FWD, RWD, AWD, and 4WD – What All Those Drivetrain Acronyms Really Mean

The snow is falling and winter driving conditions appear to be here to stay. Generally, Calgary drivers are well prepared for these conditions: we allow for extra time and take it slow, heat our vehicles before getting on the road, and have winter tires to protect us from the icy conditions. Nonetheless, we have learned time and time again, that not every driver on the road understands their vehicles FWD, RWD, AWD and/or 4WD systems. Our blog today will outline the different driving and traction characteristics among these different drive types and the maximum grip options for when the roads get super icy.

Front-wheel drive

Most passenger vehicles on the road today use front-wheel drive, otherwise advertised as FWD. Front-wheel drive routes the engine’s power into the two front wheels equally. Generally, FWD vehicles are more affordable because they are more cost-effective to manufacture; however, in the winter months, FWD does not always offer the traction Calgarians are looking for.

Rear-wheel drive

Rear-wheel drive or RWD is usually found on vehicles such as pickup trucks, sports cars, and luxury sedans. For trucks, RWD delivers improved traction with a substantial load. On a sports car or luxury sedan, rear-wheel-drive improves control by balancing the car’s weight more evenly throughout the vehicle. Additionally, because the front wheels don’t have to do double duty, driving and steering, designers can optimize the suspension in RWD vehicles. However, RWD vehicles are probably not what you are looking for during one of our Calgarian winters as they provide a lot less traction on slippery roads. Today, luxury RWD vehicles will offer all-wheel drive either standard or as an option.

All-wheel drive

Just as the name implies, all-wheel drive or AWD feeds power to each of the tires on the vehicle. Depending on the vehicle, AWD can deliver maximum forward traction during acceleration. It is especially helpful in slushy road conditions and when driving over moderate off-road terrain. The AWD system can help you both get going and keep moving through mud and snow. Typically, AWD systems will deliver power specifically to one of the two sets of wheels, front or rear, meaning that when slippage is detected at one axle, power is diverted to the other axle, in hopes of finding more traction there. AWD systems are best for quickly changing weather conditions like driving on a road or highway with intermittent snow and ice. You will typically find AWD systems in most SUV’s in Canada as well as some cars and minivans.

Four-wheel drive

While four-wheel drive (4WD) and AWD are titles that are often used interchangeably in marketing literature, there is a difference. Generally, 4WD is best suited for severe off-road driving situations with low-traction surfaces. Nonetheless, it is also a great vehicle system for snowy driving conditions because they offer more traction than standard FWD. Modern 4WD systems are either full-time, meaning they are always engaged; automatic, where the vehicle will automatically engage and switch between two- and four-wheel-drive mode according to driving conditions; or part-time, which requires the driver to manually put the vehicle in four-wheel drive.