FWD and RWD – what are the differences?
Originally, all cars used their engine to drive their back wheels. That’s just the way it was. Then a trickle of front-wheel-drive (FWD) pioneers in the pre-war years grew into a stampede of FWD successes in the post-war glory days. Today, most cars drive their front wheels. So FWD. Surely you’d side with the majority if you had the choice, right? Well, it’s not that simple. Here’s what you need to consider when you’re looking for your next car.
You can’t always choose
Obviously, if you’re in the market for an SUV, 4WD or certain kind of performance car, you’ll be stepping into all-wheel-drive territory and this argument is redundant. But if you’re shopping for a small hatchback you’ll be obliged to go FWD – literally a single contender, BMW’s 1 Series, goes against the grain. Contrastingly, if you want a big-dollar FWD sports car you’ll need to build your own – rear-wheel-drive (RWD), plus a smattering of all-wheel-drives, is the rule.
FWD cars don’t need some of the bigger parts and more complex floor-pan pressings RWD cars do, such as tailshafts and transmission tunnels, so they physically require less material ( ie. money) to make. A FWD drivetrain is quicker to fit on the production line because it’s contained in a single, easy-to-handle unit. Less time equals less money again. This cost-efficiency is a big reason why the affordable end of the car spectrum is chained to the FWD layout.
This isn’t a traditional RWD strength because the transmission, tailshaft and other bulky parts all fight for space with occupants and luggage.
The now traditional transverse FWD layout, popularised by the inimitable Austin Mini of 1959, flips the drivetrain around from the north-south alignment of a RWD to east-west and contains it within a very compact space, just 20% of the length of the car in the case of the Mini.
So FWD not only delivers a bigger “box” for occupants and luggage space than an equivalent sized RWD set-up, but fewer space-eating intrusions. Along with cost, this is why FWD dominates the small-car domain.
Slinging a heavy load onto the back of the car shifts the weight away from the front wheels. Acceleration does the same. Throw in a steep, wet road or greasy boat ramp and you can see why a FWD is naturally less well-suited to the towing task than a RWD.
This is where RWDs win back points. Because the weight of their drivetrains isn’t concentrated in the front, they are naturally more balanced. As weight during acceleration shifts to their driving wheels, RWDs are better suited to transferring big power to the ground. And because the front wheels only have one job to do – steer – they serve up a more “pure” steering feel. This is why sports cars, luxury sedans and other cars designed to flatter the driver largely stick with RWD. But FWDs have their advantages. Their weight advantage makes them, all things equal, more efficient. Having more weight over the front end gives them superior traction to a RWD in really slippery or snowy driving. The characteristics of a FWD car in emergency manoeuvres are better suited to the average driver – it will typically push its nose wide at the limit and the natural human instinct to lift off the throttle tends to bring it into line. RWDs, contrastingly, tend to slide their tail, something that asks for steadier, more trained hands (and feet) to contain.
So which one for you?
Smaller, less complex parts means cars that offer FWD as an option are generally less expensive than their RWD stablemates. And if most of your driving is done on sealed roads and towing trailers and caravans is not your thing, then a FWD may be plenty of car for you.
Ultimately though, it might pay to get behind the wheel and put both through their paces, keeping in mind where on the road you spend most of your time and the conditions in which you drive.
Did you know…
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