Battle Of The Drives: Which Drivetrain Layout Is Right For You?

If you're in the market for a used car, one of the biggest factors you should take into consideration is drivetrain layout. Front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, and all-wheel drive layouts each have their own distinct advantages and drawbacks. Depending on your driving habits, one of these layouts will stand above the other two.

Front-Wheel Drive: Efficiency at the Cost of Performance

Most modern cars are front-wheel drive, and for a good reason: front-wheel drive systems are the most compact and fuel efficient. The entire drivetrain is packaged under the hood of the car, eliminating the need to design the rest of the chassis around a rear driveshaft and differential. With the engine and transmission mounted directly on the front axle, there is less drivetrain power loss which gives you better gas mileage.

The downside of front-wheel drive systems is that they tend to deliver the worst handling of the three layouts. Whenever you hit the throttle, the weight of your car is transferred to the rear wheels. Therefore, powerful front-wheel drive cars tend to have traction issues under heavy acceleration. That also tends to make them understeer when cornering at high-speeds.

Rear-Wheel Drive: Dry Performance at the Cost of Inclement Weather Performance

Rear-wheel drive cars benefit from weight transfer in the same way that front-wheel drive cars are hindered by it. When you accelerate heavily or power through a corner, the weight of the car squats on the rear tires and gives you increased traction. Skilled track drivers can also use the engine's power to carefully break the rear tires loose and throttle steer through corners, giving the car more nimble handling characteristics.

The downside is that rear-wheel drive cars can be tricky to operate in the rain and snow. The power going to the rear wheels can cause the tires to break loose on slick surfaces, which will cause the rear of the car to wobble from side to side. Unskilled drivers can get into trouble when that happens: if you overcorrect by countersteering and braking heavily, you'll completely lose control. Luckily, modern electronic stability systems drastically help mitigate that problem.

All-Wheel Drive: The Best of Both Worlds at the Cost of Efficiency

All-wheel drive systems offer even more traction than rear-wheel drive ones while also being even easier to control than front-wheel drive cars on slick surfaces. Essentially, it's the best of both worlds. The downside is that all-wheel drive systems are heavy, and they suffer from far more power loss in order to deliver the engine's torque to all four wheels. That means they'll be less fuel efficient than a comparable front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive model.

Consider What's Most Important to You

No matter how good you are with a wrench, you can't change your car's drivetrain layout. When you're shopping for a used car, consider what is most important to you so that you get the right layout for your needs.

If you want to save money and maximize fuel economy, go with something that's front-wheel drive. If you want more performance and nimbler handling, buy something that's rear-wheel drive. If you want performance without sacrificing your ability to drive in snowy conditions, get an all-wheel drive vehicle.