You may have heard petrolheads spouting about the drawbacks of front-wheel drive compared to rear-wheel drive. But what do these terms actually refer to? Is there any genuine difference between these two options?

When you’re searching for a new car, a number of factors will influence your final choice. From car finance eligibility through to the type of engine you choose, and even whether a front- or rear-wheel drive is most appropriate for you, the decision can seem overwhelming.

We’ve created this article to help you demystify what is meant by rear-wheel and front-wheel drive. That way, you can ascertain which type of drive is best for you, helping you to make an informed decision for your next set of wheels.

What’s the difference between rear-wheel and front-wheel drive?

Put simply, the difference between rear-wheel and front-wheel drive is power. As a side note, there’s also four-wheel drive (sometimes called all-wheel drive), but we won’t be discussing that here.

In rear-wheel drive, the engine’s power is sent to the rear two wheels. In front-wheel drive, the engine’s power is sent to the front two wheels. Obviously, the other two wheels will still move, but this movement is generated from the vehicle’s motion, rather than the engine’s power.

Front-wheel drive – the lowdown

Cars with front-wheel drive have better traction, because the weight of the vehicle’s engine and transmission is sent to the front two wheels. If you regularly drive in areas with poor conditions like snow, ice and rain, or live in a mountainous area, then front-wheel drives are going to be safer than rear-wheel vehicles.

Front-wheel drives can help you to save money on fuel, too. Front-wheel drives are often lighter, as they have less complex internal equipment, meaning you spend less as you drive. It’s for this reason that front-wheel drive vehicles tend to be more affordable, reliable and easier to maintain overall.

Plus, because the engine and transmission are housed above the front two wheels, you often get more internal storage space with a front-wheel drive.

However, if you’re looking for a car with a good towing capacity, front-wheel drives don’t compare favourably to rear-wheel drives.

Equally, in moments of intense acceleration, front-wheel drives can suffer from ‘torque steer’, meaning they can suddenly veer off the intended course.

Rear-wheel drive – the lowdown

Rear-wheel drives have better handling than front-wheel drives. With a front-wheel drive, the front wheels are responsible for both powering and steering the vehicle. If you’re taking a corner at speed, this can impact the car’s overall handling – and not in a good way.

What’s more, because much of the car’s weight is upfront, this can lead a front-wheel car to understeer. The weight of a vehicle is more evenly distributed with a rear-wheel drive. This improves their handling compared to front-wheel vehicles, and they can feel more stable going around corners.

As well as having better handling compared to front-wheel drives, rear-wheel drives therefore have better acceleration. They’re nippier overall, which is why sports and race cars are almost always rear-wheel drive. This is why rear-wheel vehicles are typically more expensive to purchase than their counterparts.

That said, because rear-wheel drives are a more agile and faster vehicle, they do require more skill to handle. You are at a higher risk of wheel-spin with a rear-wheel drive, which can push the entire car into a spin.

Equally, although most modern rear-wheel drives will have state-of-the-art stability and traction controls, they should be able to handle icy or wet weather. However, it’s worth noting that four-wheel drives are safer in hazardous conditions.

Rear-wheel drives also tend to have less interior and boot space compared to front-wheel drives too, because the equipment is housed underneath the vehicle’s trunk.

Is rear-wheel drive better than front-wheel drive?

Broadly speaking, the benefits of rear-wheel drives are better handling, acceleration and braking. By comparison, front-wheel drives have better traction, are cheaper to run and maintain, and are more reliable.

Whether a rear-wheel drive is better than a front-wheel drive really depends on your needs. Many of the most popular hatchbacks and SUVs are front-wheel drive. They make for fantastic, dependable family cars, and you can often get a great deal on one.

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