Front-Wheel Drive, Rear-Wheel Drive, All-Wheel Drive & Four-Wheel Drive: What's the difference?

Front-Wheel Drive, Rear-Wheel Drive, All-Wheel Drive & Four-Wheel Drive: What's the difference?
08 March 2021

There are 4 types of vehicle drivetrain - what's the difference between AWD, FWD, RWD and 4WD?

If you’re searching for a new vehicle, chances are that you've come across the terms front-wheel drive (FWD), rear-wheel drive (RWD), all-wheel drive (AWD) or four-wheel drive (4WD or 4x4). These are 4 types of the drivetrain of a vehicle. The drivetrain is the system that connects the transmission to the drive axle. It transfers the power that the engine generates to the wheels. But what is the difference between them?

What does AWD, FWD, RWD and 4WD mean and what are the differences between them?

There are major differences that exist beyond which wheels receive power. All four drivetrains have their advantages and disadvantages that affect the way the vehicle behaves on the road, especially in harsh weather. Let's talk about the basics first, before diving into which layout is best suited to a given situation and also to different types of driving. 

Front-Wheel Drive (FWD)

In a front-wheel-drive vehicle, the drivetrain transfers the engine’s power to the front wheels only. This means that the engine, at the front, is connected to the front wheels, which negates the use of mechanical components to send power to the rear.

FWD is very common in daily driven vehicles because of its stability and efficiency. It has less weight and therefore better fuel economy. The engine is fixed either sideways or longitudinally which puts weight on the front wheels and because of this, there is better traction while driving. The transmission and differential are connected with one unit called a transaxle. The universal joints connect the wheels to the axle, which allows smooth transmission of power while the wheels turn. This however causes more wear on front tires and suspension, as these wheels are responsible for steering.

There is no driveshaft going from the front of the vehicle to back because all the powertrain is one single unit in the engine compartment. The bonus here is the increased internal space as there is no rear differential taking up the room. 

Advantages:

  • more room in the rear seats for occupants
  • cheaper to make as fewer components involved
  • there is more grip in slippery conditions due to the weight of the engine being over the front wheels
  • low weight, because all the components are in front and one additional differential and driveshaft which transfers the power to the rear axle is removed
  • better fuel economy

Disadvantages: 

  • in general less fun to drive as they rather "pull" than "push"
  • usually less-well made 
  • nose heavy, as the engine and all the mechanical parts relaying the power, are kept in the same location
  • chances of oversteer at a high-speed cornering
  • in low traction conditions, the front wheel will lose traction making steering ineffective

Small vans are usually FWD and the best example is the Citroen Berlingo. All Berlingo vans are front-wheel drive, including our top-selling Citroen Berlingo Van 1.5 BlueHDi M 650 75 Enterprise. Medium vans also usually come with front-wheel drive, like the Peugeot Expert, Citroen Dispatch or Vauxhall Vivaro. If you're looking for a large FWD van, then your best option could be the Peugeot Boxer, i.e the Peugeot Boxer 335 L3H2 2.2 BlueHDi 140 Professional 4035.

Rear-Wheel Drive (RWD)

It is the oldest drivetrain used in vehicles and, as the name suggests, these vehicles rely on their rear wheels for motion. These days most vehicles have RWD because it makes handling on dry surfaces better.  The rear-wheel-drive system uses a long driveshaft that transmits power from the engine in the front of the vehicle to the differential at the rear axle. The driveshaft is connected to transmission and differential via universal joints which helps the driveshaft rotate easily. The rotation motion of the driveshaft rotates the differential and then the differential rotates the wheels.  RWD allows you to “steer with the throttle” and control how much the vehicle rotates using the gas pedal. This also lets you power out of corners better than in an FWD vehicle and carry more speed through longer turns. You have to be very careful though as it's very easy to spin the vehicle out which is especially difficult to recover from if you're not experienced in driving a rear-wheel-drive.

RWD vehicles suit those who look for the most sporty driving experience and a little extra fun. 

Advantages:

  • rear wheels will have more grip on a dry surface so better handling in dry conditions
  • more balanced due to better weight distribution
  • can handle more power
  • usually better-made vehicles
  • better and more fun driving experience

Disadvantages:

  • more expensive
  • less compact
  • easy to oversteer
  • higher vehicle weight because the components are increased
  • handling can be challenging if the driver is not experienced
  • traction in slippery condition is not great

Currently, the only medium van offering a choice of rear-wheel drive is the Mercedes Vito. RWD is mostly used in larger vans, like Ford TransitFord One-Stop, Volkswagen Crafter, Vauxhall Movano and Renault Master

 

All-Wheel Drive (AWD)

All-wheel drive is a drivetrain that uses a front, rear and centre differential to provide power to all four wheels so it feeds power to each corner of the vehicle. AWD system helps the vehicle to have a good launch, power out of corners quicker than the other two drivetrains, has better handling, and also utilizes complete power from the engine. Due to less torque steer, it provides better traction and can feel more stable which is important if you live in snowy climates or regularly drive on wet roads.

Depending on the system (designs vary), AWD can provide maximum forward traction during acceleration. It is especially helpful in sloppy road conditions and when driving off-road. It can help you get through mud, sand, and other loose surfaces. Most AWD systems deliver power primarily to one set of wheels, front or rear. When slippage is detected at one axle, power is diverted to the other axle, in hopes of finding more traction there.

AWD systems are especially helpful in rapidly changing conditions or when driving on a road with intermittent snow and ice. It is commonly used for car-based SUVs, as well as certain cars and vans.

Advantages:

  • better acceleration
  • increased grip and control under all road conditions
  • sportier handling and traction
  • works all the time (mostly the computer decides according to the condition)
  • higher resale value

Disadvantages:

  • higher price
  • complexity - more parts to potentially service 
  • reduced fuel economy
  • increased weight and complexity of vehicles
  • not as good in extreme off-road conditions

All-wheel drive is not a very common drivetrain for commercial vehicles, however, Ford offers some AWD models within its Ford Transit, Ford One Stop and Ford Transit L3/L4 ranges.

4-Wheel Drive (4WD or 4x4)

Basically, it’s a system that sends power to all four wheels equally and at the same time, and without controlling the division of power delivery between the wheels or axles.  This means that each wheel will spin at the same constant rate as all the others. Power flows from the engine, through the transmission, and normally into a device known as a transfer case that divides it between the front and rear axles. 

The equal split of power is great for manoeuvring on tough and low-traction surfaces, but it isn’t very friendly on the pavement. Driving a four-wheel-drive vehicle on solid ground can make simple actions like turning around in a tight street very difficult because the wheels are no longer in sync. Imagine yourself doing a u-turn. In a 4WD vehicle, the inside wheel has to turn more slowly than the outside wheel, which is covering more ground. You might hear a rubbing noise or feel the vehicle hopping when you approach full lock. This is why most 4WD systems are part-time systems that can be disabled by the driver allowing the vehicle to operate in two-wheel drive in normal conditions to improve on-road drivability, but still offers four-wheel traction when you need it.

Advantages:

  • the best traction in off-road conditions
  • more power
  • it can be switched to two-wheel drive to improve fuel economy
  • proven, rugged technology
  • the additional weight contributes to a better grip on the road

Disadvantages:

  • complexity
  • it can’t be used in all conditions
  • more expensive to purchase
  • higher maintenance cost
  • added weight increases the braking distance

4WD or 4x4 is a common drivetrain for pickup trucks. like the Ford Ranger, Nissan Navara and Isuzu D-Max but can also be found in a popular small van, the Vauxhall Combo Cargo. Some large commercial vehicles like the Renault Master also have 4x4 van models available. 

The difference between AWD and 4WD

Both drive all four wheels so in one sense there is no difference except that AWD has become an accepted description for a vehicle that drives all of the wheels, all of the time. 4WD is generally accepted as a vehicle that uses a system where the driver can select the driving mode. 

All-wheel drive is a much more recent innovation, and it’s a little bit more complicated, but also considerably more user-friendly. While a 4WD system tries to archive maximum traction by sending as much power to the four wheels and as equally as possible, AWD is all about varying the amount of power sent to each wheel, either mechanically or electronically. 

At this point, you might be wondering why there's a need for both of these types of systems since the aim of both is to distribute power to all four wheels. The difference between the two layouts is relatively small but it has a big effect on what you can tow, and how far off the beaten path you can go. All-wheel drive is more of a road-going vehicle while four-wheel drive is more for regular off-road use.

AWD isn’t quite as robust as 4WD, and it can’t match the power delivery necessary for low-speed off-roading like rock crawling.  AWD does have some clear advantages over 4WD, though. These days, computers are involved in most AWD systems. Sensors on each wheel monitor traction, wheel speed, and several other data point hundreds of times per second. An engine control unit (ECU) analyzes traction conditions and decides which wheel receives power. This type of system, usually called torque vectoring, has resulted in massive improvements in handling and all-weather capability.

Ultimately, the system you choose largely depends on your driving needs and where you live. Four-wheel drive is your best choice if you plan on using your vehicle off-road and in difficult terrain on a regular basis. It’s normally found on SUVs and pickup trucks that boast the durability to match the ruggedness of a four-wheel-drive system.  All-wheel drive is often associated with road-going vehicles - and for most people, it makes more sense.

Which drivetrain should you choose then? 

If you are a new or an anxious driver, FWD is probably the best choice for you considering how easy it is to drive, its reliability and fuel efficiency. RWD is a good choice if you need a more powerful vehicle and you're an experienced driver as it tends to sideway if you accelerate harder. If you looking for regular road and occasional off-road driving, AWD is the best option as it has the most grip. 4WD is strictly for off-road use and shouldn't be used in day-to-day road driving.

Now you know the difference between the drives, get in touch to see which vehicle is best for you. Already know what you're interested in? Check out our latest leasing deals now.

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