What Is Front-Wheel Drive?
Front-wheel drive (FWD) is a form of engine and transmission layout used in motor vehicles, where the engine drives the front wheels only. Most modern front-wheel-drive vehicles feature a transverse engine, rather than the conventional longitudinal engine arrangement generally found in rear-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Front-wheel drive (FWD) means that the power from the engine is delivered to the front wheels of your vehicle. With FWD, the front wheels are pulling the car and the rear wheels don’t receive any power on their own. The pros of an FWD vehicle are that they typically get better fuel economy and emit less carbon dioxide.
Since the weight of the engine is located over the driving wheels, and FWD vehicle can maintain better traction in the snow. However, performance enthusiasts have claimed FWD vehicles are less fun to drive.
Front-wheel drive (FWD), on the other hand, features the engine under the hood in combination with the transmission (sometimes referred to as the transaxle) that directly delivers power to the front wheels.
Despite the impression, many people have that the wave of front-wheel drive started in earnest with the invasion of the Japanese brands, even those models sold in the US until the mid-1980s were predominantly rear-wheel drive.
Front-wheel drive makes for a very compact engine compartment, with minimal intrusion into the interior cabin of the vehicle (no large hump for the driveshaft, now just a smaller hump to route exhaust, fuel lines, etc. in a more protected area.
A rear-wheel-drive car of the same weight, power, gearing and tire size and type will accelerate faster than an FWD car, as the weight of the vehicle is transferred off the front wheels and onto the rear wheels to improve traction. FWD cars typically lose traction in these situations.
- 1929 Cord L29: First front-drive car sold in the U.S.
- 1934 Citroën 7CV: Combines front-drive and unibody construction.
- 1949 Citroën 2CV: Arguably the car that first delivers front-drive benefits to the masses. The Deux Chevaux remains in production until 1990, exceeding 5 million examples.
- 1959 Morris Mini-Minor: Drafts the packaging template for modern front drivers by mounting a transverse, water-cooled four-cylinder under its hood.
- 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado: GM’s first real attempt at front-wheel drive has a V-8 and becomes the first production car to demonstrate that front driver could be both large and alluring. Says C/D in November 1965: “The Toronado . . . may finally break down the orthodoxy and conformity that have gripped this country’s auto industry since they gave up on steam.”
- 1973 Honda Civic and 1975 Volkswagen Rabbit: Both employ the most popular front-drive packaging still in use today, with a transaxle bolted to the end of a transversely mounted four-cylinder.
How does front-wheel drive work?
There is generally not a lot of space under the hood of a front-wheel-drive vehicle. Instead of a neat little motor mounted onto a frame like under the hood of a model car, there is a big block of components carefully fit together in a small space. This is because the engine sits right over the transaxle under the hood.
The transaxle acts as the transmission and front differential. A typical setup involves a transversely mounted engine mounted off-center under the hood. On the side of the engine compartment with more space due to the off-center mounting, the transmission is mounted to the engine.
The transmission then sends power directly into the front differential gears. The front differential in this type of setup is usually off-center as well. Through a series of universal joints that allow the wheels to turn and go up and down via the vehicle’s suspension while still receiving power from the engine.
Tire rotation on Front-Wheel Drive
In Front-wheel drive rotate the tires in a forward cross pattern or the alternative X pattern. Rear tires are moved diagonally to opposite sides on the front axle while the right front tire becomes the new spare tire. The spare tire is positioned on the right side of the rear axle while the left tire on the front axle is moved directly back into the left rear position.
Is Front Wheel Drive Good for Snow?
Yes, FWD cars and crossovers are completely safe to drive in the snow assuming that you have winter tires and drive carefully. Most of the weight in an FWD drive vehicle is directly above the front tires, giving the drivetrain a good amount of traction.
And since all the weight is either above or behind the wheels doing the driving and steering, an FWD “pulls” the vehicle forward, cutting down on oversteer. Oversteer is a likely cause for a car spinning out in the snow. However, an FWD car with worn all-weather tires won’t fare well in the snow.
Advantages of Front-Wheel Drive Pros
- The engine and transmission are located directly above the front wheels, which can provide better traction when climbing hills and driving on slippery roads.
- Since all the equipment is upfront, they create more space and legroom in the back.
- Front-wheel drive has less components than any other drivetrain setup, making the vehicle lighter and improving its gasoline mileage. That’s why most economy-type cars are front-wheel drive.
- There is greater tactile feedback through the steering wheel if the wheels are slipping.
- Front-wheel drive is a simpler system and tends to be less expensive to buy and maintain.
If most of your driving is in dry or rainy conditions, a front-wheel-drive system is all you need. Most modern front-wheel-drive systems contain anti-lock braking (ABS) and traction control, making them perfectly suitable for light snow conditions as well.
Disadvantages of Front-Wheel Drive Cons
- Since all the weight is located in the front of the vehicle, front-wheel-drive cars tend to understeer.
- During sudden acceleration, front-wheel drive vehicles tend to veer to the right or left because of something called “torque steer.”
- Front-wheel drive tends to have a lower towing capacity than rear-wheel or 4WD/AWD drivetrains.
- Front-wheel drive has worse acceleration than rear-wheel drive, which is why most sporty and race cars use rear-wheel drive.
- With all the weight up front, the front-wheel-drive can make handling more difficult.
- CV joints/boots in FWD vehicles tend to wear out sooner than in rear-wheel drive vehicles.