What's the difference between AWD, FWD, RWD and 4WD?

What's the difference between AWD, FWD, RWD and 4WD?

What's the difference between AWD, FWD, RWD and 4WD?
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, the 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 four types of drivetrain of a vehicle. The drivetrain is the system that connects the transmission to the drive axle, which 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 significant differences that exist beyond which wheels receive power. All four drivetrains have advantages and disadvantages that affect how the vehicle behaves on the road, especially in harsh weather. Before diving into which layout best suits a given situation and different driving types, let's talk about the basics.

Front-Wheel Drive (FWD)

In a front-wheel-drive vehicle, the drivetrain transfers the engine's power to the front wheels only. FWD means the engine is connected to the front wheels, negating mechanical components to send power to the rear.

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

There is no driveshaft going from the front to back because all the powertrain is one 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 parts are in front and the removal of one additional differential and driveshaft
  • better fuel economy

Disadvantages: 

  • in general less fun to drive as they instead "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 usually come with FWD like the Peugeot ExpertCitroen Dispatch or Vauxhall Vivaro. Suppose 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.

Peugeot Boxer front wheel drive van

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 vehicle's front to the differential at the rear axle. The driveshaft connects to transmission and differential via universal joints, which helps the driveshaft rotate efficiently. The rotation motion of the drive shaft turns 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. In addition, 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, as it's easy to spin the vehicle out. Lack of experience makes spinning out especially difficult to recover from if you're not used to driving an RWD vehicle.

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, which means 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
  • increased vehicle weight because the components are heavier
  • inexperienced drivers can find it more challenging to drive
  • traction in slippery conditions is not great

Currently, the only medium van offering a choice of rear-wheel drive is the Mercedes Vito. Larger vans are usually RWD, like the Ford TransitFord One-StopVolkswagen CrafterVauxhall Movano and Renault Master.

Mercedes Vito rear wheel drive van 

Vauxhall Movano rear wheel drive van

All-Wheel Drive (AWD)

All-wheel drive is a drivetrain that uses a front, rear and centre differential to power all four wheels. It feeds power to each corner of the vehicle. AWD system helps the vehicle have a good launch, pull out of corners quicker than the other two drivetrains, has better handling, and utilises complete engine power. Due to less torque, there is better traction in the steering and can feel more stable, which is crucial 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 beneficial 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 detecting a slippage at one axle, energy is diverted to the other axle to find more traction.

AWD systems are helpful in rapidly changing conditions or when driving on an icy road. A common use for AWD is 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 in all situations
  • 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 TransitFord One Stop and Ford Transit L3/L4 ranges.

Ford Transit All Wheel Drive

4-Wheel Drive (4WD or 4x4)

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

The equal power split is great for manoeuvring on harsh and low-traction surfaces. Still, it isn't amicable on the pavement. Driving a 4x4 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, covering more ground. You might hear a rubbing noise or feel the vehicle hopping when you approach full lock, which is why most 4WD systems are part-time systems that the driver can disable. Allowing the vehicle to operate in two-wheel drive in everyday conditions improves on-road drivability. Still, it 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
  • 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 standard drivetrain for pickup trucks. Like the Ford RangerNissan Navara and Isuzu D-Max. You can also find it in popular small vans, such as the Vauxhall Combo Cargo. Some large commercial vehicles like the Renault Master also have 4x4 van models available.

  • Nissan Navara with 4 wheel drive

The difference between AWD and 4WD

Both drive all four wheels, so there are no fundamental differences. AWD has become the description for a vehicle that drives all of the wheels all of the time. In contrast, people describe 4WD 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 more complicated but considerably more user-friendly. In comparison, a 4WD system tries to achieve 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 wonder why there's a need for both systems since both aim to distribute power to all four wheels. The difference between the two layouts is relatively tiny. Still, it significantly affects 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) analyses traction conditions and decides which wheel receives power. This type of system, usually called torque vectoring, has resulted in massive handling and all-weather capability improvements.

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 rough terrain regularly. You can usually find it 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? 

Suppose you are a new or anxious driver. Then, 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 if you're an experienced driver, as it tends to sideway if you accelerate harder. If you are 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. Check out our latest leasing deals now.

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