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Difference Between FWD, RWD, AWD, and 4WD

Subaru Forester driving in the mud road

Sometimes it feels like you’re reading a cryptic message when you’re reading a car description. There are so many random letters and numbers thrown around. If you’ve seen FWD, RWD, AWD, and 4WD thrown around and want to know what it means and what the difference is, then you came to the right place.

What Do the Acronyms Mean?

Right off the bat, let’s define the acronyms for you.

  • FWD means Front Wheel Drive
  • RWD means Rear Wheel Drive
  • AWD means All Wheel Drive
  • 4WD means Four Wheel Drive

These are examples of possible drivetrains for your vehicle.

What is the Drivetrain?

The next question that you might have is what a drivetrain is. The drivetrain is the system of parts that transfer your engine’s power to your wheels.

In simpler terms, when you press the gas pedal and your car moves forward, you can thank the drivetrain.

If you want to get technical, the drive train consists of every part that sees power after the transmission all the way to the tires.

Your drivetrain comes in four different flavors: FWD, RWD, AWD, and 4WD.

What is FWD?

FWD vehicles are the most common on the road today. It’s the standard drivetrain for almost all new cars that are manufactured. It was first invented in the 80s and it quickly took off.

In an FWD car, the power goes to the front two wheels. This makes sense in many cases since the engine is positioned in the front of the car. By having the engine closer to the wheels, you get better performance and it’s easier to transfer the power to the tires.

Since the engine is so heavy, it’s a good thing to have the weight right above the wheels that get driven. This also helps the car work better when the roads are slippery.

FWD cars are also more fuel-efficient.


  • Lower weight
  • Better miles per gallon
  • Low-cost option
  • Better traction than RWD in slippery conditions


  • High-speed cornering is not possible
  • Front wheels might lose traction in slippery conditions

What is RWD?

RWD used to be the industry standard. As you might have guessed, RWD cars are driven using the rear two wheels. In this instance, a differential is used in the middle of the rear axle.

The problem with RWD cars is they often spin out when the roads are slippery. This is because all the weight is in the front of the car, but the rear wheels are driving the car. Our guess is those car manufacturers in the old days weren’t up-to-date on their physics knowledge.

In dry conditions, a good driver will have better handling and grip in an RWD car over an FWD car. In terms of the average driver on an average day, oversteering and fishtailing are big problems with RWD cars.


  • Better distribution of weight
  • Handling in dry conditions I better than FWD
  • Front axle steers and brakes, rear axle provides power – every axle has a job


  • Oversteering is a common problem
  • Heavier components lead to a heavier car
  • New drivers have trouble handling
  • Traction is really bad in slippery conditions
Car Drivetrain

What is AWD?

You guessed it, AWD cars use all the wheels to drive. That’s to say that every wheel gets power in an AWD drivetrain.

The big benefit of AWD cars is they help the everyday person not get stuck in the snow, mud, ice, sand, or shallow water.

Most AWD cars can feel like FWD cars unless a wheel slips, a button is pressed, or the car senses a loss of power in one of the wheels. In most cases, you won’t even know when your car kicks into AWD mode. A computer is constantly running in your car, and it will determine whether or not it needs to engage AWD.

The benefits of an AWD car, go beyond getting you out of snow. You’ll enjoy better handling, cornering, launching, and overall performance. The only kicker? Your fuel efficiency will drop.

For these reasons, AWD drivetrains are preferred in sports cars and luxury cars. Since AWD systems typically cost thousands of dollars more than an FWD or RWD system, it’s fitting to offer this drivetrain in higher-priced cars anyway.


  • Better grip, performance, and control in all road conditions
  • Handling and traction are sportier
  • Works without user input


  • Worse fuel economy
  • Not good in true off-roading
  • Heavier, more complex, and more expensive than FWD or RWD

What is 4WD?

Many people confuse 4WD and AWD or they think the terms mean the same thing. 4WD means four-wheel drive, and that sounds a lot like all-wheel drive when you hear it. The truth is that they are very different.

4WD is the solution for heavy-duty off-road driving. Rather than a differential between the drive shafts, there is a transfer case. This case allows every wheel to see the same torque and spin at the same speed.

This means that you can climb mountainous, muddy terrain with no fear of getting stuck. In AWD cars, the front and rear wheels spin in conjunction with one another. In a 4WD car, each wheel can spin independently.


  • The only solution for true off-roading
  • Technology is rugged, durable, and reliable
  • Best traction possible


  • Heavier, more expensive, and more complex than all other drivetrains
  • Not suitable for driving in all conditions
  • Sometimes leads to trouble on the open road

Which Style is Right for You?

This might be a lot of information for you to take in. To make things simple, we put together a quick list that determines the right style for you.

The Best Daily Driver

Without question, the best daily driver for the regular guy is an FWD car. They are the most common option for a reason. They are low-cost, fuel-efficient, low-weight, and reliable. Just try to keep it under 60 when you take a turn, okay?

You can try an RWD car, but it takes a lot of getting used to and some practice. It’s really not worth it since FWD cars are so common nowadays and often less expensive.

The Best Style for Southern Drivers

Southern drivers very rarely see snow. For that reason, an FWD or an RWD car will work just fine. It boils down to user preference since you won’t see snowy or icy roads. We tend to lean to FWD cars since they’re better in the rain, but there’s nothing wrong with an RWD car here.

The Best Style for Northern Drivers

Northern drivers are going to see snow more often. For our friends especially north in upstate New York or Michigan, you’ll definitely want to get an AWD car. This drivetrain will keep you safe and allow you to make it to work every day.

If you’re in a Northern state but the snowfall isn’t crazy, you can get away with an FWD, but we definitely would not suggest an RWD car.

Subaru Forester Main
Subaru Forester

The Best Style for Off-Roaders

The only option for off-roaders is a 4WD vehicle. You’ll see this drivetrain available in beefy SUVs, Trucks, and Jeeps. They know what they’re doing when they make these cars, and every aspect is tailored for an off-roader like you.

The Best Style for Road Warriors

When you do a lot of traveling, you want a car that’s reliable, durable, and can handle any weather. We suggest an AWD for those reasons. When it’s not snowing, icy, or raining, then it will drive just like a regular FWD or RWD car. That means you get the benefits of both drivetrains.

The Best Style for Sportier Drivers

If you like accelerating fast, hitting sharp corners, and that gorgeous sound of squealing tires, then you want an AWD. It delivers a performance that you won’t find in any other car.

There’s a reason why Porsches come standard with AWD.


At this point, you should know more about the four different styles of drivetrains. You should even know which one is right for you. FWD, RWD, AWD, and 4WD all have their own purposes, pros, and cons. This article should help you make a more informed decision the next time you’re at the dealership.

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Ernest Martynyuk

An automotive enthusiast who's been tinkering with vehicles since I was 15-years old. Repairing automotive electronics has been my main job for over a decade now and have a passion for everything technical regarding cars.

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