Quick: is your car front-wheel-drive, rear-wheel-drive, or all-wheel-drive? Unless you live in the snow belt or you're a performance driver, the difference between the three is largely academic. Driving gently on a dry day over sticky asphalt, you'd be hard pressed to know whether the engine is pulling your car down the road with the front wheels, pushing with the rears, or moving it with all four.
Front-wheel drive started its mass-market climb with early Citroëns and progressed to the 1948 Saab, 1959 Mini, 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado, 1975 VW Rabbit, and the 1980 Chevrolet Citation. It's become the most common drive system today. And for good reason. For starters, there's never any fishtailing. Imagine pushing a long object from the back – on ice. Or pushing a longboard in the ocean with one finger. Both will choose their own direction. Move to the front and pull them, and they'd be guaranteed to follow the desired path. The same holds true for front-drive cars accelerating on slick surfaces. With the fronts pulling, there may be some wheelspin and loss of forward motion, but it won't suddenly end up sideways.
Traction control is pretty much standard across the board, except in the lowest-priced economy cars. So in addition to the inherent safety of the front-wheel-drive design, there is the ability to accelerate without spin, even on nasty surfaces. Throw in some winter tires or tire chains and the average front-drive car can be surprisingly good in horrible weather, making it a smart choice for snowy climates.
Front-wheel drive locates the entire drivetrain – engine, transmission, differential, and axles – ahead of the driver. This is great for efficiency: less distance for engine power to travel, less friction for it to overcome. It's also a boon for interiors, as there are no drivetrain parts intruding upon cabin space.
Front-wheel drive's big negative, though, is that it often leaves the enthusiast cold. With all that machinery in the nose, it follows that most of the weight is there too. Some front-drive cars have almost 70 percent of their total curb weight at the front. While this isn't felt in day-to-day service, aggressive driving reveals that so much mass doesn't like to change direction quickly. The faster such a car is aimed through curves and hairpin turns, the more lethargic its responses are likely to be. Small, light, front-wheel-drive cars – like the modern-day Mini – are an exception, having been engineered carefully to react in a sporting fashion.
On slippery roads, rear-wheel-drive cars can be a handful. Remember, tires are responsible not just for accelerating and slowing a vehicle, but for holding thousands of pounds of steel from shifting laterally (side to side). With the rear wheels spinning under acceleration due to snow, water, ice – or even sand – breaking the bond between rubber and road, the tires can no longer do their job of holding the car on track, while the back can start to slide and, ultimately, rotate.
So why would anyone want a rear-wheel drive car? Because they are usually more fun. Engines are heavy; stretching the transmission and other weighty drivetrain components further back balances the car so that it responds quickly to steering inputs and doesn't nose-dive under braking. Enthusiasts generally prefer it; the Mazda MX-5 Miata (along with the British roadsters that inspired it), Hyundai Genesis Coupe, Chevrolet Camaro, and just about every BMW sedan ever built, stand as proof. With the benefit of traction control, which inhibits wheel spin almost before it starts and is standard on most contemporary cars, even brutally powerful rear-drive cars can be trouble-free in low-traction situations.
All-wheel drive makes the most of low-traction surfaces and at-the-limit driving to keep a car on the intended course. Once found only in Jeeps and hard-core off-road vehicles (where it is often called four-wheel drive), all-wheel drive has now made its way across the automotive spectrum. In some cases – and for some situations – it's an extremely helpful safety feature. For sports cars, it's a big performance booster. For most drivers, though, the added weight and complexity of driving all four wheels isn't worth the extra money or the penalty in fuel consumption.
With twice the traction, all-wheel-drive cars can keep going in the worst conditions. The front wheels pull and the rears push simultaneously, affording careful control of both ends. Today's systems use precise computer monitoring to send power only to the wheels that have traction. Add in electronic traction control and stability control, often standard, and the result is a confidence-inspiring vehicle for any condition.
For parking lots and the occasional rainy day, however, it doesn't make sense to lug around an extra set of axles, a driveshaft, and – in some cases – a transfer case (a type of second transmission for heavy-duty four-wheel-drive systems). Optional all-wheel drive costs from hundreds to thousands more. It hurts fuel economy through a higher curb weight and/or greater driveline friction. And with more moving parts, there's the issue of reliability and maintenance.
Subaru equips all its vehicles with all-wheel drive. Crossovers from just about every automaker offer all-wheel drive as an option, as do many luxury cars. Some systems drive all four wheels all the time, others are part-time systems that mostly use two wheels, but occasionally engage the other two when needed.
If your top priorities are a spacious cabin, adequate legroom for all rear occupants and confidence in winter weather, then front-wheel drive is a wise choice. If athletic road manners and driving joy are paramount, rear-wheel drive is a must – though make certain it's combined with traction control and, ideally, stability control. If you frequently drive through the worst conditions, ever go off-roading, or drive aggressively in the rain, opt for the ultimate safety and performance of all-wheel drive.