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Front, Rear and Four Wheel Drive

by Mr Butterscotch · 10 comments

in Editorial, Technical

The Mitsubishi Evo X

As I’m still amazed at car owners’ lack of knowledge, I thought it was high time to continue my highly prized education series of posts in order to get you all up to speed on what your car is, what it does and why it does it.  Today, I’d like you all to consider the wheels that are powered – the ones that move when you press the accelerator.

Front Wheel Drive
Intro

Here, when you press the accelerator, the front wheels are powered.  They move the car, as well as doing the steering (we will come back to that bit).  The drivetrain is all at the front of the car as there isn’t a need for a long driveshaft connected to the rear wheels.  Front wheel drive is on a lot of cars and it serves to make them very easy to control in everyday driving
The Good
You may notice better traction in adverse conditions as the weight of the engine block is above the wheels that are getting powered.  You won’t find a front-wheel-drive car that is tail happy.
The Bad
You may find plenty of front drive cars that suffer from understeer with speed, or worse, torque steer under acceleration.  To top that, you need grip for acceleration and cornering so doing both with one set of wheels is not good.
Examples
Vauxhall Astra, Renault Clio, Peugeot 206 and many more.

Rear Wheel Drive
Intro
When you press the accelerator in this type of car, the rear wheels are powered.  While the engine block is still at the front end, the wheels that need the traction are at the back.  This type of drivetrain setup tends to be used for race cars, performance cars and prestige models.
The Good
You find oversteer to your liking (when the back end swings out and you can go a bit sideways), the turning and accelerating wheels are separate, balance can be better in a rear drive car.
The Bad
Can be twitchy in the wet, dangerous in snow, you’ll need skill and practice to get the most out of it.
Examples
BMW (many of the series), Porsches, Race cars.

Four Wheel Drive
Intro

When you need a car that can tackle any type of terrain, then this is your drivetrain.  All wheel, always on, four wheel drive gives you more traction.  Don’t listen to those who claim it doesn’t, they don’t understand the science.  Traction is how much power you can put down on the road and therefore having four wheels to do so equates to more traction (though traction is frequently controlled separately by electronic means).
The Good
Whether you’re a rally driver or a farmer, you may well find four-wheel drive your thing as it can handle almost anything chucked at it.
The Bad
It’s going to cost you in fuel as you have to power all of the wheels; it makes some street-drivers think that they are invincible.
Examples
Land Rovers, Subaru Imprezas, Mitsubishi Evos, Rally cars.

So there you have it, a brief guide to drivetrains used.  I hope that you can take this knowledge and impress your mates down the pub.  Or, even better, use it to inform your next purchasing decision.  My money is on the Mitsubishi Evolution X by the way – I’ll try to run a feature on it next week.  It has four wheel drive but also some of the most complex electronic controls that you’ll ever see in a car.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Julie Hunt January 6, 2010 at 11:54 pm

Please explain – what is torque steer?

I have an Astra estate [2007] & it hasn’t been good to drve in the icy conditions occurring of late – wheels spin on the slightest of inclines and skidding with the lightest of braking. I’ve driven very carefully and kept to low gear going downhill & as high as poss [usually 2nd] going uphill when conditions are slippy. Any tips?

andy nimmo January 9, 2010 at 9:34 pm

hi,i have a lexus is 250 rear wheel drive,and to say its been a challenge is a understatement, the snow has made driving a rear wheel car a nightmare,the back end kicks out at the slightest of icey or cold conditions

Mr Butterscotch January 10, 2010 at 8:24 pm

Hi Julie – first things first. Torque steer is when the power going to the front wheels overwhelms them, and the car steers (through torque) left or right.

Re tips, I think the greatest thing I can recommend is to make sure you do everything slower than you’d normally. Otherwise, try to avoid journeys completely if you can. Unless you have a 4×4 there’s really no way to be completely sure you’ll get home at night in the current weather we’re facing.

Mr Butterscotch January 10, 2010 at 8:24 pm

Andy, I completely agree with the rear wheel drive thing in snow. However, when the conditions are good, rear wheel drive cars are much better dynamically!

Dave Booth November 8, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Try fitting winter tyres to front wheel drive cars, it makes a massive difference when driving in snow. My ford focus was transformed in the bad weather when I changed the silly low profile things it was fitted with to a set of winter tyres. It wasn’t quite as good as a real four wheel drive vehicle but it was as good, if not better, than some of the toy ones, chav 4s and the like.

John Boutwood December 19, 2010 at 10:29 am

Why is the Jag S Type so bad in the snow?

Mrs Fletcher January 14, 2011 at 11:20 pm

My rear wheel drive BMW saloon will go in all weathers, all
I do is put some weight in the boot and away we go. No scarry lost
everything moments like the front wheel drives I have had in the
past. The only thing that stops it is the depth of snow.

Mr Butterscotch January 16, 2011 at 11:22 pm

Hi Mrs Fletcher,

Thanks for the feedback. It’s worth noting that a BMW with decent tyres can manage in poor conditions and like you say adding weight will help.

paul simpson January 10, 2012 at 4:55 pm

@ John Boutwood. Thta’s because the S type jag is REAR WHEEL DRIVE. Last year withthe snow in Northern Ireland I put 4 bags of coal in the boot of my wife’s S type and it DIDNt make a bit of difference. She still struggled to drive it, – I got into my Toyota Avensis and drove like it was a normal days driving.

Ifeanyi April 13, 2012 at 1:48 am

Hi. Do FWD vehicles develop shaft problems after a while?

I’m interested in buying a FWD 2012 KIA Sportage. Problem is I’m a bit confused about FWD vehicles and shaft problems. Growing up, I witnessed many family and friends cars with a ‘knocking’ sound coming from their shafts when turning. The general belief then was that FWD cars always developed shaft problems after a while.

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