Not every invention improves the world. Consider the super-sized soft drink, the tanning bed and the Earth Shoe – each a backward step for our species. Which brings me to front-wheel-drive, the automotive equivalent of the stretch pant.
As with the elasticized waistband, the rise of front-wheel-drive has been propelled by some of humanity’s most fundamental urges: comfort, cheapness and risk aversion. Front-wheel-drive ticks off each these boxes – it offers maximum cabin size, minimum cost, and the safest, dullest handling this side of a Jersey cow.
For the hard-core driving buff, front-wheel-drive is a curse. You dream of Andretti-style power slides, only to come up against the front-driver’s bovine preference for plowing through corners in the benign handling mode known as understeer. (You are more likely to convince Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth to dance Gangnam Style than you are to provoke a front-wheel-drive car into a four-wheel drift.)
This hasn’t hurt front-wheel-drive’s popularity – the majority of cars sold today have it. Front-wheel-drive’s dullness has played a key role in its conquest of the automotive world – few consumers are interested in exploring the limits of their car’s handling, and even fewer are qualified to deal with what can happen out at the edge.
I spent a few decades in front-drive cars myself. (It’s hard to avoid them, since they dominate the car market’s low and middle sectors.) From the mid-1980 onward, my wife and I were consumed with child-rearing, careers and house payments. Chassis dynamics had to take second place. After a few years of piloting front-drive Accords and Camrys, you forget what responsive handling really is.
But when I started driving high-performance cars again, I was reminded why rear-wheel-drive rules the performance roost. Every car I’ve loved to drive has delivered its power through the rear wheels. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, I couldn’t get enough of the BMW 2002 Tii, and driving the Plymouth 426 Hemi Cuda was crack cocaine before there was crack cocaine.
More recently, I found the new BMW M3 and Mercedes C-63 AMG absolutely sublime. The same went for the Porsche 911, the Ford Boss 302 Mustang and the Lotus Exige. The Scion FR-S was nice, too. As I explored the limits of these cars on the street and track, I realized that rear-wheel-drive defined their characters – I could feel the pavement through the front tires, and control my drift angle by loading and unloading the back tires with the throttle. Brilliant.
So how did front-wheel-drive triumph? When I was a boy, front-wheel-drive was an exotic feature, offered on just a handful of cars (like the Citroën 2CV and the short-lived Oldsmobile Toronado). I found front-wheel-driving interesting from a theoretical perspective, and rooted for it because it challenged the prevailing automotive orthodoxy, which dictated a front-mounted engine driving the back wheels through a driveshaft.
Only later did I realize that front-wheel-drive would play a key role in the decline of automotive passion.
Although designers experimented with front-wheel-drive before the First World War, its rise to pre-eminence can be traced back to the late 1950s, when an engineer named Alex Issigonis designed a car that would change the world – the Austin Mini.
Issigonis did not invent front-wheel-drive. But by making key tweaks, he did for the platform what McDonald’s did for the hamburger, bringing it to the masses. The Mini became a mechanical template for countless future cars, from the Honda Civic to the minivan.
By turning the Mini’s engine sideways and driving the front wheels instead of the back, Issigonis minimized the room required for mechanical components, which increased interior volume. By eliminating the driveshaft, the Mini’s front-drive system allowed for a flat floor in the Mini’s passenger compartment.
Because it reduced weight, front-wheel-drive also improved fuel economy. Since the engine’s weight was positioned above the driving wheels, traction on snow and ice was better than a rear-drive car’s. Then there was the safety aspect. Front-drive cars are directionally stable, and tend to plow straight ahead if a driver goes into a corner too fast.
The lawyers love this, of course – exciting handling isn’t the safest. By way of illustration, consider the original Porsche 911, which became known as “The Doctor Killer” thanks to its brilliant but unstable chassis dynamics. With rear-wheel-drive and a distinct rearward weight bias (the engine was mounted in the back), the 911 had razor-sharp handling, but did not suffer fools. Chopping the 911’s throttle in the middle of a fast corner was like pulling the pin on a hand grenade, provoking what’s known as trailing throttle oversteer – the car snaps sideways as weight is shifted forward by deceleration.
This doesn’t happen in a front-drive car. Its default mode is the leaden, straight-ahead plow. You don’t have to worry about twitchiness – you are trapped in an existential hell that happens to have headlights and a windshield.
If you spend time with automotive engineers, drive on race tracks and study vehicle dynamics, you come to understand that a car’s behaviour all comes down to the four sections of rubber that touch the road (the tire contact patches) and the three forces that are applied to them – acceleration, braking and turning.
In a rear-wheel-drive car, these jobs are divvied out like work at a well-run company – the rear tires deal with acceleration plus some braking and cornering forces, while the fronts handle steering plus the lions’ share of deceleration loads (weight shifts forward under braking). The front-wheel-drive car overloads the front tires by giving them three jobs – acceleration, braking and turning. The rear tires, meanwhile, doze like old commissionaires. And the car plows through corners. No fun in that.
You may have noticed that virtually every serious performance car and race vehicle has rear-wheel-drive. Yes, some are all-wheel-drive, but when it comes to hard-core speed, front-wheel-drive is persona non grata.
For day-to-day driving, I can live with front-wheel-drive. And I prefer it for my kids, due to its benign handling. But when I bought a sports car this year, there was never any question about which wheels would be transmitting the power. I’m tired of stretch pants.
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Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive
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