Take it from a car-guy that owns an all-wheel drive vehicle and a rear-wheel drive vehicle, front wheel drive is most likely your best bet.
This buyers’ guide is for all those car shoppers out there who think they can get by with front-wheel drive (FWD), but who have been made to wonder from seeing car makers harp on the benefits of all-wheel drive (AWD). Yes, there are benefits to AWD, but they are limited. For the majority of people looking for a family vehicle, front-wheel drive is the way to go. Here’s why.
The advertisement above was run by Plymouth in 1979 to help educate American buyers about what was then considered new technology. Before WWII, Cord had produced some front-wheel drive (FWD) models and European cars were using it widely. GM had been developing front-wheel drive since the late 1950s and Ford, and other automakers were not far behind. However, Americans hadn’t been offered anything desirable with front-wheel drive until the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. The Toronado was long, low and sexy. My next door neighbor had one, and it was the coolest car in the neighborhood during my 1970s childhood. The Toronado was not an economy car and not really a fuel sipper, but it paved the way for the onslaught of compact, efficient, and more modern FWD cars that came in the late 1970s. Unfortunately, Front-wheel drive was pegged as an economy car design during automakers’ hurried reaction to the oil crisis.
Benefits to Front-Wheel Drive
Front-wheel drive cars typically package a compact engine transversely in the engine bay. That means that the pistons are arranged side to side, rather than front to back (longitudinally). The transmission is close-coupled to the engine, and the front wheels are powered through the use of constant-velocity (CV) joints and shafts coming directly from the transmission. This compact drivetrain arrangement frees up space in the cabin in two key ways. First, the engine is more effectively packaged so cabins can be longer and closer to the engine’s mid-line. However, it is the lack of the “driveshaft hump” that runs down the center of the floor of old rear-wheel drive (RWD) cars that passengers most appreciate. Ditching that driveshaft and hump made FWD cars more roomy, and the middle rear seat became a place to sit rather than a place in which children were made to sit as punishment.
The compact engine and transmission in a FWD car also sit directly over the driven wheels. In the 1980s, Saab made a lot out of this, suggesting that in snow and slippery conditions, its FWD vehicles had more traction than a RWD car. But that was at a time when tire technology wasn’t anywhere near what it is now. The lack of a heavy driveshaft and rear differential also saves weight. By reducing weight and making cars more compact, but with more interior space, fuel economy gains are significant.
Downsides to Front-Wheel Drive
The most notable downside to FWD is what is called torque-steer. In vehicles that drive just the front wheels, the engine can put more power to a wheel if the drive shafts are not equal-length (most have this design). The vehicle can pull at the wheel when one accelerates briskly. This is often felt when turning and accelerating from a stop at the same time. The weight shifting rearward during acceleration also makes this more noticeable since the front wheels are now lighter and trying to steer and move the car forward at the same time. Since RWD cars allow the front wheels to only steer, this effect is not felt. In AWD cars, torque steer is minimized because the cars can sense the strong acceleration and shift power to the rear.
Another downside is traction compared to AWD. Although front wheel drive cars are better in slippery conditions, AWD vehicles are simply better when starting off. However, in snow and on ice, starting off is only part of driving. The best way to make your car better in winter conditions is with winter tires. Still, an AWD vehicle with winter tires remains the best of both worlds. If you plan to drive in snow and on ice a lot, AWD is the way to go.
The last downside is really more of a benefit that RWD cars have. By having a drive shaft and a rear differential, the weight distribution of a car like a Lexus IS 350 is better for turning and for very sporty driving than, say a Toyota Camry. We could make more comparisons, but this one is nice because both cars are made by the same parent company. Only enthusiasts will appreciate this, and to be fair, there are many excellent sporty cars that break this rule. For example, the VW Golf GTI is widely considered an excellent driver’s car despite being front drive. As is the Mini Cooper. This leads us to a discussion of some technology introduced recently that makes modern front-wheel drive cars perform as well as they do.
Advances In Front Wheel Drive
Automakers set their sights on ridding cars of torque steer and also giving them better traction when being driven hard by enthusiasts. The first step was to introduce front limited slip differentials. Just like in rear-wheel drive cars, these are devices that distribute power from a wheel losing traction to the one with better traction. Next, automakers started to use electronics to brake one of the front drive wheels to help the car turn, or to minimize torque steer. Some front-drive performance cars like the legendary MazdaSpeed3 even limited torque and power so a car would not overwhelm the front tires in hard driving. The upshot is that in most vehicles, the downsides of FWD have been mostly eradicated.
Don’t Buy Front-Wheel Drive if You…
Simply put, if you are buying a performance car, then aside from the rare standouts like the Honda Accord V6 Coupe, VW GTI, and Mini Cooper S, go with RWD. There is a reason cars like the Viper, Corvette, Camaro, and Mustang all still only offer RWD. Also, if you live in a very snowy area, (like I do), then you may benefit from having an AWD vehicle with snow tires (like I do). My area is unusual. We had four feet of snow in a single week last winter, and my gravel driveway is 200 feet long and a hill at both ends. Your situation may not warrant such extreme needs. Be realistic. Winter tires on a FWD car will get you anyplace you will need to be going.
All-wheel drive is great, but it can add thousands to the price of a vehicle. The added weight and mechanical losses also means that the AWD version of cars use more fuel than do their FWD versions. Rear-wheel drive also has its upside in performance cars. However, for most people, driving in most conditions, front wheel drive is the best vehicle layout and by far the most economical one to boot.