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Front-wheel, rear-wheel and all-wheel drive explained

Many cars drive from the front, some deliver their power through the rear and yet more have 4x4 capability. But which do you need?

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Many cars drive from the front, some deliver their power through the rear and yet more have 4×4 capability. But what does it all mean, and which do you need?

The growth of SUVs and crossovers in recent years has left thousands of motorists longing for a rugged car with four-wheel-drive capability. But many 4×4 lookalikes aren’t actually four-wheel drive at all and, even though they might look the part, many put their drive through only two wheels – front or rear.

And separately, there are plenty of road cars that offer four-wheel drive – also known as all-wheel drive – especially in sportier performance models.

There are advantages and disadvantages in all of these drive set-ups, so which one do you need? Are you a regular user of roads that leave the beaten track behind and head for the hills? Do you do a lot of towing? Are you a low-use town driver? Do you like the feel of total grip as you power through a corner on a fun Sunday morning blast?

Here we look at the various transmission offerings and set out each one’s case for you. Front, rear or all-round – the choice is yours…

You may also like: When is a 4×4 not a 4×4?

Front-wheel drive

Examples

Audi A5 Sportback

Audi A5 Sportback

Nissan Qashqai

Nissan Qashqai

Ford Fiesta (2017 to 2023)

Ford Fiesta (2017 to 2023)

For: In front-wheel drive (FWD) cars, all the power and transmission technology is fitted together at the front of the car. There are no extra components such as a drive shaft running the length of the vehicle (and therefore no intrusive transmission tunnel) so there’s less chance of something becoming noisy or going wrong.

Front-driven cars are common today and the technology appears in thousands of different models of all shapes and sizes. The compact nature of a front-drive setup keeps things simpler and generally more reliable. Fewer components mean less weight, which will save you money in terms of everyday running costs such as fuel use.

Many drivers prefer the predictability of a FWD car on the road, especially in snow and ice, where rear-wheel drive vehicles are more likely to slip and slide. With the weight of the engine being over the driven wheels of a front-wheel drive car, there’s likely to be more grip when the going gets slippy.

Against: Because the front wheels are having to do both the steering and the powering, there is a greater chance of understeer – where the front tyres start to lose grip in a corner. You could also experience oversteer, especially if you decelerate in the middle of a corner and the back of the car gets lighter as the weight shifts forward.

This could end up in the car spinning. Front tyres will also wear more quickly on a front-driven car as they are working harder, plus they are more likely to wheel spin during hard acceleration from standstill.

Do I need it? For most drivers, the convenience, extra space and versatility of a front wheel drive car is the decider. Easier, more predictable to drive and often more comfortable than a rear-wheel drive car, FWD will offer you, and thousands of other drivers, everything you need in a car.

Rear-wheel drive

Examples

Rolls-Royce Phantom

Rolls-Royce Phantom

BMW 3 Series

BMW 3 Series

Mazda MX-5

Mazda MX-5

For: Rear-wheel drive (RWD) cars are generally sportier or higher end vehicles. True sports machines such as Ferraris and Porsches will be rear-driven but, as their engines are usually at the rear too, the weight over the driven wheels will have the same effect as a front-engined, front-wheel drive car in terms of grip and handling.

Many standard saloon-type cars that have a sportier edge, such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz models, will feature front engines but rear drive. Hit a pothole in a rear-wheel drive car and you’re unlikely to do any damage to the drive and transmission as you might with a front-driven car.  

Enthusiastic drivers who like to get the best out of their cars on a winding road, can enjoy the rear-wheel drive experience which includes sharp cornering ability and the feeling that you’re being ‘pushed’ along the road rather than ‘pulled’. Hard acceleration is usually better too, as the weight shifts to the rear of the car as you pull away. Rear-wheel drive cars are better balanced as the weight of their components are spread out across the entire vehicle.

Against: Likely to be more expensive than a front-wheel drive equivalent because of the extra technology and components needed. When the weather gets bad you’re more likely to wheel spin or slide. Give the car too much throttle and you could easily start an out-of-control spin – in fact some drivers have perfected this and do impressive looking ‘doughnuts’. Rear tyres will wear quicker than on a FWD car.

Do I need it? Yes, if you enjoy performance, sport and a bit of driver input in your motoring. Rear-wheel drive cars are usually built as “driver’s cars” and can offer excitement, greater enjoyment and that little bit of exotica or luxury.

Four-wheel drive

Examples

Porsche 911

Porsche 911

Jeep Renegade

Jeep Renegade

Land Rover Defender

Land Rover Defender

For: As the name suggests, a four-wheel drive (4WD) car, often badged 4×4, has four driven wheels, each of them connected to the car’s transmission via a transfer case.

Modern 4x4s will evenly distribute power between the wheels in normal driving conditions, usually sending more of the power to the front wheels in normal, dry road conditions. When things start to get rough or slippery the system comes into its own and works harder to send power to the wheels that need it most as they slip and scrabble to find grip.

In harsh conditions, the system can be locked, which sends equal power to each wheel to ‘force’ the car forwards and out of trouble. Four-wheel drive cars are perfect for drivers who regularly use remote or poor quality roads or routes affected by bad weather.

However, it’s also employed in high-performance machinery such as a Porsche 911 Carrera 4S, where ultimate grip is essential. Having 4WD can be useful if towing heavy loads such as a large caravan.

Against: Four-wheel drive is typically found on more expensive higher-end vehicles and for good reason – there’s a lot of technology in there which has to be paid for.

There are some cheaper 4x4s – Fiat Panda, Dacia Duster or Suzuki Jimny for example – but 4WD is usually associated with more premium models. With all that technology comes extra weight and therefore higher motoring costs. There are more moving comments to fail and four wheel drive can increase tyre wear too.

Do I need it? – If you live on a farm, in a remote area or somewhere where the weather is more often bad than good, a 4WD car is worth considering. For some people, just knowing that they have four wheel drive capability, should they need it, is enough to sway them towards a 4×4 model. If your budget can stretch to that luxury, the peace of mind of a 4×4 is something worth having.

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Tom Johnston
Tom Johnstonhttp://johnstonmedia.com/
Tom Johnston was the first-ever reporter on national motoring magazine Auto Express. He went on to become that magazine’s News Editor and Assistant Editor, and has also been Motoring Correspondent for the Daily Star and contributor to the Daily and Sunday Express. Today, as a freelance writer, content creator and copy editor, Tom works with exciting and interesting websites and magazines on varied projects.