for.
What is the difference between front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive?
Front-wheel drive cars deliver power to the front. The engine is mounted sideways under the hood meaning the transmission is mounted directly behind it and axles are fed power from the transmission through a driveshaft on each side.
Other configurations are possible including engines mounted in the rear or middle of the car to feed the front wheels or mounted lengthways in the engine bay. The main setup for design and cost purposes is a transversely mounted engine.
Until mass adoption in the mid 20th century, it was too complicated to engineer a front-wheel drive setup with transverse engines. Most famously, the original Mini was a transverse engine layout. This paved way for most affordable modern vehicles utilizing the front-wheel drive setup.
In rear-wheel drive cars, the engine powers the rear wheels. Driveshafts use a differential that redirects power from lengthways to sideways for front engine setups, or direct drive in rear engine setups.
Despite rear-wheel drive being the original format in cars, it is less common on road cars of today. Only performance and luxury cars utilize rear-wheel drive, along with some SUVs and pickups.
It is not part of a car’s option list to choose front or rear-wheel drive. Unlike transmission and engine or fuel choice, the cars underpinnings are set from the design stage to be either front or rear-wheel drive. There are some exceptions to the rule, as some SUVs have an all-wheel drive option available for more off-road capability.
5. Advantages of Front Wheel Drive:
A lot of modern vehicles use front-wheel drive, as it offers several advantages that help performance and lower costs.
1. Parts are typically smaller
To optimize efficiency and weight, cars in recent years have been designed to be as small as possible. The transmission and driveshafts are fitted to an engine and are in a compact form in front-wheel drive cars.
2. More economical
The compact design and fewer components mean a smaller more efficient engine can be used to power the car. This results in more savings in an owner’s pocket from fuel costs.
3. More rear passenger space
Without the need for a prop shaft to power the rear wheels, a front-wheel drive setup can offer a nearly flat floor in the rear cabin space. This allows more cargo space in the rear too.
4. Better stability when driving
This setup means the car is being pulled from the front where all the weight is, instead of the rear. Steering and acceleration are much smoother as a result.
5. Fewer parts
As there are fewer parts, it is cheaper to maintain a front-wheel drive car. Eliminating rear driveshafts, u-joints, and differentials improve reliability.
4 Disadvantages of Front-Wheel Drive
1. Weight distribution is not even
Uneven weight distribution causes less stability on roads. Vehicle design is optimal when the weight is divided 50-50 between front and rear. Front-wheel drive cars have less weight on the back which can cause handling problems on slippy surfaces.
2. Torque steering when accelerating heavy
Steering can be uncontrollable when the car jolts to one side and is potentially dangerous during hard acceleration.
3. Less acceleration ability
Because of the amount of work the front wheels have to do, both drive and steering can limit the acceleration of a car.
4. Less towing capacity
With a trailer added, the rear axle acts as a pivot, reducing front load on the wheels. Control is lost if too much weight is taken from the front, limiting the tow load.
5. Advantages of Rear-Wheel Drive
1. Improved weight distribution
With a rear-drive setup, a car is distributing its weight better when driving around corners or when accelerating.
2. Handle more power
The responsibilities are split, as the front wheels are focused on steering and the rear wheels are focused on driving. This allows the car to handle more power and torque.
3. No torque steer
As the rear wheels are fixed, there is no risk of them turning when accelerating due to the power being laid down.
4. Higher towing capacity
An increase in weight on the rear improves traction, unlike front-wheel drive setups.
5. Tires are longer lasting
As the division of duties are split between front and rear, the tires wear more slowly.
3 Disadvantages of Rear-Wheel Drive
1. Less fuel efficiency
With an increase in weight due to added components, a larger engine is needed to propel the car in a rear-drive setup. This results in more trips to the fuel station.
2. Loss of power due to complexity
The driveshaft and other mechanical components need to convert the engine’s power to the rear wheels. This causes a loss of up to 30% of the engine’s true power output.
A rear-drive car can push the rear out of line when driving on less grippy surfaces or accelerating too hard out of corners. This can make the car less safe and harder to control.
Examples of Front-Wheel Drive Cars
Everyday family sedans and hatchbacks have front-wheel drive setups, such as the Toyota Corolla, Ford Fusion, Hyundai Elantra and Honda Accord.
Examples of Rear-Wheel Drive Cars
More expensive sports cars such as the Dodge Challenger, BMW 5 Series, Toyota Supra and Mazda MX5 Miata have a rear-wheel-drive setup.
While price and efficiency favor front-wheel drive setups, driving performance favors rear-drive setups. It is increasingly rare to find a new rear-drive car on the market today as most consumers demand economy and fuel efficiency for everyday use.