Front-Wheel Drive vs. Rear-Wheel Drive

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Mar 01, 1999

Dear Tom and Ray:

What are the pros and cons of front-wheel drive vs. rear-wheel drive? Why is Volvo so proud that its entire fleet is now front-wheel drive, while at the same time Mercedes brags that its cars are rear-wheel drive?

-- Peter

TOM: Good question, Peter. The reason Volvo is so proud of its front-wheel-drive technology is that it has single-handedly allowed Volvos to go in the snow. And Volvo is thrilled about this. After all, it's based in Sweden! This little "snow" issue has been bothering it for decades.

RAY: And Mercedes is proud of its rear-wheel drive because purists say that rear-wheel drive provides more balanced performance. Putting the differential in the back instead of the front helps bring the car's overall  weight distribution closer to 50-50, which makes for slightly better handling.

TOM: Plus, race car drivers prefer rear-wheel drive because when they accelerate, the weight of the car "shifts" back over the driven wheels, which is important when you're pushing the car to the limits of its grip.

RAY: But for the rest of us, there's not that much difference these days. In terms of performance, rear-wheel drive is probably a little better, because there's absolutely no torque steer. But most people would be hard pressed to tell the difference.

TOM: The real disadvantage of rear-wheel drive is that, unless the car is very heavy, its traction is lousy in the snow, and not so great in the rain either. And that's why, as cars have gotten lighter over the years to save fuel, more and more of them have turned to front-wheel drive.

RAY: Even with traction enhancements such as limited slip differential and electronic traction control, rear-wheel drive just isn't as good in the snow. It's just impossible to match the traction you get with hundreds of pounds of engine and transmission sitting right over the front, driven wheels.

TOM: One disadvantage of front-wheel drive -- torque steer and weight distribution issues aside -- is that everything is crammed into the front of the car. So it's often more difficult, and therefore more expensive, to do major work on. Although, to be fair, rear-wheel-drive cars like Mercedes, Jaguar and BMW are no bargains to fix either.

RAY: But I'd say the biggest difference -- from the point of view of the average consumer -- is snow traction. And how often you have to drive in the snow is probably the only thing that should make you lean toward one or the other.

Tom and Ray share secrets mechanics don't want you to know in their pamphlet "Ten Ways You May Be Ruining Your Car Without Even Knowing It!" To order, send $3 and a stamped (55 cents), self-addressed, No. 10 envelope to Ruin, PO Box 6420, Riverton, NJ 08077-6420.

Copyright (c) 1999 by Tom and Ray Magliozzi and Doug Berman
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.


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