When buying a vehicle, one of the most important decisions is whether to get the car with front-, rear- or all-wheel drive. However, many drivers may not realize exactly what these different systems entail. These three drivetrains have a big effect on how a vehicle handles, so it's important that all drivers take the time to learn about the pros and cons of each.
Rear-wheel drive is probably the most basic of the three systems and the version that most drivers will be familiar with if they were using cars before the 1970s. Almost all vehicles made back then used rear-wheel drive because it was simply more powerful than front-wheel drive. The key reason for this is that no matter what type of drivetrain a vehicle has, the steering will always be in the front wheels. If those wheels have to handle the acceleration as well, it can result in issues such as torque steer, where the entire car gets pulled to the side.
Essentially, rear-wheel drive simply allows for better handling and distribution of energy. All of the power comes from the back of the car, and then the front decides where the vehicle will go. Unfortunately, the one area where rear-wheel drive lacks is fuel economy. The system for rear-wheel drive is bulkier and weighs the car down, which also decreases the availability of cabin space for passengers. The reason automakers began switching to front-wheel drive cars in the 1970s is due to the fuel crisis that gripped the United States during that time.
Since then, the balance has shifted to a mix of front- and rear-wheel drive vehicles - although don't be surprised to see it move in favor of front-wheel drive cars now that more emphasis is being placed on fuel economy. Front-wheel drive systems generate all the power in the front two wheels - the back two are just along for the ride. One advantage to this is that the majority of the car's weight is in the front because that's where the engine is located. In situations where weight is important, such as ice and snow, front-wheel drive will generally outperform rear-wheel drive.
A front-wheel drive car can still be built to generate significant power, but the aforementioned torque steer issue prevents it from being taken seriously in the more high-end models. In short, front-wheel is still the king for drivers who want a vehicle that will simply get them from point A to point B, but serious gearheads tend to prefer rear-wheel drive.
Then there's the new kid on the block, all-wheel drive. This is not to be confused with four-wheel drive, which is primarily used in off-roading vehicles. Four-wheel drive vehicles have a "low range" setting that allows them to be used in exceptionally rough terrain at low speeds - all-wheel cars do not have this option because they're simply not built for off-roading.
An all-wheel drive system allows all of the vehicle's wheels to contribute to power. This results in balanced handling that can breeze through just about any condition, including ice or snow. However, this system is not only great in inclement weather. It also delivers sporty and agile handling on normal, smooth surfaces. Many luxury automakers, like Audi, have made it a point of emphasizing all-wheel drive as a key feature of their vehicles.
So what's the drawback to an all-wheel drive system? Cost. The drivetrain is available on many vehicles, but will typically cost drivers at least $1,000 extra in order to have it. Many drivers can't really feel the difference or feel the upgrade isn't worth the extra money, especially if they live in an area that doesn't experience a lot of snow and ice. In some of the more Northern states, however, it's all but required on new vehicles.