Front-wheel drive (FWD) versus rear-wheel drive (RWD) may be the most contentious automotive debate since Ford versus Chevy, or trucks versus cars.
The two technologies grew up on separate paths, and each has its own distinct advantages. If you’re in the market for a new vehicle, the most important question is, which one will work better for you? And beyond that, are there any disadvantages to either that should make you steer clear?
RWD fanboys insist that their cars corner better and can handle more horsepower. FWD has gained advocates for its superior traction in the snow.
Although differing, each viewpoint has unique merit and fundamental advantages.
Rear-Wheel Drive Advantages
RWD is as old as cars themselves. Early automotive technology made it difficult to reliably deliver power to wheels that could also turn. It was much cheaper to build cars with RWD.
When fans of RWD cars brag about their handling, they point out that each set of tires (front and rear) only has one task to perform with the limited amount of grip it can deliver. The rear wheels provide power, while the front wheels steer.
In theory, this gives the vehicle more grip in turns by evening out the demand on the tires. It assumes, however, that the driver wants to accelerate through the turn. RWD supporters also claim that powering the rear wheels gives drivers more ultimate control in corners, because as the tires begin to lose traction, the driver can effectively tighten the turn either by reducing or increasing throttle to induce a power slide. Race drivers sometimes employ this technique to bail themselves out of a jam if they’ve overcooked a corner. Just don’t try this in front of a police car on public roads!
Front-Wheel Drive Advantages
In the face of this argument, the advantages of FWD often get lost. Not only does it put the drive wheels under the weight of the engine, which improves traction in the snow, it also frees up lots of space inside the vehicle. Since most FWD cars use engines mounted crossways (transversely) under the hood, the transmission doesn’t stick back into passenger compartment space under the floor. They also don’t require such big drive-shaft tunnels inside to get power to the rear wheels. That allows FWD cars to be much smaller, more fuel-efficient, and have just as much room inside as bigger cars. With modern technology, it has also made FWD cars cheaper to build.
Because the front wheels both power and steer the vehicle, and because so much of the mechanical weight of the car is in front, FWD cars tend to push wide when you take turns too hard. When the front tires lose traction, the nose of the vehicle pushes outside of the turn, not into it. Even novice drivers can correct this intuitively, by lifting off the gas. Modern performance tires also greatly diminish this effect.
A car’s front-to-rear weight distribution and suspension design also make a bigger difference in whether a car understeers (pushes wide), or oversteers (begins to spin or starts a tail slide) than which wheels are powered. Plenty of FWD cars today will oversteer if the driver incites them to.
Safety Concerns Paramount
The most important thing to remember is that in emergency maneuvers, no type of handling can overcome the laws of physics. If the car is going to go off the road and crash, it is far safer for the car to go off the road frontwards than sideways.
Cars that slide sideways off the road are far more likely to roll over or flip. Even if it doesn’t, it’s much more dangerous to crash sideways, because there is much less space to protect passengers between the side and top of the car, as well as occupants’ heads, than there is in the front.
More advanced driving techniques that benefit RWD cars also require quite a bit of power – more power than most everyday, fuel-efficient cars can muster.
Which One Should You Choose?
The bottom line is that most cars work better with FWD. They’re cheaper, have more room, get better gas mileage, and are safer. For high-powered sports cars though, RWD still rules.
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Now that you've determined if a FWD car or RWD car is right for you, head on over to our new car rankings to explore specific vehicles, and discover which one suits your needs. You can learn more about FWD, RWD, and all-wheel drive (AWD) by reading our car buying advice blog. To drive away satisfied with your new car purchase, and save money and time, use our Best Price Program.