I’ve been watching a lot of review videos of cars recently, and I’ve been surprised how many cars still have rear wheel drive. I had thought that front wheel drive was nearly universal, except of course for all- or 4-wheel drives. It also seems that rear wheel drive is more prevalent in high end large sedans, and front wheel drive in lower end and smaller cars. Why is this?
Better acceleration and handling than FWD, especially in high performance on dry pavement, without the added weight, complexity, and cost of AWD.
They drift better, too.
In FWD cars the same tires steer the car and propel it forward. If you accelerate hard, you will usually feel the steering wheel tug to one side. In a FWD car the engine and transmission are both in the front engine compartment of the car, usually/always resulting in the engine being mounted sideways. For your average driver FWD has advantages such as better traction in bad weather and more predictable handling, it will more likely understeer (plow ahead in a straight line) than spin out where the back of the car passes the front.
A RWD car has separate tires for propulsion and steering. You can put a big engine up front and the transmission behind it, with a driveshaft leading to the rear wheels. A RWD car in skilled hands can do some really cool things.
I’m used to RWD. FWD just handles differently around a curve. It might even be better, but I’ve only driven one FWD car regularly.
I had Continental that was good at that. A bit slow, but good.
As far as i can tell, the only reason front wheel drive is better at anything is because it is cheaper to manufacture.
Plus, to the idiot masses who can’t drive in snow/slippery conditions, you don’t instantly spin out if you gun the engine in a turn like you do in in a rear drive car. You just slide forward until you stop acting like an idiot.
Bigger engines also tend to make the undesirable handling characteristics you get with FWD a lot more noticeable. With most normal family sedans, you’d be hard-pressed to tell which wheel-drive you’ve got if there’s not snow on the ground, but if you’ve ever driven one of the old Cadillacs with FWD and a big V8, concepts like understeer and torque-steer become abundantly clear. Performance oriented FWD cars tend to use lightweight turbocharged engines, which minimize the weight distribution issues that contribute to understeer as well as being less torque-y.
One important advantage in low-grip conditions like snow is to have the engine over the drive wheels, so, front engine and FWD, or rear or mid engine and RWD.
In addition, it allows for more space in the passenger compartment, better fuel economy (due to lower weight), and better traction.
I have a light weight RWD car with a big V8 up front. It is a blast to drive… in the summer. I park it and cover it up around Thanksgiving and it stays that way until the spring. During that time I drive a small boring car with 4 cylinder engine and FWD. Not nearly as much fun, but my chances of getting there and back are much better.
For certain skids, RWD is much better – to recover, it’s simply a matter of giving the gas pedal a tap, and the car straightens right out.
Rear wheel drive still exists strictly because it’s a legacy technology that there’s still a sizable market for. Some people don’t so much ‘prefer’ RWD as they don’t care if a car is. The advantage is they were (and therefore slightly still are) easier to design and build, having the whole power train mounted axial down the vehicle’s center line, especially for larger size sedans.
It’s a little more than that. RWD cars accelerate better than FWD cars, all else the same.
I’m not sure I can explain the differences. But I will tell you this:
After driving rear wheel drive cars for most of my adult life, I bought a front wheel drive care and within 30 minutes of driving that car, I went around a corner at normal speed and the car accelerated sharply and I drove right into another (parked) car. To make things even worse … the other car was a police cruiser and I felt so terrible because the cop inside seemed to be scared out of his mind. I think he may have thought I did this on purpose. I hit him while driving at a very slow speed so he was not hurt at all. But, it took quite a while for me to get him to calm down. I apologized and explained to him this was my first front wheel drive car and I had no idea of the way it handled when you accelerated while turning a corner.
So, to all of you who buy a front wheel drive car, I suggest you try a few corners in a parking lot or something until you get to feeling comfortable with the car’s handling characteristics when accelerating around a corner.
I was just so embarrassed. You have no idea.
When trying to figure things out, it’s often a real good idea to follow the money. It’s amazing just how often the money trail explains so much.
Sometimes I wish this board had a system to give out a monthly prize for the best post of the month. I would be strongly tempted to vote for your post this month.
Pretty much this.
In higher performance applications/environments, RWD will have greater benefits, but for daily driving duties, the difference isn’t dramatic. In fact, I’d say many modern-sporty FWD cars with good tires get around and accelerate out of corners just fine. Since most people sit in traffic or don’t race around on public roads (or even when they do), FWD is more than fine.
Many higher end/priced street (but not sports) cars are equipped with RWD due to the perception of performance ($$$)-- which like a number of other things (bigger motors, drilled brakes, etc), gets back to selling cars to make money.
The packaging is better, so there’s more interior room. Weight is saved by having a transaxle instead of a separate transmission, differential, and driveshaft, and also by the fact that the chassis doesn’t need to be as stiff between the front and rear wheels. Furthermore, FWD transaxles have less power loss.
The net result is that if you take a typical 4-cyl FWD 5-speed “hot hatch,” flip the engine 90 degrees and run the power to the rear wheels, the resulting RWD car will be heavier, more cramped, and make less WHP despite having the same engine. If you put both cars on a road course, the FWD car would come out on top, despite having less than ideal handling characteristics, owing to it’s better power to weight ratio. It’s simply a matter of learning to drive around the handling problems, which isn’t really that big of a deal.
In a drag race, however, traction is king, and there’s really no getting around the advantages of RWD there.
There are two reasons, I think, that RWD continues to dominate certain markets. One, everything I said about the advantages of FWD tend to evaporate when you start making big power numbers. The added weight of the RWD layout stops being an issue when you’re putting down 300hp at the wheels, at which point the FWD car is just struggling to control the power. Hence hot hatches tend to top out around that point. If you’re, say, BMW, and you want to lease a lot of entry level 328i’s to brokerage managers, you shove a lot of power into your M3, dominate racing, and then make everyone think that their 328i is somehow just as awesome because it shares the same drivetrain layout. The other reason is just American tradition; cheap foreign cars are FWD, classic American iron is RWD, so RWD must be better.
/steronz, FWD evangelist and (shamefully) recent RWD convert
RWD is more fun if you’re into performance driving. When you’re trying to put a lot of power to ground, they are less prone to losing their hold on the road (because of the weight transfer from front to rear during acceleration), and the car has less tendency to understeer than FWD (because the steering wheels aren’t also tasked with pulling the car forward).
I drove FWD cars for about 16 years until I got an Infiniti G37 6MT a few years ago. I grew up on RWD cars, so I have no qualms about driving one in the snow these days; recovering from even unintended rear-wheel skids is almost reflexive for me. When traction is good (a warm, dry summer day), I love that the tires don’t spin even when I floor the throttle in first gear, and I love that the front doesn’t understeer when accelerating through turns. I love that the rear end will slide out when I want it to (when I’m screwing around with stability control turned off). Bottom line, RWD is more fun for me than FWD.
For a person who views driving as a chore instead of entertainment, FWD is probably the better choice.
Thing is, all cars understeer when accelerating through turns, because you’re pulling weight off the wheels that are supposed to be doing the turning. FWD cars will understeer a bit worse due to traction limitations, but as I alluded to, the fix is simply to change your driving habits a bit. The thrill of driving a FWD at speed comes not in powering out of corner with the tail hanging out, but in maintaining as much speed as possible going into one, standing the car up on it’s nose to find grip and managing the oversteer while on the brakes. It’s plenty entertaining if you know what to look for. But then, I grew up on FWD cars so it may just be what you’re used to.