The differences between drivetrains

Knowing how various transmissions work can ensure you buy the perfect car for your driving needs.

Acronyms can often make the car-buying experience a challenge, especially when it comes to distinguishing between AWD, FWD, RWD, and 4WD. These codes relate to how car manufacturers and dealers refer to the systems that regulate power from the engine to the wheels of a motor vehicle.

While it can be helpful to know which each acronym stands for, understanding their individual benefits and differences will transform you into an educated buyer. This will allow you to think about how and where you drive (do you enjoy cruising across major roadways, or prefer taking the unpaved, less traveled roads?) and what system is ultimately right for you.

FWD: Front-Wheel Drive

Front-wheel drive systems offer two distinct benefits to their owners: Space and fuel economy. Most, but not all, minivans use a front-wheel drive system for this reason. It jams all the hardware into a single area – engine, transmission, final drive gears, differential – to free up space within the vehicle. Lighter vehicles will also have improved fuel efficiency.

Another added benefit of front-wheel drive systems is the car’s traction during inclement weather. These cars perform well in snowy conditions, with or without ice, so you gain some added peace of mind when driving a FWD car during the rough winter months.

RWD: Rear-Wheel Drive

Rear-wheel drive systems place the power in the back wheels of a vehicle. The front wheels provide direction, but the back wheels propel the vehicle forward. You’re most likely to find this system in trucks, since they need extra power in the back wheels when there is extra weight in the truck bed. Heavier luxury vehicles often stock rear-wheel drive systems as well, to handle the enhanced weight of the car.

Performance and race cars also use rear-wheel drive systems to provide increased traction at high speeds. This puts the driver in a battle against the elements when rain or snow roll into town. Since the front wheels aren’t weighted down the same as the rear wheels, the driver potentially runs the risk of fishtailing. Drivers of RWD vehicles can combat these issues by practicing safe driving techniques, such as maintaining slower speeds, turning without accelerating, and outfitting the vehicle with winter tires.

4WD: Four-Wheel Drive

Four-wheel drive systems present a great solution for driving through less-than-stellar terrain or conditions. Deep snow, muddy trails, and icy roads make for the perfect conditions to engage a four-wheel drive system (vehicles with four-wheel drive capabilities need to enable the mode for it to function appropriately). This happens with either a lever, button-push, or the car enabling it automatically.

Four-wheel drive vehicles stay in a rear-wheel drive state until the four-wheel drive system is activated (either with a lever, button, or when the vehicle enables it automatically) to regulate the power across all four wheels. This mode doesn’t help all the time. In fact, driving with it during perfect conditions can cause significant damage to the vehicle’s mechanics and tires.

AWD: All-Wheel Drive

All-wheel drive systems provide a solution for those wanting better traction but don’t want to worry about engaging or disengaging a system. Most all-wheel drive vehicles are toggled on permanently. Computer-reading sensors in each wheel determine the correct amount of power required for any condition. This process, known as torque vectoring, allows all-wheel drive vehicles to have excellent grip and control during all types of road conditions.This does increase the weight of vehicles sporting all-wheel drive systems, which negatively impacts fuel economy. And even though they’re great at handling whatever the elements throw at them while on the road, this still isn’t the right vehicle to test in extreme off-road scenarios.

Ready to Drive

Most drivers are just fine taking advantage of the fuel economy and performance power of a front-wheel drive vehicle. Still, you’ll need to evaluate where and how you drive to determine the best system for you.

Now that you know more about the different systems, you can put your acronym knowledge to good use when searching for the perfect new or used vehicle online or in the showroom.


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