In 1886, Carl Benz patented his “vehicle powered by a gas engine” and it was out on the streets in July of that year. It was built with a rear-wheel drive, or RWD, meaning its engine and transmission were in the rear powering the rear wheels.
The RWD was the main drive layout in the U.S. until later in the 20th century. Since then the FWD, or front-wheel drive, has become the more popular choice. There’s also the AWD and 4WD for vehicles that need more power.
Let’s take a look FWD vs RWD vs AWD and 4WD and their differences in how they affect how your vehicle drives, behaves and handles.
Keep reading to learn the details of each layout option.
Then, you’ll be ready and informed when looking to purchase a new vehicle, sell an old vehicle or simply understanding the mechanics of each drive option and which works best for your personal or professional driving needs.
RWD, or rear-wheel drive, is the original engine and transmission layout when the first cars were built by Benz in Germany and Ford in the United States, like the Ford Model T. In the RWD system, the power is sent to the two rear wheels.
RWD was the main drive layout for cars until the 1930s when auto-maker Citroen in France started using FWD, or front-wheel drive, powering the front wheels instead.
RWD gives a huge bump of power to the vehicle but FWD is more fuel-efficient. RWD was the main drive system used in the states into the ’70s.
Today, it’s used mostly for high-performance sports cars and trucks that need a power blast.
When to Go With RWD
RWD, as mentioned, is great for sports cars and other high-performance vehicles and trucks because powering the back wheels gives you that power burst. It also balances your car’s weight so it’s even dispersed between the front and the back. This makes for great handling at high-performance speeds.
Rear-wheel drive also gives your car extra traction if you’re pulling a heavy load. This is helpful if you need to pull a trailer or boat, for example.
Do note that if you’re upgrading to a vehicle that you’re also going to use both for pulling loads and for everyday use, you may consider a four-wheel drive which allows you to switch back and forth between two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive, which powers both front and rear wheels at once. More on that below.
Also, be aware that if you’re not pulling a heavy load and you’re on icy or wet and slippery roads, there is less traction with the RWD than with other drives.
FWD, or front-wheel drive, powers the front two wheels instead of the rear wheels. This makes it very fuel efficient, which is great, especially for smaller street vehicles as well as SUVs and sedans.
Citroen brought FWD to the consumer but the original British Mini took it on by storm, using the FWD with a traverse engine.
Today, most everyday vehicles use FWD. It’s not as powerful but it’s efficient and enough for regular city and street driving, unless you live in snowy conditions.
FWD requires the front wheels to essentially push the car. They’re also responsible for steering and braking so there is a lot of wear and use on the front tires. With FWD, you want to be sure to get your tires serviced and rotated regularly for safety.
When to Go With FWD
Front-wheel drive is ideal if you use your car as basic transportation, like most people. Powering the front wheels means you need less fuel — a few gallons of gasoline less per mile — so you can enjoy cost savings while being able to drive safely and efficiently in the city and on the highway.
The AWD, or all-wheel drive, powers all four wheels at the same time. It’s used mostly on bigger cars that need more power, like bigger sedans, wagons, trucks or SUVs. It also has the ability to shift torque for individual wheels when needed, making it great for safety in snowy conditions and also when driving off-road.
It’s more pricey than the others but useful when dealing with rough weather conditions and varied off-road terrain.
When to Go With AWD
As mentioned, thanks to the ability of AWD to alter torque to individual wheels as needed, it’s great if you live in an area that gets snow as it helps in slippery conditions. It’s also great if you drive in the dirt or mud.
As soon as your vehicle senses that it’s slipping, the torque adjusts itself to the wheel that needs it to maintain stability and traction and help keep you safe.
Like AWD, four-wheel drive, or 4WD, also powers all four wheels at once. It also is able to power two wheels for two-wheel drive and then switch to four-wheel drive.
Drivers can use 2WD for street driving and switch to 4WD when they’re doing other driving that needs more power, stability and traction, like in the mountains or off-roading.
Many SUVs and most pick-up trucks come with 4WD.
When you’re in 2WD, you can simply push a button and all four wheels are engaged with power. You cannot, however, adjust the torque to an individual wheel like with AWD. Also, you only want to use the 4WD for extreme driving like off-roading because you can cause damage to the drivetrain if you drive on dry roads and highways in 4WD.
When to Go With Four-Wheel Drive
Four-wheel drive is great if you go off-roading or drive on extreme terrain. It’s also great in snowy conditions. Note that it doesn’t have as much traction as AWD however.
FWD vs RWD vs AWD
Now that you know the differences between FWD vs RWD vs AWD, you’re informed when it comes to understanding why different vehicles perform and handle so differently. And you’ll also know what to look for when purchasing a new vehicle or selling an old one.
If you’re looking to transport a new or old vehicle, you can keep reading our blog to find out about moving a car by transport and other handy guides on vehicle safety, care and education.