FWD, RWD, AWD, Or 4WD: Which Drivetrain Is Best?

Posted by on July 22, 2010 | No Comments

Your vehicle’s drivetrain includes the engine, transmission, drive axles, differentials, and drive shafts. There are several configurations. When you visit the dealership to buy a car, you’ll most likely leave with a front-wheel drive (FWD) vehicle. Most conventional cars and trucks are now designed with this particular configuration. Others include rear-wheel drive (RWD), four-wheel drive (4WD), and all-wheel drive (AWD). The latter two can be further categorized into full-time or part-time.

As you know, your engine’s 4-stroke combustion process creates the power needed to rotate your crankshaft. By rotating the crankshaft, power is transmitted from your engine to the drive wheels. This results in moving your vehicle. The type of drivetrain – or more accurately, driveline – installed in your vehicle dictates which wheels receive power from your engine. In this article, we’ll take a look at how each configuration mentioned earlier works.

Front-Wheel Drive Explained

With an FWD automobile, power is sent to the front wheels. Thus, when your car moves, it is because the front wheels are pulling it along.

The main assemblies of your drivetrain (i.e. engine, transmission, etc.) sit in the front of your vehicle. While every make and model is different, the location of these assemblies within this configuration usually opens up more cabin space. It’s also a simpler design than an RWD arrangement since the engine and transmission are placed next to each other.

The handling and response of this drivetrain is especially suitable for wet weather since it is extremely stable and offers good traction. The downside is that some FWD models are designed with systems that apply steering resistance when you accelerate quickly. This obviously impairs handling.

Rear-Wheel Drive Explained

At one time, this was the standard configuration in most automobiles. The engine’s power was delivered to the rear wheels, which were responsible for moving the vehicle. There are limitations with this design, however. With the engine located in the front of the vehicle and the drive wheels in the rear, the engine’s weight works against the driveline. This arrangement reduces traction to the point that automakers installed additional systems to compensate.

The advantage of an RWD driveline is that it offers better handling for those who know how to coax it from their vehicle (e.g. racing aficionados, car buffs, etc.). This is rarely a compelling argument, however, for most people.

All-Wheel Drive Explained

This configuration sends power from the engine to all four wheels. An AWD system can also distribute power so the wheel with the highest level of traction receives more of it. This improves handling. In most cases, it happens so smoothly that the driver is unaware of the distribution.

A few recent models have been equipped with AWD systems that send slightly more power to either the rear or front wheels. This further improves handling, though again, the driver seldom notices.

Part-time AWD systems are essentially like FWD or RWD systems (depending on the configuration). Power is delivered to two of the car’s wheels, either front or rear. If the driven wheels experience slippage, power is transferred to them to improve traction.

Four-Wheel Drive Explained

Of all drivelines, a 4WD is the only system specifically designed to handle the rigors of off-road driving. Torque is distributed across all four wheels, but the level sent to each wheel changes when driving conditions change. This helps to maximize traction.

As with an AWD part-time configuration, a 4WD part-time system operates similarly to a RWD vehicle. The engine’s power is sent to the rear wheels until traction declines in the front. When this happens, power is redistributed across all four wheels to improve handling.

Automotive drivetrains, and specifically, the various driveline systems, can seem confusing. Unless you intend to take your vehicle off-road, a front-wheel drive system will likely accommodate your driving needs.

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