Cars of different shapes and sizes are made to perform differently on different surfaces. Most drivers know the drive system their car has but few understand how they work and differ from one another. How do you know if a car is 4WD, 2WD, FWD, RWD, or AWD?
Front Wheel Drive
This is the drive system found in majority of vehicles. As their name suggests, front wheel drive vehicles drive all their power to the front wheels. Front drives are often implemented because of their ability to make the car compact and free space in the cabin. To tell if a car is front wheel drive, there are a few things to check.
Check the engine location. Cars with the engine in the front can indicate either front or rear wheel drive. The position of the belt should guide owners on whether or not a car is a front wheel drive. Engines mounted from back to front with facing backwards indicate the car is FWD.
Check the manual: All car specifications are found in the car manual. In addition, the type of vehicle can guide owners on what drive system their car uses. Family cars and minivans tend to be FWD.
Rear Wheel Drive
RWDs drive their power into the car’s rear wheels. It is the oldest drive system in vehicles dating back to the 70s. RWDs can handle a lot of horsepower and more vehicle weight. This makes the car more stable as there is even distribution of weight. And since the majority of the weight is positioned over the front wheels, the car has good traction. This is the reason it is often found in sports cars and performance cars, big cars and race cars.
To know if a car is rear wheel drive, there are a few things to check:
- Engine position: If a car’s engine is at the back, this means the car is a rear wheel drive. This is not to mean that cars with engine at the front cannot be RWD. If the engine is at the front and is placed from front to back making the belts face forward, this indicates a RWD.
- Type of car: Full size SUVs and tracks are mostly rear wheel drive
- Check the manual
- Search the vehicle online: Manufacturer’s websites contain details about their cars. An online search will show if the car is RWD or not
Four Wheel Drive (4WD)
Also known as 4×4, 4WD vehicles function in RWD mode until four wheel traction is needed. 4WDs tend to feature two sped transfer case with high and low ranges. Unlike other drive systems, 4WD is driver activated through a secondary shift gear or a dedicated button. Four Wheel Drive is mainly found in SUVs, trucks and pickups because it offers off road traction.
To identify a four wheel drive, one has to look at the following:
- Check for a secondary 4WD gear or button
- If the vehicle is a truck or SUV, there are high chances it’s a four wheel drive
- Check the car manual
- Search for the car online
All Wheel Drive
All Wheel Drive are often mistaken with 4WD because of their ability to employ all four wheels. However, this is not the case. AWD operates by sending power to the front wheels and rear wheels on every launch preventing loss of traction and allowing the driver to have control over all wheels simultaneously. This gives the car more power on rough terrain such as snow and gravel.
The following are differences between AWD and 4WD:
A major difference between AWD and 4WD is that AWD is found in multi axle (more than four wheels or axles) vehicles like cargo trucks and military vehicles. In 4WD cars, just four wheels are powered.
Another difference is that AWD provides permanent all axle control while 4WD provides two axle control up until the driver switches to 4WD mode. This technically means that an AWD cannot be driven in 2WD mode while a four wheel drive ca start as a 2WD then switch to 4WD when needed.
The amount of power provided to the axles in AWD is different whereas in 4WD, all axles/wheels are given equal power. So when taking a sudden turn on mud or snow and AWD will allow the outer wheels to get more power. This provides the driver with better control and better traction on tough terrain.
There a number of ways to tell if a car is AWD.
- Look underneath the vehicle when it’s off. If you see the axle shaft running from the front to the rear axles, the car is an AWD.
- Check the manual. If nothing is mentioned about AWD, the vehicle probably does not have the feature.
- Do an online search.
Two Wheel Drive
2WDs are the standard in vehicles. They work simply by the engine powering two wheels while the other two are allowed to spin freely. Since the engine only uses energy to move two wheels, it doesn’t have to carry the weight of a 4WD or AWD and this makes vehicles with 2WD lighter. They are setup to be FWD or RWD depending on which two wheels are being powered.
To know whether a car is 2WD, check whether it’s a FWD or RWD. However, most family cars, sedans, and minivans are 2WD.
All these drive systems have their own benefits and downsides. There is no ‘bad’ drive system as it depends on the needs of the driver, the situation, location and day to day driving habits. When buying a new vehicle, research on factors such as performance and fuel consumption of these drive systems to make the best choice.
Steven Reilly is a qualified mechanic and his passion for cars goes beyond just the technical aspects. He is also an amateur racer and all round car enthusiast. When he is not driving them, he can often be found in his garage under the hood of a rare model. Steven Reilly has lost track of the number of hours he has spent setting up his fine collection of rebuilt models. He believes that cars can provide a constructive and fun opportunity to teach the youth important life skills. In line with this, he is developing a community outreach program, potentially dubbed ‘Cars for change’.