Road cars have four wheels, of which at least two must be turned by the engine. So, should you buy a rear-drive, front drive or all-wheel drive car?

LET’S DISPENSE FIRST with off-roading. If you want even a remotely serious offroad vehicle then all wheel drive is the way to go. Instead, let’s focus on road cars.
Most cars these days drive the front wheels. That’s because it’s the cheapest layout, safest, lightest and offers the best interior space.  It is cheapest and lightest because there’s less hardware to manufacture, safest because you can’t easily swap ends under power in a front-driver (follow your local hoon in his old Commdore around a wet roundabout for a demonstration), and best interior space because there’s no big bulge in the second row floor area to accommodate the drive to the rear wheels.  There’s also slightly less interior noise.
So why drive the rear wheels then? The only real reason these days is sporting performance, and then only for higher powered cars. With the rears driven, the fronts can focus on cornering, and you can also maintain a powerslide or drift, or just gently power-nudge the rear wheels around a corner which is just the best fun for petrolheady type people.
There’s also a technical limit to how much power can be put through the front wheels, which is why all supercars like Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Zondas are either rear drive or all wheel drive. That said, there are many excellent front-drive sportscars from the likes of Renault, Volkswagen and Ford.  These days, it’s only when you get north of 200kW or so that you really have to get a rear-drive or all wheel drive sportscar, although that figure is very much dependent on what trickery the manufacturer has designed into the vehicle.
The merits of rear-drive sportscars are largely overestimated these days. I have had friends drive front and rear drive cars and not be able to tell the difference.  And I challenge anyone to take say a sporty Megane for a drive, then tell me it is in any way not a whole bundle of smiley fun or a true sportscar.  Often with cars people have a perception formed years ago from their earliest experiences, and they just can’t shake it even though they cannot feel any difference and times have moved on – another example is not buying a convertible because they “can feel it’s not as stiff”. 
Why buy an all-wheel-drive car?  More traction, purely and simply.   On dirt roads, wet roads, snow, ice or anywhere other than dry bitumen the all wheel drive will be safer, more poised and assured, and you will notice the difference.  Not just under acceleration, but even when cruising or around sweeping corners.  All-drive can even be better even when slowing down – if it’s really slippery and you use the engine to brake by selecting lower gears.  Note this is one of the few times such braking use is acceptable – another is when descending steep hills.  That said, modern stability control and traction control does make keeping a car under control a lot easier these days as you have computer watching, ready to step in at a split-second’s notice.

The bottom line

  • Front drive – your default choice.  Cheapest, widest choice, safest, lightest, most practical;
  • Rear drive – only priotisise if you’re after a high-powered sportscar (above 200kW or so) or you intend to take your car to a racetrack for fast laps or powersliding.  Do consider a FWD or AWD sportscar, there’s plenty of excellent ones delivering lots of excitement and to truly appreciate RWD you need to be off public roads; and
  • All wheel drive – definitely consider if you are going to be driving in conditions like dirt roads, snow, wet and cold mountain roads and the like.

980722_03_McLaren 570S_NYlaunch
High powered sportscars like this McLaren 570S are always RWD or AWD because there’s only so much power the front wheels can handle.
2015 BMW 225i Active Tourer review
Even rear-drive stalwart BMW has gone for front-wheel drive with its Active Tourer for reasons of cost and interior space.
Long-Term Toyota 86 - Welcome
The Toyota 86 is rear-drive even though it’s low powered, because it’s a pure-bred sportscar and designed to hold powerslides.
Renault Megane RS 275 Trophy R laps Albert Park
A front-drive Renault Megane. There is no way this is anything other than sportscar fun!
The Subaru WRX is perhaps the best-known all-drive sportscar, but there’s many more – Mercedes’ new AMG A45, many Lamborghinis, the Bugatti Veyron, several Audis with their famous Quattro, and the VW Golf R to name but a few.



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1 comment

  1. Good advice Robert. So many people talk utter nonsense on this subject. The fact is that there are Awful, Bad, Good and Great iterations of all of these approaches, and the Megane is the penultimate example of brilliantly sorted FWD. I’d urge anybody interested in cars to try a current model Megane on a tight backroad or racetrack before dismissing it as FWD incapable of being any good. It’s one of the best handling road cars I’ve ever driven and capable of demolishing vehicles worth 2-3 times the price. Gee they eat tyres though!

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