After years of front-wheel-drive dominance, rear-wheel is making a comeback. But you'll want to weigh your options carefully
When buying a new car, most people agonize over the color, the horsepower, the safety rating, the fuel economy, even the number of cup holders. What is often overlooked is whether it comes with rear- or front-wheel drive. That decision can make a huge difference in terms of how and where you drive.
Why? Fundamentally, front-wheel-drive cars offer better traction in bad weather, courtesy of the grip created by the engine's weight over the driven wheels, whereas rear-wheel offers better performance. Honda, for example, offers front-wheel drive; Porsche, rear.
For decades, the U.S. was a rear-wheel nation. It wasn't until the oil crisis of the 1970s that new imports from companies such as Toyota (TM) and Honda (HMC) first exposed a wide number of Americans to front-wheel cars. (Europe and Asia have been front-wheeling it for generations.)
Besides traction, FWD cars offer other benefits. Without a driveshaft connecting the front power source to the back wheels, interior space is freed up and cars weigh less, meaning more fuel efficiency. The simplification also means fewer parts are required, meaning the cars cost less to build and to buy.
The sudden demand for front-wheel cars caught Detroit by surprise. In the 1970s and '80s, in their scramble to offer their own lighter, more fuel-efficient cars, quality was often sacrificed, clearing the way for more reliable imports to carve out a large chunk of the market.
Front-Wheel in Front
By the mid-1980s, however, successful new models like the Ford Taurus proved that Detroit could build front-wheel cars. Today, according to Automotive News, exclusive of pickups and SUVs, of the top 10 best-selling cars in the U.S. so far this year, only one is powered by its back wheels: 10th-ranked Ford Mustang (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/25/06, "Detroit Thoroughbred").
The most popular car in the country is the front-wheel-drive Toyota Camry, which sold more than 340,000 through September. Over the same period, the Mustang sold 133,000. The only other American make on the list is the fourth-ranked Chevy Impala, which sold 219,167.
Despite the enormous popularity of front-wheel drive, many driving enthusiasts maintain that rear-wheel drive offers the better experience, which explains why performance-oriented makers such as Mercedes and BMW make only rear-wheel cars. Even some imports have begun producing rear-wheel cars for certain segments. Toyota's luxury division, Lexus, now offers two such models, and Nissan's (NSANY) Infiniti at least three.
The reason is that a car's handling is in great part derived from the distribution of weight, and rear-wheel cars achieve divisions closer to the golden 50/50 ratio. Handling in normal conditions is generally better as well, since force is transferred rearward under heavy acceleration. The setup also benefits from increased towing capacity and a better steering radius.
Reinvesting in Rear-Wheel
Rear-wheel-drive cars sell better when performance and power are emphasized. Chrysler—a division of DaimlerChrysler (DCX), which also owns Mercedes—and Ford (F) have both had huge hits based on rear-wheel models, proving that the technology isn't the exclusive privilege of high-end sports cars.
Ford kicked off a muscle-car revival with the redesigned and rear-wheel Mustang. Chrysler's fortunes were temporarily buoyed by a rear-wheel performance sedan, the 300, based on a platform by Mercedes-Benz. Since Chrysler had switched to front-wheel production in the 1980s, it was the company's first rear-wheel performance sedan in 15 years.
Domestic manufacturers have lately begun reinvesting in some rear-wheel models. General Motors (GM) is the latest to reshuffle its plants to make way for a new, high-profile rear-wheel vehicle. The company is reportedly investing $660 million in its Oshawa (Ont.) factory to make way for the upcoming Chevrolet Camaro muscle car and possibly two other models.
And the number of rear-wheel drive vehicles could continue to climb. Reports surfaced early this summer that GM was debating whether its struggling Pontiac division could be saved in part by adopting an all rear-wheel-drive strategy to redistinguish the brand as a producer of exclusively sporty, performance-oriented vehicles.
Despite the growth in new rear-wheel vehicles like Ford's Mustang, Dodge's Charger, and General Motors' Cadillac CTS, analysts don't foresee them taking over the market, since rear-wheel drive carries a prestige and performance premium.
Manufacturers stand to gain by offering a mixed portfolio, says Karl Brauer, editor in chief of Edmunds.com: "Real-wheel drive will continue to be used as a premium differentiator. From a practical point of view—commuting needs, for example—there's no way to justify the cost over front-wheel drive."
The emergence of all-wheel drive vehicles has also changed the landscape. Some of the systems in cars built by companies ranging from Audi to Subaru merge the benefits of both rear- and front-wheel setups. Some are even capable of alternating the power emphasis given the driving conditions. A $175,000 Lamborghini Gallardo, for example, can shift power to the rear wheels under heavy acceleration and, if slipping occurs, readjust the distribution. But such sophistication comes at a price.
Buyer's Bottom Line
Both rear- and front-wheel vehicles have adopted systems to mitigate their inherent weaknesses. Front-wheel cars have gotten better at reining in torque steer. Rear-wheel autos, meanwhile, have benefited from traction control and stability technology to improve performance in bad weather.
That's why each buyer must carefully weigh a new car's requirements against its capabilities. Those looking for a low-cost mainstream sedan that's an all-around performer may stick with one of the plentiful front-wheel vehicles. The best-seller list includes imports like the Accord and Camry as well as domestics like the Impala and Focus.
Those interested in a little more performance and better handling ought to look to the new class of rear-wheel drive coming into the market. Muscle-car entrants include Ford's Mustang and Dodge's Charger, while mainline offerings include the Chrysler 300.