And remember, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer to the ‘what’s the best drivetrain?’ question. Each layout has its own sets of pros and cons that will affect the way the car drives in different conditions. Read on and choose what’s right for you.

Rear-wheel drive (RWD)

Rear-wheel drive – also called RWD – is the older car drivetrain layout. It gets its name from the fact that the engine sends its power to the rear axle of the vehicle through a transmission. This means that the engine does spin the rear wheels and they are the ones powering the car’s motion.

The very first car in the market, the 1885 Benz Patent-Motorwagen, was RWD. And worldwide most cars were rear-wheel drive until the 1970s. These days RWD cars are not so common but some sports cars – like the Toyota Supra – and high-end sedans – like the BMW5 Series and the Porsche Panamera – still have it because it does provide better handling on dry surfaces.

RWD Advantages

  • Better weight distribution
  • Better handling in dry conditions thanks to the higher grip of the rear wheels on the surface.
  • Work is distributed to front and rear axles. The front axle is used for steering and braking and the rear one powers the car.

RWD Disadvantages

  • RWD cars can oversteer – It’s the tendency for the back end of the car to want to overtake the front when you’re cornering. Looks great on the racetrack or drift competitions, but not as much on public roads. To stop it you’ll need to slow down.
  • The overall weight of the car increases because components increase.
  • Tricky handling for new or inexperienced drivers.
  • Traction on slippery conditions is bad.

Front-wheel drive (FWD)

The most common drive system in today’s cars, front-wheel drive vehicles are called that because they channel their power to the front wheels. It’s quite popular because it’s compact and it frees up space inside the cabin. On top of that, the majority of the weight is positioned over the front wheels. It does give good traction when it’s slippery.

FWD appeared first during the 1900s but it didn’t merge into the mainstream until the 1930s when Citroen released the Traction Avant. Brands like Audi and Saab also used the layout quite early on, as did the classic original Mini. Most small economy cars shifted to front-wheel drive during the 1970s and today it’s present in the majority of modern vehicles.

FWD Advantages

  • Lower weight thanks to all components in front of the car. There is no additional differential and driveshaft to transfer power to the rear axle – which also makes it lighter than RWD cars.
  • Low cost
  • Better fuel economy
  • Better traction on slippery surfaces – including snow.

FWD Disadvantages

  • The centre of gravity is farther forward than in an RWD layout, making them more prone to understeering
  • Can oversteer at high-speed cornering
  • The front wheel can lose traction in low traction conditions – ice, snow or rain. This can make steering difficult

Four-wheel drive (4WD or 4X4)

Popularly known as 4WD and 4X4, four-wheel-drive cars are mostly used for heavy off-roading. They use a device known as ‘transfer case’ that splits the power between the front and the rear axle so that the torque is split evenly. Then those axles send the torque to individual wheels whilst the transfer case ensures that all the wheels spin at the same speed by splitting power evenly.

On traditional roads, 4WD cars tend to function in front- or rear two-wheel-drive mode until the driver decides to engage all four wheels. There are usually two gears in 4X4s: ‘high’ and ‘low’. In ‘High’ you will limit the power to the wheels so that you can move better over slippery surfaces. And ‘low’ gear is perfect for difficult terrain where you don’t need speed.

Most 4WD cars are serious off-roaders like the Land Rover Defender, Jeep Wrangler, Toyota Land Cruiser or the Mercedes-Benz G-Class. These vehicles were made to tackle the toughest terrains and the most rugged driving conditions.

4WD Advantages

  • Great traction in off-road situations
  • In older models 4WD could be turned on/off to improve fuel economy – though that’s not the case in most modern vehicles
  • Proven rugged technology for off-the-beaten-track driving.

4WD Disadvantages

  • Cars are more complex and heavy
  • Cannot be used in all situations, like slick ice and snow-covered roads. Their high centre of gravity makes them more likely to flip and roll if you’re driving too fast.
  • Pricier than RWD and FWD.
  • Not ideal for on-road conditions. Whilst it can be safe to drive in 4WD on the highway, you’d have to be going very slowly – and so would the rest of the traffic around you. Plus, 4WD burns more fuel than regular 2WD, making them less fuel-efficient.

All-wheel drive (AWD)

Not to be confused with 4WD, all-wheel-drive cars are a different drivetrain in their own right. They are similar to four-wheel drive in the sense that they do transmit power to all the wheels. But they differ because AWD cars allow each wheel to rotate independently and travel at different speeds. that creates great traction and handling.

Unlike four-wheel drive, AWD is mostly used in regular cars. It doesn’t do as well as 4x4s off-road but it’s great if you’re looking to have excellent traction on surfaces like snow, sand or water on the road. Another difference between 4WD and AWD is that this one relies on an automatic system. Here it’s not the driver who decides to switch it off, but the Electronic Control Unit of the car that detects which wheel is losing traction and then activates the all-wheel drive. When AWD is not on, cars with it tend to drive like a traditional rear or front-wheel drive.

All-wheel drive cars tend to be pricier than vehicles with other drivetrains because of their complex hardware systems. If you’re looking for an AWD car for maximum grip in all conditions then you should look at the Subaru Impreza, the Ford Fusion, the Audi A6 or the Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

AWD Advantages

  • Increased grip and control under all road conditions
  • Sportier handling and traction to a wider range of cars
  • Works all the time – The computer decides based on driving conditions.

AWD Disadvantages

  • Reduced fuel economy
  • Heavier and more complex vehicles
  • Not the best in extreme off-road conditions.
  • Low fuel efficiency when the AWD is on.

Which is better? RWD, FWD, AWD or 4WD?

One of the most asked questions in the automotive world, the truth is that there’s no right or wrong answer. It will depend on who you ask. But also on the type of driving you do and the roads you’re going to have to tackle.

Any type of four-wheel-drive system is perceived as superior in low-traction situations. They’re handy for people who live in regions with extreme weather conditions, plenty of snow and not many paved roads. Although not so good in rough off-roading, AWD cars have become more popular because of their increased traction.

And when you look at FWD and RWD, both have advantages and disadvantages. But the truth is that they’ve also proved themselves well, especially when the car has the proper tyres for the weather.

Have you figured out what’s the best drivetrain for you? Are you going to pick an RWD or an FWD car? An AWD or a 4WD? Think about how you drive and which type of roads you tackle every day. And always remember that the choice is totally yours.

And if you need some recommendations, check out the cheapest 4x4s for young drivers, the most economical 4x4s or the best hybrid 4x4s.