All-Wheel Drive vs. Front-Wheel Drive: Which One is Best?

All-Wheel Drive vs. Front-Wheel Drive: Which One is Best?

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FWD, AWD, RWD, 4WD: If one didn’t know any better, it would be all too easy to mistake these terms for a bunch of millennial jargon that comes right out of the chatspeak dictionary along with LOL, OMG and BRB.

But just in case you were wondering, we’re here to inform you they’re not.

In this article we break down the meaning of FWD (front-wheel-drive), AWD (all-wheel-drive), RWD (rear-wheel-drive) and 4WD (4-wheel-drive), and we explain the functionality of each, too. 

Each has its pros and cons, and simply put, the most important factor in deciding which drivetrain option is right for you depends on the weather and quality and characteristics of the roads where you live.

So as you read on, it’s important to keep the answers to the following questions in mind:

Does it rain often where you live? What about snow and ice? Do you regularly drive on unpaved roads? Are you often traversing steep inclines or declines?

Whichever drivetrain you wind up choosing, you can be certain that Shift provides best-in-class service contracts at a fair price with no pressure to buy. That means you get the fantastic pricing and value of a used automobile with the new car's bumper-to-bumper protection.

What does FWD mean?

FWD stands for “front-wheel-drive.” FWD vehicles are propelled – be it forward or backward – by way of their front wheels only. The engine sends power to the front two wheels, thus moving the car either forward or backward. The rear wheels spin accordingly but receive no power from the front wheels.

The majority of vehicles on the road today are FWD and it's technology that has been in existence since the early years of automobiles, but it wasn't until after the 1970s that FWD vehicles became more commonplace.

Before the '70s, most cars were RWD.

What does RWD mean?

RWD stands for “rear-wheel-drive,” and just as the term sounds, it means the engine sends power only to the rear wheels of the vehicle to move it either forward or backward.

That's to say, RWD is essentially the opposite of FWD, as RWD vehicles are propelled from their rear wheels, leaving the front wheels to move freely and solely take care of steering.

Rear-wheel drivetrains provide more power to the vehicle in general, essentially pushing it forward rather than pulling it, as front-wheel drivetrains function. Because of this, rear-wheel drivetrains tend to be more common among sports and muscle cars, be it a classic or new-model Mustang, Corvette or Camaro, for example, as well as certain heavy-duty utility vehicles, too.

While RWD makes for an increased umpf factor as far as the vehicle’s speed is concerned, it also equates to significantly reduced traction. Especially when dealing with iffy road conditions like rain, ice or snow, RWD can make for majorly reduced handling. That, in turn, results in a lower safety rating for the vehicle in question, too.

What does AWD mean?

AWD stands for “all-wheel-drive.” All-wheel-drive vehicles distribute power to not just the front or rear wheels but to all four wheels to propel the vehicle in either direction.

Because all-wheel-drive was more difficult to deploy until recent years, AWD vehicles have historically been uncommon and more costly, too. But this drivetrain quickly became a popular alternative as automakers figured out how to make AWD technology more economical and dependable.

And these days, AWD vehicles usually maintain a higher resale value than FWD cars, too.

Some benefits that all-wheel-drive vehicles have over their FWD and RWD counterparts is that they provide better traction in general and they perform better when going off-road, too.

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What are the benefits of a vehicle with FWD?

Be it a car, truck or SUV, vehicles with front-wheel-drive offer several benefits when compared to their RWD and AWD counterparts.

Opting for a FWD vehicle instead of an AWD version will more than likely save you significant money, too, as AWD vehicles tend to be more costly than FWDs.

One thing to keep in mind is that most AWD vehicles – especially compact crossover SUVs – are also available with just front-wheel drive. That's why if you're shopping around for a vehicle and you find yourself on the fence about whether to go with a FWD or AWD model, it's important to think about what sort of driving situations you'll most likely encounter. If you won't be dealing with slippery roads or unpaved surfaces on a frequent basis, chances are a FWD vehicle will more than suffice.

Opting for a FWD vehicle instead of an AWD version will more than likely save you significant money, too, as AWD vehicles tend to be more costly than FWDs.

If you do decide to go the AWD route, keep in mind that the sticker price is often increased by thousands of dollars, insurance rates are usually higher and AWD vehicles in general are less fuel-efficient than FWD models.

Because the engine is situated above the active wheels, front-wheel-drive cars are also known to perform well in the snow, thanks to this additional weight that aids in the vehicle’s overall traction.

FWD vehicles are usually more fuel efficient, they handle better in a wider range of climatic situations, they're easier to service and they usually feature more interior room, too.

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Is AWD better than FWD?

For navigating on unpaved ground, all-wheel-drive is preferable. Driving on gravel, grass or any other soft surface causes your drive wheels to lose traction. All-wheel-drive systems are designed to increase the vehicle's grip on every type of terrain. Front-wheel-drive vehicles, on the other hand, perform admirably on mild off-road surfaces. A new FWD car or SUV will most likely handle a few miles of unpaved roads without any problem. But it's important to always remember that AWD isn't invincible. So to be on the safe side, it's best not to tempt fate if and when you come across a stretch of mud.

Typically, all-wheel-drive vehicles handle more superbly in wet conditions. All-wheel-drive vehicles are exceptionally good at sensing the slightest slipping of the wheels and quickly adapt. AWD assists in maintaining the car steady on slick pavement, and if and when the wheels start to slip, AWD immediately kicks in to help out.

In ice and snow, all-wheel-drive is normally preferable since it activates all four wheels to get you rolling and maintain you in motion. An all-wheel-drive car with traction and stability controls can safely manage most snow and ice conditions.

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What about 4WD?

Four-wheel-drive – or 4WD for short – is not to be confused with all-wheel-drive. Pickup vehicles and larger SUVs tend to have 4WD, while smaller SUVs and crossovers are equipped with AWD. The most significant distinction is that all-wheel-drive is always engaged and occurs automatically when the vehicle's computer detects the necessity for increased traction, usually based on road and weather conditions. To engage the AWD system, the driver does not have to do anything.

Generally speaking, 4WD is preferable for severe, heavy-duty off-roading, whereas AWD is best for optimizing performance all around but not necessarily off the pavement.

In icy and snowy road conditions, an AWD car or SUV is definitely preferable to a 4WD pickup or SUV.

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Shift Editorial Team