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Throughout The Car Industry

Rear Wheel Drive Is Coming Back!

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On: Mon, Oct 10, 2011 at 12:21PM | By: Peter C Sessler

Rear Wheel Drive Is Coming Back!

The big three American car makers (Chrysler, GM, and Ford) are slowly bringing back rear-wheel drive cars, especially Chrysler. Does this mean that they are giving up front-wheel drive? Not at all, but they are finally acknowledging that rear-wheel is in many respects superior to front-wheel drive. Actually, rear-wheel drive never really went away as pick-up trucks and most SUVs are rear-wheel drive (RWD) vehicles.

Front-wheel drive (FWD) wasn’t “new” when it was introduced in a large way in the 1970s (VW’s Rabbit started the trend). The real breakthrough in FWD packaging was pioneered by Alex Issigonis who designed the “Mini” in England in 1959. GM came out with the Oldsmobile Toronado in 1966, followed by the 1968 Cadillac Eldorado. I remember how neat these two cars were because they didn’t have the traditional “hump” in the middle of the interior.

After the success of the Rabbit, all car companies started producing FWD cars; not because FWD is “better”, but because they had to meet stringent CAFÉ (mileage regulations) and the only way to do that was to downsize their cars. And the only way to still maintain reasonable interior room for the ever bulkier American population was through FWD. FWD locates all of the drivetrain in front of the firewall, allowing in theory, for more interior room. Some of the FWD cars ended with less room, and except for minivans, that hump in the middle of the interior is still there.

Of course, all of the car makers touted the fact that FWD was so “great”, especially in the snow. That, generally, is true. With all that weight up front (which also results in an inherently unbalanced car), initial traction may be better, which is why many people think FWD is superior. But when you consider ultimate handling situations such as in evasive maneuvers, FWD is worse. Of course, most people don’t encounter “ultimate handling situations” everyday, but FWD reduces the driver’s ability to retain control. For example, in a skid situation, the driver of a RWD drive car can steer with the front wheels and use the gas pedal to power out of a skid. People who’ve never driven a RWD car (and there are many), unfortunately, don’t know what I’m talking about.

In a corner, with FWD, when you lose it you continue on into the bushes. There’s just too much weight up front. Simply put, with FWD, you’re asking too much of the front —to steer, brake, and accelerate. With RWD, these tasks are split up. The front steers and brakes while the rear accelerates. Tires have only so much tractive ability and, by splitting it up, it allows for better traction, at least in “ultimate handling situations.”

The big-deal with FWD is the ability to accelerate better from a dead-stop in low traction situations, but that can give a false sense of security; you can’t stop any faster with FWD, or four-wheel drive, for that matter. All you have to do is to see how many 4x4 drivers seem to end up in the bushes (and snow banks).

And with modern electronic traction control systems, RWD is better than it ever was. And those who’ve never driven a RWD car, you’ll find something out: RWD drive cars feel and steer better. And remember, with the exception of some of the cheaper entry-level models (and Volvo who sold-out), all high-line cars, such as Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, and BMW are still RWD vehicles.

The bottom line: RWD cars handle better, and do not have the limitations of FWD in high-power applications. Practically all race cars are RWD and Audi, which won the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year, used RWD instead of their much vaunted Quattro system. Of course, all NASCAR racers are RWD even though the real “stock” cars they are based on are FWD.

A lot of people don’t care one way or the other; we all get to drive what we want, anyway. And FWD does make sense in minivans and small econobox cars. For sheer fun though, you really need RWD.


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