Skills and Knowledge
FWD vs. RWD vs. AWD
Car drivetrains are divided into three core categories: FWD stands for front wheel drive, RWD for rear wheel drive, and AWD for all wheels drive. Each drivetrain has their own characteristics and pros and cons.
Within these three categories, there are more configurations to understand. You can have front-engine FWD (e.g. Honda Civic), front-engine RWD (e.g. most sports cars, like Ford Mustangs and Toyota Supras), mid-engine RWD (e.g. Ferraris, McLarens, Toyota MR2s), rear-engine RWD (e.g. Porsche 911), front-engine AWD (e.g. Subaru WRX, Nissan GT-R), mid-engine AWD (e.g. Lamborghinis, Audi R8), and rear-engine AWD (e.g. Porsche 911 Turbo).
Read on to learn about the differences between these permutations.
Front wheel drive
Front wheel drive means that power goes to the front two wheels, which are also the wheels you use to steer. This leads to a point-and-go driving mechanic that is very predictable.
Since the front wheels handle both steering and throttle, they can be easily overwhelmed and lose grip. This can result in understeer, where turning the steering wheel don't change the direction of the car because the front wheels can’t get enough traction.
Traditionally, racers eschewed FWD cars because of their tendencies to understeer (less fun than oversteer), torque steer (pulls to one side during heavy acceleration), and be nose heavy since the engine and drive system are all up front. However, cars like the Honda Civic Type-R have proven that FWD cars are capable of incredible on-track performance when designed well.
Rear wheel drive
Rear wheel drive means that power goes to the back two wheels. This is a popular setup for performance cars, as it separates the turning wheels from the power wheels. RWD cars can “power over” turns or oversteer, popularized by drifting. Most RWD cars have their engines in the front, which results in a well-balanced weight distribution.
Mid-engine RWD cars are even more balanced, as the heaviest components, like the engine, sit squarely in the center of gravity of the car. These cars exhibit highly neutral and predictable dynamics during acceleration, turns, and braking. However, mid-engine cars are usually expensive supercars, because the engine location makes them very impractical.
Rear-engine RWD cars are relatively rare - the Porsche 911 is the flag-bearer of this configuration. This setup provides great acceleration and traction since most of the weight are over the accelerating wheels, but they are very prone to oversteer. This is why 911s have unique driving dynamics and a high learning curve.
All wheel drive
All wheel drive powers all four wheels at the same time. Advanced AWD cars may send different percentages of power to the front or the back.
The engine layouts result in the same characteristics as described in the RWD section, but is more neutral. For example, a Porsche 911 Turbo with a rear-engine AWD setup is similar at times to a RWD Porsche 911.
AWD setups have the most traction and ability to put down power. An AWD car will almost always wipe the floor with a similarly powerful FWD or RWD car in a 0-60 drag race. However, AWD cars are heavier, which is a disadvantage on the track.
When it comes to engine layouts, AWD systems make the car more neutral. For example, a front-engine AWD car will be more neutral than a front-engine FWD car, and a rear-engine AWD car will be more neutral than a rear-engine RWD car. Many supercars are made in the mid-engine AWD configuration because it’s so balanced and neutral.
Which configuration should I choose?
There’s no single right answer here. Most of the track cars we recommend are front-engine RWD, but that’s because this configuration is the most popular within the market of relatively affordable performance cars. Choice also come down to preference, driving style, and type of events. As a beginner, you don’t need to think too much about the specific configuration. As long as the car is objectively a good car, you can go very far with it.