Are there any advantages to front-wheel drive if you don't live in a wintry climate?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Sep 01, 2001

Dear Tom and Ray:

Except for the most expensive cars these days, almost all cars are front-wheel drive. But unless one lives in a snowy or icy climate, I can't see any advantage to front-wheel drive -- except to the repair people, who get to charge more to fix them. Am I missing something? If one lives in a warm-weather climate, is there any reason to buy a front-wheel-drive car? -- Roger

TOM: Not really, Roger. As long as you can afford the payments on a Mercedes S430.

RAY: As you say, most reasonably priced cars ARE front-wheel drive. So if you choose not to buy a front-wheel-drive car, you pretty much limit your choices to little sports cars, trucks and expensive sedans.

TOM: But you're right about front-wheel drive. It has only a few real advantages. Its primary advantage is that it provides better traction in rain and snow, since the weight of the engine presses down right over the driven wheels.

RAY: And, since the front-wheel-drive design crunches all the mechanical parts up front, it also allows the overall size of a car to be smaller, which usually means improved fuel economy. Plus, placing the transmission up front leaves more room in the passenger compartment, since it eliminates the "hump" that covers the drive shaft. So front-wheel drive does have a few pluses.

But it also has one significant disadvantage: It's harder to work on. Since everything is jammed up front, you have to be Houdini to reach certain things, like water pumps, cylinder-head bolts and sometimes even spark plugs! And the longer it takes to reach things (i.e., the more parts that have to removed first to get there), the more you pay your mechanic in labor charges.

TOM: In contrast, we had a rear-wheel-drive '79 Caprice in the shop the other day. And there was so much room up front that I was able to climb into the engine compartment, close the hood and take a nap.

RAY: Oh, is THAT where you were on Tuesday?

TOM: Yeah, until about 4 o'clock, when Craig started it up and the fan blade turned my coveralls into shorts.

RAY: Well, for that reason -- among others -- we don't recommend sleeping in the engine compartments of rear-wheel-drive cars. But they're great as long as rain -- and more importantly, snow -- is not a big issue for you, Roger.

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