14 Apr 2014

Why Rear Wheel Drive Cars Are Ace

When you first learn to drive you are put in an underpowered front wheel drive car and guided through the machinations of driving, road laws and etiquette by a qualified instructor.  Once you've passed your test you are allowed to buy whatever you can afford.  Most people buy a front wheel drive car.  This is a boring thing to do.  Rear wheel drive is much more fun.

Jaguar XFR-S oversteering

When you first learn to ride a bicycle you will have had stabilisers fitted.  After tearing around in upright, stable safety your dad (probably) will one day have removed the stabilisers and watched your first attempt to ride on only two wheels.

You may have then cycled the length of your garden and crashed into a hedge. It is likely you were put back on the seat and told to try it again. At some point you will have overcome your basic fears and unconsciously used your brain to utilise your own body, with some help from centrifugal force, to overcome the gravitational force that wants to bring your delicate skin and bones crashing down to the ground to damage them.

Once you can cycle without stabilisers you never go back.  Despite the various competing forces acting on you and your bike you are able to cycle for many miles.  You may even come to enjoy the experience.  You can lean over whilst cornering and if you are childish very skilled you may be able to perform wheelies and endos.

Front wheel drive cars are like bicycles with stabilisers and rear wheel drive cars are like bicycles without.

To demonstrate this imagine a drag race between two powerful cars, one front wheel drive and one rear wheel.  Turn off the traction control, dump the clutch and go.

The front wheel drive car will spin its front wheels.  The front end may possibly move slightly sideways.  If so the driver simply needs to steer back towards the direction he intends to travel and will head in a forwards direction.

The rear wheel drive car will spin its rear wheels.  It is then likely the rear end of the car will move to one side or the other.  The driver must then steer against the direction of travel of the rear end in order to counter this effect.  If he oversteers the rear end may then swing around to the opposite direction it was in.  If this continues and the driver is not skilled he may lose control of the car and crash.

Add a bend into this drag race and the effect is magnified.  Remember your Scalextric cars?  If you gave them too much power through a corner they would fly off the road backwards.

All of this is intended to show that front wheel drive cars are predictable and easy to manage in the event of a minor loss of control whereas rear wheel drive cars can be unpredictable and difficult to manage in the same situation.

But controlling a rear wheel drive car is a skill that can be learned, and once it is learned it rewards as much as riding a bike without stabilisers.

It is the requirement on the senses, brain and body to understand how to handle a rear wheel drive car whilst in motion that adds an extra sense of reward to the experience of driving.

Sure some front wheel drive cars can be fun.  Hot hatches are generally front wheel drive but they have to be driven at the limit to be entertaining. At normal speeds they are neutral cars with a decent turn of speed.  Around a fast corner in a hot hatch you can usually keep the throttle pinned but in a rear wheel drive car you always need to understand how much throttle can be applied before the rear breaks traction.

Driving can be a boring experience, with overcrowded roads, awful other drivers, traffic lights, buses, cyclists and Honda Jazzes limiting our exposure to adrenaline but the simple act of pulling out of a junction in a rear wheel drive car and controlling a small drift can add a thrill to an otherwise mundane day.

Unfortunately most cars are front wheel drive.  A front wheel drive car is lighter, cheaper and easier to package than rear wheel drive so even large cars are often front wheel drive.  This is a shame.

We should all be thankful to Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Jaguar, Subaru, Toyota and Mazda for making and selling mainstream rear wheel drive cars so those of us who enjoy an immersive and interactive, rather than docile, driving experience can do so.

By Matt Hubbard