The difference between FWD, RWD & AWD

When talking about cars, one of the most striking differences comes in the form of their configuration. Whether front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, each car configuration has its advantages and disadvantages. Some claim the amount of extra traction offered by all-wheel drive cars makes them the best while others argue that rear-wheel drive makes for the most fun. The truth is none of them is ‘better’ than the others. It’s all about gaining the best advantage for the market the company is trying to target. Each configuration brings a change to the driving style used as well.

Front-wheel drive (FWD)

BMW 1 series
Since 2004, BMW made the 1 Series a RWD car though that will change with the launch of the next generation in 2017 (Image source: BMW Press Site)

Most smaller cars (read family hatchbacks and sedans) are built as front wheel drive cars. The reason being they are cheaper to build, take up the least amount of space, and weigh the least. With the engine in the front of these cars, it is logical to have power to the front wheels.

An exception to this was the BMW 1 Series. It was the only hatchback with a rear-wheel drive configuration though that is no longer the case. The next generation 1 Series will share its front-wheel drive platform with the MINI Clubman. This will liberate space in the rear (lack of a transmission tunnel to the rear-wheels) and will bring costs down significantly for the manufacturer (and maybe for the consumer).

Rear-wheel drive (RWD)

Mazda MX5 At Goodwood. 21st - 22nd June 2015.  Photo: Drew Gibson
Mazda’s MX-5 has been known to be a driver’s car since its inception in 1989 thanks to its front-engine RWD layout (Image source: Mazda UK)

Rear-wheel drive cars have a reputation for being sportier and more fun to drive. Look at rave reviews for BMW’s 3 Series (especially the older E46 and E92 M3s) or Mazda’s MX-5 for proof. From a mechanical stand point this makes sense. Having the front wheels do the turning while the rear wheels put power to the tarmac creates a division of labour and aids handling. Unlike FWD cars, torque steer, the phenomenon where acceleration affects the cars’ steering does not occur making them slightly safer to drive in that respect.

On the other hand, RWD cars have a propensity to oversteer causing car to spin out of control. Drifting depends on oversteer, looks cool and makes for a good show but controlling oversteer is a skill set one develops over time and practise.

Most cars with this configuration are front engined and rear-wheel driven, resulting in a more even weight distribution and improving the balance. However, FWD cars do have an advantage (besides being more economical to build) over RWDs, especially in slippery situations as there is more weight on the wheels that require traction.

All-wheel drive (AWD)

Blue_Subaru_Impreza_WRX_-_001
The Subaru Impreza’s AWD system has earned it a name in rallying (Image source: Creative Commons)

This configuration of sending power to all four wheels provides the best traction and combines the best of both, FWD and RWD. However, it is usually quite bulky, taking up space and adding a significant amount of weight to a car. In addition, it is definitely more expensive to install. The extra weight could affect a car’s handling, stopping distance, and fuel efficiency.

The video below succinctly demonstrates driving styles change based on the configuration. You can see how the AWD cars turn in a more stable manner, how FWD cars follow a similar track, and how the lone RWD BMW powerslides through the whole thing.

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