Front-wheel-drive vs rear-wheel-drive

Front-wheel-drive vs rear-wheel-drive, which one is better? And which one is better suited for you?

Simon Ostler
Oct 6, 2021

You may have never thought about which wheels drive your car, but there are three types: front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive (generally reserved for 4x4s and high-performance cars). We’ll focus on front- and rear-wheel-drive cars here, although most normal cars come exclusively with front-wheel drive.

Getting your head around the merits of each can be difficult, especially when so many car enthusiasts will discount all front-wheel-drive models in favour of anything with rear-wheel drive.

The fact is both formats have their own perks and drawbacks, and the ultimate decision will come down to which one you prefer, and which one best suits your needs. If you need a practical family car with lots of boot space, your options are almost entirely limited to front-wheel-drive models.

If you're after something you can pose in, with perhaps a little more of a sporty edge, you're more likely to be drawn to a selection of rear-wheel-drive cars.

But aside from the obvious difference in how they're built, there are plenty of other considerations you should make before making a decision either way, including price, reliability and how suited they are to your lifestyle.

Read on for more details on what to expect from the differences between front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive.

Front-wheel drive

Front-wheel-drive car deals
Ford Fiesta front three quarters view

Ford Fiesta

BuyaCar prices from £5,450
Monthly finance from £178*

Volkswagen Passat

BuyaCar prices from £8,995
Monthly finance from £548*

Peugeot 3008

BuyaCar prices from £13,000
Monthly finance from £240*

The first thing to note about front-wheel-drive cars is that they tend to feature much simpler engineering, and therefore tend to be more affordable than rear-wheel-drive alternatives.

The simplicity comes from the fact that all of the mechanical parts required to propel the car are located together at the front, making the whole system more compact and comprising fewer elements that could go wrong.

Simply put, if you’re looking for a car that’s more likely to be super reliable and easy to maintain, a front-wheel-drive model is the best way to go.

It’s easy to see, then, why mainstream manufacturers are all generally developing front-wheel-drive cars. Their simplicity makes them cheaper to build, and means they can be sold at cheaper prices. And most customers won’t even notice if the car is front- or rear-driven.

The vast majority of cars currently available on the market are front-wheel drive, including all of the most popular hatchback and SUVs. So, if you're just looking for a great deal on a popular family car, then front-wheel drive is likely to be your best bet.

Rear-wheel drive

Rear-wheel-drive car deals

Mazda MX-5

BuyaCar prices from £9,791
Monthly finance from £0*

Jaguar F-Type

BuyaCar prices from £29,991
Monthly finance from £0*

BMW 3 Series front three quarters view

BMW 3 Series

BuyaCar prices from £9,990
Monthly finance from £306*

Where front-wheel-drive cars make up the majority of cars we see on the road in the UK, rear-wheel-drive models have a reputation for being more exotic and unique. Most sports cars are rear-wheel drive, although some saloons like the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes E-Class are also driven by the rear wheels.

If ever there were a model that was offered with a choice either front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive, the rear-driven version would likely be the more expensive of the two.

In the most affordable cases, such as the Mazda MX-5, the engine is positioned at the front of the car, although the likes of Porsche and supercar brands such as Ferrari build a handful of sports cars with the engine mounted behind the driver.

In many ways, a front-engined car with rear-wheel-drive is the most complicated to build, because there are a lot of extra mechanical parts required to transfer the power from the engine at the front to the wheels at the back. This can make them more susceptible to mechanical faults and high servicing bills, but that is not always the case.

It’s true, there are far fewer rear-wheel drive cars on the market, and what was the sole-remaining rear-wheel-drive family hatchback – the BMW 1 Series – has also succumbed to the cheaper and more popular front-wheel-drive setup in its latest guise.

Rear-wheel drive cars tend to be focused on delivering pin-sharp performance. They’re engineered to offer the best balance when it comes to handling around corners, and also offer a more exciting sense of power as the back wheels give a sensation that you’re being kicked in the back.

But, the more exclusive nature of rear-wheel-drive cars, along with the more expensive engineering involved in building them, means that they’re generally more expensive and exclusive than front-wheel-drive models.

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

In terms of driving, the differences between front and rear-wheel drive will be subtle to most people. In normal daily driving conditions you’re unlikely to notice much of a difference at all, so carrying out the school run can be successfully managed with either setup.

You’ll generally experience less wheel-spin in a front-wheel-drive car, though, because the weight of the engine helps to push the front wheels into the ground. A rear-wheel-drive car can be more susceptible to a bit of tyre slip if you’re particularly heavy on the throttle pedal – especially in front-engined models.

Rear-wheel drive cars don’t tend to be well-suited to really slippery conditions, so it is worth taking it particularly steady when driving a rear-wheel-drive car in heavy rain or snow.

If, however, you’re trying to push the car a little harder to make the most of all your car’s performance in dry conditions, the differences between the two become a little more substantial.

In a front-wheel-drive car, having all of that weight at the front of the car can cause a phenomenon known as ‘lift-off oversteer’. In a nutshell, this occurs when you lift off the throttle while cornering. It causes the rear end of the car to get light as the car’s weight shifts forward. If you’re travelling too quickly and this happens, it can be very easy for the car to initiate a spin – especially in damp conditions.

Conversely, the fact that the front wheels are being relied upon to both power and steer the car can cause some instances of 'understeer'. This is where you feel like the car is turning less you expect, and can be a frequent occurrence if you’re trying to turn a corner while also applying the accelerator. If you try to accelerate too hard while turning, the front tyres will lose grip and you will feel the car start to go straight on.

Rear-wheel-drive cars tend to be more stable generally, as the weight of the car is more evenly distributed between the front and rear. This makes it more settled when cornering.

The only issue with driving a rear-wheel-drive car is the risks associated with wheelspin. In a front-wheel-drive car, the front wheels spin and there are no particular knock on effects beside you might be a little slower to pull away. The risk when you’re driving a rear-wheel-drive car is that excessive wheel spin could force the entire car into a spin if you’re unable to correct the slide in time.

Overall, if you’re expecting to spend a great deal of time driving around in poor weather conditions, a front-wheel-drive model is likely to be easier to control.

Ford Fiesta ST front three quarters view

In terms of enjoyment, though, there are plenty of arguments either way. While rear-wheel-drive cars are specifically engineered to offer a more authentic and enjoyable driving experience to petrol heads, there are plenty of front-wheel-drive models such as the Ford Fiesta ST which are often lauded as some of the most fun cars you can buy.

There is also one final, and utterly un-exciting difference to be aware of - but it's still pretty important. Front-wheel-drive cars will tend to wear out their front tyres quicker than the rears, and rear-wheel-drive cars will wear out their rear tyres quicker than the fronts.


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