The Lowdown on Drivetrains

There is a great deal of lingo that gets thrown around in the automotive business and it’s often difficult to comprehend and discern what each term means, especially when they’re extremely similar. When you’re not an automotive expert, most of the terms sound the same, and it’s too hard to try and get to the bottom of the complicated definitions. When we’re talking about the particular drivetrain of your vehicle, it is even less simple to understand, as the difference is as simple as one small letter.

Drivetrain Basics

First, let’s start with what the drivetrain is, in your vehicle. A novice can usually quote the specs of their engine’s cylinders, the trim level, and maybe even the size of the tire they’ll need to purchase to replace the current tires. They may also be able to tell you the basics of their drivetrain, but not many understand exactly what it is. Unfortunately, not many people outside of the auto mechanic field fully understand this complex system. Often called the most misunderstood component of a vehicle, the drivetrain is, simply put, the system of parts in the vehicle that work together in order to power the wheels.  No matter whether you’re shopping with a new or Used Car Dealer, it’s important to know exactly what you’re looking for in a vehicle, especially when it comes to what your drivetrain can offer.

The drivetrain, however, gets a whole lot more complicated than that, and may change dependent upon who you ask. Some people will bring into play the entirety of the drivetrain, which is the transmission, the driveshaft, the axles, the wheels, and sometimes even the engine. However, technically, the engine is not actually part of the drivetrain, but rather the powertrain. The aforementioned parts work together to distribute power to the wheels, thus propelling the car forward. Dependent upon the particular drivetrain in terms of wheel distribution, certain wheels respond to the power being channeled.

Front-Wheel Drive

In a front-wheel drive car, the majority of the power is being driven to the front two wheels of the vehicle. Recommended primarily for drivers that live in a moderate climate, two-wheel drive cars are not as well equipped for high-speed driving. Front-wheel drive is the most common type of drive train in modern sedans, and even many small SUVs, as it offers better gas mileage and better cargo room. Due to the distribution of power being sent to the heaviest part of the car, front wheel drive cars can actually hold their own in the snow. One major disadvantage of most front-wheel drive vehicles is also the part that makes them more reliable in inclement weather; when braking, all of the stopping power is placed in the heaviest part of the car, thus making for less stopping power.

Rear-Wheel Drive

Rear-wheel drive, while being performance heavy, is less made for areas that have a large climate variation, as they are not very reliable in any type of weather, even rain. In this type of drivetrain, the front wheels steer the car, but the back wheels propel the vehicle forward. In a high-speed or performance vehicle, rear wheel drive is preferred as the weight is better distributed than in a front wheel drive car, making them ideal for dry weather driving. However, serious drawbacks of this drivetrain include increased price, decreased interior space, and higher prices.

The difference between the last two drivetrains on the list is a source of misunderstanding, and the confusion is warranted. Four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive sound like they are the same thing, as most cars only have four wheels. However, these two drivetrains are quite dissimilar and their differences are easily deciphered when put in layman’s terms. Finding someone to break them down for you, although, may be the difficult part.

Four-Wheel Drive

In a four-wheel drive vehicle, all four wheels are not always engaged and powered. The four-wheels have to be engaged by either a switch controlled by the driver or in newer cars, by an automatic system called the transfer case. Four-wheel drive vehicles are beneficial in areas with uneven terrain or a multitude of inclement weather. Heavy snow and off-road driving are most easily tackled with the use of this type of drivetrain, as the four wheels engage when needed. Most vehicles featuring four-wheel drive function as a rear-wheel drive vehicle when the drivetrain system is not engaged, thus providing more accurate weight distribution.

All-Wheel Drive

All-wheel drive means that all four wheels are being powered equally and at all times. This type of drivetrain is often included as an upgrade for small SUVs and Crossover vehicles, and many people consider them just as favorable for minor inclement weather. Whereas four-wheel drive must typically be engaged, the all-wheel drive vehicle allows for automatic sensing of the lack of control. This system is not recommended for areas with heavy snow drifts or high-volume snowing but should suit a novice driving for moderate inclement weather.

If you’re living in a hot sunny climate that sees little rain or snow and possesses very little in the way of uneven surface, front wheel drive is probably going to be sufficient. If you’re looking to whip your vehicle around corners while traveling at high-speeds, you’re going to want to go with a rear-wheel drivetrain. As for all-wheel versus four-wheel drive, the choice is up to you. Based on your level of comfort in bad weather, the size of the vehicle, and the simplicity you’re used to, choose your drivetrain accordingly. Once the drivetrain terminology is explained, it’s not a complicated as it seems.

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