Drivetrain Guide

What is a drivetrain, and does the type you pick really matter? Why do people prefer RWD for sports cars and AWD in winter? Our drivetrain experts have laid out the different drivetrains and drivetrain differences to help you determine which you want for your new Nissan car, SUV, or pickup.

What is a Drivetrain?

The drivetrain is a group of components that transfers engine torque to the wheels to propel a car forward. Components include the transmission, differential, drive shaft, and axle. FWD vehicles have a part called a transaxle that combines the transmission and differential into one unit attached to a half-shaft. AWD and 4WD vehicles have an extra part called a transfer case.

The differential is the part that distributes power to individual wheels. Depending on the drive type, only the front wheels will receive power, only the rear wheels, or all four wheels. The differential can also cause one wheel to spin faster than the others, such as the outside wheel when making a turn. Limited-slip or locking differentials won’t do this.

Front-Wheel Drive

A white 2017 Nissan Versa driving along a grassy road

When you step on the gas, does your car feel like it’s being pushed or pulled forward? If it feels like it’s being pulled, then your car is front-wheel drive. In a front-wheel drive car, the engine, transmission, differential, and driven wheels are all up front, and the rear wheels are pulled along. This is the most popular configuration in modern cars.


  • All the major components are housed upfront, so the passenger and cargo compartments are bigger.
  • Front-wheel drive systems are light and better on fuel economy than the other options.
  • The weight of the engine over the driven wheels gives front-wheel drive vehicles great traction.


  • All the major components are squeezed into a small area, making service and repairs more difficult.
  • The nose-heavy configuration puts increased wear on the front tires and suspension.
  • Front-wheel drive cars are harder to control under heavy acceleration, due to the nose-heavy configuration.

Rear-Wheel Drive

A white 370Z driving around a race track

When you step on the gas, if your car feels like it’s being pushed forward rather than pulled, you have a rear-wheel-drive set-up. This system runs from front to back; the power is sent to the back wheels and the front wheels steer. Once the most common drive type, it’s now typically only found on sports cars and heavy-duty vehicles.


  • Rear-wheel drive systems cars distribute weight more evenly across the front and rear. Better balance means more precise handling, especially when cornering or with high horsepower engines.
  • Because rear-wheel drive is a simpler and more robust design, it requires less servicing and is easier to fix when repairs are needed.


  • Rear-wheel drive systems take up more room, so rear-wheel-drive cars often have less passenger and cargo space than front-wheel drive cars.
  • Because there is less weight over the driven wheels, rear-wheel-drive cars can’t get as much traction and aren’t suitable for driving in rain or snow.

All-Wheel Drive

A while Nissan Pathfinder

All-wheel drive can send power through any of the four wheels, thanks to a central differential. Torque distribution is adjusted to enhance traction automatically without driver intervention. After front-wheel drive, this is the second most common drive type. It’s mostly found on crossovers and sport/luxury sedans.


  • All-wheel drive improves handling on dry roads.
  • All-wheel drive improves traction on wet/snowy roads.


  • All-wheel drive systems are very heavy and can greatly reduce fuel economy.
  • All-wheel drive systems are complicated, and are often more expensive to fix.

Four-Wheel DriveA red Nissan pathfinder driving through the woods

For the most part, 4WD is very similar to AWD. Unlike AWD, 4WD is usually part-time, and the driver has to turn it on when they want it. Additionally, 4WD uses limited-slip or locking differentials so that the front and rear wheels always receive the same amount of power. It’s mostly found on trucks and large SUVs.


  • 4WD is usually available with both a high range and low range. High range provides performance similar to AWD. Low range is ideal for extremely difficult terrain requiring more torque and slower speed, such as rock crawling.


  • True 4WD is mostly intended only for off-road situations. Four-wheel drive vehicles won’t handle as well on high-traction surfaces like dry pavement, and if 4WD is engaged on pavement, it can even damage the drivetrain.

This overview should make it easier to come to a decision over what type of drivetrain you want. You can search vehicles by drivetrain in our new and pre-owned inventories. Just scroll down to the bottom of our “Refine Search” tool to locate the drive type selection. If you want to discuss drivetrains further with an expert, don’t hesitate to call (800) 982-0302.