FWD vs AWD: What’s the Difference & What’s Right For You?

By Kijiji Autos
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The main difference between FWD and AWD vehicles is the number of wheels their engines are able to send power to. FWD vehicles send power to the front wheels alone, while AWD vehicles are capable of powering all four wheels. Each layout has its pros and cons. This article will tell you everything you need to know about FWD vs. AWD and help you decide which is right for you.

Front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive present drivers with a range of pros and cons particular to each drivetrain setup. Front-wheel drive vehicles tend to cost less than all-wheel drive ones and have more spacious interiors, while all-wheel drive vehicles give better traction in difficult driving conditions and can, in certain cases, cost less to insure because of their perceived added safety.

Whether you should choose a FWD or AWD vehicle depends on a number of factors like where and how you drive, your maintenance budget, how much value you place on handling and more. This article will examine all the scenarios where FWD and AWD shine and discuss the scenarios where you'd be better off with one over another to help you make an informed choice on which setup is right for you.

What is FWD?

FWD is front-wheel drive, a powertrain setup that sends the engine's power to the vehicle's front wheels alone. Front-wheel drive layouts appeared in automobiles during the early 1900s and gained popularity for their simplicity relative to rear-wheel drive setups. In a front-wheel drive vehicle, the engine and transmission are both located in the front of the vehicle.

This means that the car is essentially pulling itself along the road, and the weight of the engine/transmission combination being located over the driven wheels gives better traction in slippery conditions than is found in rear-wheel drive vehicles.

Front-wheel drive vehicles have all of their complex mechanical parts at one end and are therefore less expensive to manufacture with the savings being passed on to the buyer. The majority of economy cars feature front-wheel drive layouts.

What is AWD?

AWD, or all-wheel drive, is a powertrain layout that sends the engine's power to all four wheels. All-wheel drive vehicles usually, but not always in the case of high-performance sports cars, have their engines located in the front of the vehicle. Differentials located in the front, centre and rear of the vehicle send power to each of the four wheels as appropriate.

There are two main types of all-wheel drive systems. Permanent or full-time all-wheel drive as found in Subaru vehicles sends power to all four wheels at all times, while part-time all-wheel drive sends power to the front or rear axle alone in most driving conditions but has the ability to power all four wheels as needed when the system detects a loss of traction when driving on slippery or snowy roads.

Pros of FWD Vehicles

Benefits of front-wheel drive vehicles include lower purchase cost, greater interior space, good traction, lower maintenance costs and better fuel economy than other powertrain layouts.

Lower purchase cost

Thanks to the compact nature of a front-wheel drive powertrain manufacturing costs are generally lower for these types of vehicles. Save for brakes and suspension components, the majority of a front-wheel drive vehicle's major mechanical components are bundled into one compact package which is easier and quicker to install in the factory. This lowers the cost to the manufacturer and the savings get passed on to the consumer.

Greater interior space

Again, thanks to the compact nature of front-wheel drive powertrains these types of vehicles provide extra interior space for their occupants. Rear- and all-wheel drive vehicles must make room for transmission tunnels, differentials and rear driveshafts which all encroach up into the cabin space due to the need for them to be tucked up under the vehicle for aerodynamic reasons. Front-wheel drive vehicles can also have lower trunk floors as there are fewer mechanical components at the rear of the vehicle.

Good traction

With their engines and transmissions located in the front of the car over the driven wheels, front-wheel drive vehicles have good weight distribution for traction on hills and in slippery conditions. The weight of the engine and transmission pushes the wheels down into the road and gives them a better grip than rear-wheel drive rivals who have relatively lower weights on their driven axle.

Lower maintenance costs

Front-wheel drive vehicles generally cost less to maintain than all-wheel drive versions because only one end of the car has to deal with putting power down to the road. The front tires on FWD cars tend to wear faster than the rear tires, which allows drivers to rotate tires each season to maximize their service life. Front-wheel drive vehicles are mechanically simpler than rear- and all-wheel drive vehicles, and this translates into lower operating and maintenance costs because there are fewer parts to wear out and need replacing.

Better fuel economy

Front-wheel drive cars generally give better fuel economy than other powertrain setups thanks to the lighter weight that comes with having fewer mechanical components. Additionally, powering fewer wheels reduces fuel consumption, as does the fact that the engine's power doesn't have to travel far to do its job. Front-wheel drive cars are generally the most fuel-efficient non-electric vehicles on the market.

Cons of FWD vehicles

Drawbacks of front-wheel drive vehicles include lower towing capacity than other powertrain layouts, greater wear for CV joints/boots and more difficult handling than other setups in certain circumstances.

Lower towing capacity

Due to their focus on fuel economy and efficiency, front-wheel drive vehicles tend not to have the grunt and strength in their transmissions that are found in larger and heavier vehicles with all-wheel drive. As a result, they come with lower tow capacity ratings which limits their utility as towing vehicles.

CV joint/boot wear

CV joints, also known as constant velocity joints, allow the driveshafts in a front-wheel drive car to turn as the wheels travel up and down through the suspension's range of movement. The engine remains in one place while the wheels rise and fall with bumps in the road and cornering forces and these joints allow the driveshafts to move without binding. CV joints can wear out over time, as can the rubber boots which surround them to keep them free of dirt and dust that would impede their operation.

Worn CV joints and boots need to be replaced to keep a front-wheel drive vehicle operating as intended. All-wheel drive vehicles also use CV joints, and while they tend to wear less quickly than ones in FWD vehicles they must still be kept in good condition.

More difficult handling

Front-wheel drive powertrains produce a number of handling quirks that can make them more of a handful than all-wheel drive vehicles. A FWD vehicle's wheels are tasked with moving the car along and steering it which can sometimes cause conflicts between the two. Under hard acceleration, front-wheel drive vehicles can experience something known as "torque steer" where the engine's power acting on the front wheels causes the vehicle to veer to the left or right.

Front-wheel drive cars also have more of a tendency to understeer than other layouts, as the majority of the vehicle's weight is located in its nose which can make it reluctant to turn into a corner as its mass wants to keep travelling ahead in a straight line. Finally, in extremely spirited driving, front-wheel drive vehicles may experience a phenomenon known as "snap oversteer" where the lower weight on the rear axle can cause the car to rotate around the weight in the nose. Modern front-wheel drive vehicles have suspensions set up to minimize the risk of understeer and oversteer, but they are still worth mentioning.

Pros of AWD Vehicles

Benefits of an all-wheel drive vehicle include better, more controlled acceleration in slippery conditions, increased stability and better control during spirited driving.

More controlled acceleration

With the engine's torque being sent to all four wheels, AWD vehicles tend to be better at getting moving in dry conditions as well as when the roads become slippery and wet or covered with snow and ice. All-wheel drive can be thought of as having the potential for double the grip of front-wheel drive setups and can provide more controlled acceleration with greatly reduced wheelspin. With power sent to each wheel as needed, all-wheel drive cars are less likely to slide around or fishtail under acceleration.

Increased stability

Cornering stability is another area where all-wheel drive shines thanks to its more even weight distribution and the fact that all four wheels are active in travelling around a bend. Where a front-wheel drive vehicle's rear wheels are more like passengers travelling along behind the fronts, modern all-wheel drive vehicles are able to vary the torque sent to each wheel to maximize grip and stability when cornering and accelerating.

Better control

Following on from this, all-wheel drive provides better control and gives the driver more ability to put the engine's power down through the wheels, as evidenced by high-performance all-wheel drive cars like the Audi R8Lamborghini Aventador and most recent generation of the Ford Focus RS. These vehicles' all-wheel drive systems give them a better launch off the line and allow their drivers increased confidence through the corners.

Cons of AWD Vehicles

Drawbacks of all-wheel drive vehicles include a higher purchase price, lower fuel economy, greater operating costs and a false sense of security that driver's sometimes feel which can lead to excursions into a snowy ditch.

Higher purchase price

All-wheel drive versions of vehicles can cost thousands of dollars more than two-wheel drive versions of the same car thanks to the extra mechanical components and control software that they feature. All-wheel drive vehicles are more costly to manufacture than front-wheel drive layouts and therefore command a higher asking price.

Lower fuel economy

Powering four wheels as opposed to two generally increases fuel consumption thanks to the extra energy required to operate these more complex drivetrains, however, this has become less prevalent in recent years thanks to more sophisticated control software.

Greater operating costs

More mechanical parts mean that there's more to keep in good running order and this causes all-wheel drive vehicles to have higher running costs than their front-wheel drive counterparts. AWD vehicles tend to wear their tires out more quickly than front-wheel drive cars.

False sense of security

While AWD cars certainly accelerate better and are more stable in slippery conditions, they can sometimes create a false sense of security in drivers. A front-wheel drive vehicle with winter tires will always handle a snowstorm better than an all-wheel drive one on all-seasons, and when you get two tons of metal moving at speed on an icy road you need to give yourself plenty of room to slow down again.

When should you choose FWD over AWD?

A front-wheel drive vehicle would likely be best for you if you generally drive in pleasant conditions on mostly flat roads. Rain and light snow are easy to tackle in a front-wheel drive car.

When should you choose AWD over FWD?

If you frequently drive in heavy snow or live in a mountainous region where you're sometimes required to head off-road an all-wheel drive vehicle may be the best fit for your needs.

AWD vs FWD Insurance: Which has cheaper insurance?

Generally speaking, all-wheel drive cars cost more than front-wheel drive ones to insure because of their higher cost and mechanical complexity. The insurance company considers how much it would cost them to replace a wrecked car, so premium vehicles generally command higher premiums than FWD economy vehicles. This is not always the case, however, as your insurance company may see the all-wheel drive layout as an extra safety system. Insurance premiums are also affected by factors such as your location, age, profession and accident history.

FWD cars in the snow

Front-wheel drive cars tend to handle light snow well because of their engine's weight providing traction to the front wheels.

Advantages of driving FWD cars in the snow

Benefits of a FWD layout in snow include good traction from the weight of the engine and transmission and a lower likelihood of oversteering causing a spin.

Disadvantages of driving FWD cars in the snow

Drawbacks include the front wheels being tasked with propulsion and steering sometimes leading to torque steer, less balanced weight distribution and less sure-footed acceleration.

AWD cars in the snow

All-wheel drive vehicles are better equipped to deal with heavy snow than front-wheel drive ones thanks to power being sent to all four wheels.

Advantages of driving AWD cars in the snow

Benefits of driving an all-wheel drive vehicle in snow include better acceleration and often a higher ground clearance which helps prevent you from getting stuck.

Disadvantages of driving AWD cars in the snow

One drawback of AWD cars in heavy snow is that drivers feel too safe and try to enter corners too quickly or don't leave enough room to slow down.

How to choose between FWD and AWD

In most cases, FWD will serve you perfectly well, but if you live in a region with frequent heavy snowfalls and rain you may be better off with the extra stability provided by an all-wheel drive layout. Kijiji Autos has thousands of examples of both powertrains. Start your search today.

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