These days, front-wheel-drive has become the drivetrain layout of choice for many manufacturers. Even BMW, famous in the past for criticizing the layout, has given into the temptation with the launch of the Concept Active Tourer. But many of us gearheads have pooh-poohed automakers for this, claiming that rear-wheel-drive is far superior. And in some ways, that’s certainly true. Let’s have a look at the facts so we can draw some conclusions.
For those of you who aren’t aware, front-wheel-drive is a drivetrain layout in which the engine’s power is sent to the front wheels. So yes, rear-wheel-drive means the engine’s power is sent to the rear wheels. And when you look at this from a simple, scientific point-of-view, a problem is immediately evident with FWD — the same set of wheels has to deal with two tasks, namely steering and propulsion.
As a result, FWD cars have a tendency to understeer. In a nutshell, this means the car steers less than the driver asks it to, as opposed to oversteer, in which it steers more than it’s asked to (this is how drifting works). FWD cars may also torque steer, meaning that the steering will pull to one side under acceleration. The two of these can get very irritating under enthusiastic driving. However, once you push beyond the limits of adhesion, the Average Joe will likely have a much easier time handling understeer than the oversteer produced by RWD cars. It’s simply more predictable, and although proper driver training can make RWD safe too, we all know this isn’t a perfect world and some drivers are better off sticking to FWD.
From a performance standpoint then, RWD is your best friend. By sending power to the rear wheels, the front wheels are free to do what they do best. This eliminates torque steer, prevents understeer, and improves steering feel. It also allows for greater maximum grip, as the load on the tires is more evenly distributed. Moreover, RWD helps even out weight distribution by putting the differential at the back, as well as usually moving the transmission closer to the rear. During acceleration, the weight of the car shifts towards the rear, giving RWD an advantage once again by putting more weight over the driving wheels for extra grip.
By now you’re probably thinking, “Well I’m an excellent driver, I can handle rear-wheel-drive. Why won’t the automakers just give it to me?!” And there’s a very good reason they won’t — money. FWD cars are usually cheaper to make, as all the drivetrain parts are neatly packaged in the front of the car. This also means less parts, as there is no need for a transmission tunnel or a long driveshaft. And since the average driver isn’t going to care much about the dynamics of a RWD vehicle, automakers can save a fortune like this.
Does this mean gearheads should avoid FWD altogether? I don’t think so. You see, all other things equal, RWD makes for a better performance car than FWD, yes. But there aren’t any FWD cars in the world where RWD is an optional extra. So this means that, despite the disadvantages of FWD, good engineers have put out some great cars using the layout — the Volkswagen GTI comes to mind, among others. And if you’re only ever going to daily drive the vehicle in question, then chances are you’ll rarely notice the difference anyways. However, if you’re looking for a vehicle to tackle the racetrack, rear-wheel-drive is your best bet. So, at the end of the day, it all depends on you, the driver. And that, folks, is why it’s great to have variety in the automotive industry.