Front wheel drive vs rear wheel drive is a perpetual argument

Front-wheel drive (FWD) versus rear-wheel drive (RWD) is an interesting argument. The proof that it's interesting lies in the fact that it does often degenerate into an argument.

Each side has its points, but each of those points is relevant to a specific set of circumstances. There's no doubt that they feel different to drive and that their greatest difference is most pronounced when the available level of tyre grip is exceeded.

It also feels decidedly different in a vehicle that's well engineered compared to one that isn't. For example, a cheaply-made FWD experiences torque steer, which is the steering wheel wanting to pull one way under acceleration. However, my old Alfa 147 is a turbo-diesel relying almost entirely on its generous torque output for forward thrust, and yet it has no torque steer at all.

Significantly, RWDs do also experience a torque steer effect, but on the whole body/chassis, not the wheel. It's most obvious with a live axle and soft rear suspension which drag racers install to help with traction from a standing start. Watch and you'll see that the body literally pivots around the rear axle under hard acceleration. It's caused by the rotation direction of the engine.

So don't tell me a powerful RWD wants to go straight, because it doesn't. Drag race cars need to be set up asymmetrically to allow for this effect (raising or stiffening the right rear to counteract the front left coming up).

However, it depends on exactly what type of performance you're trying to eke out of the vehicle as to whether FWD or RWD will be an advantage (or simply pan out equal).

In a straight line, from a standing start, with loads of power, RWD is still an undisputed advantage (despite the twisting effect). There is definitely an apparent weight shift you can observe in the fastest dragsters as they lift the front wheels for much of the run, placing the weight on the rear wheels instead, giving the rear wheels some more grip to use.

The tighter the course, the more advantageous it is to have a short FWD. Photo: Sam Hollier.

The tighter the course, the more advantageous it is to have a short FWD. Photo: Sam Hollier.

However, not every performance application is given a straight lane. In very tight corners (like motorkhana events), the advantage shifts towards an FWD instead.

The old phrase, dating back to the '60s when people needed to explain why the Morris-Mini Cooper S started winning twisty events on loose surfaces like the Monte Carlo Rally, is that an FWD will literally pull you out of the corner. This is absolutely true and the reason this happens is because the driven wheels are actually pointing in roughly the same direction you want the vehicle to go.

Additionally, it's also advantageous in very tight corners for the vehicle to have a short wheelbase, further helping it change direction more eagerly (and FWD packaging lends itself to keeping a passenger vehicle shorter).

However, in an RWD, the sharper the corner the greater the difference in the desired direction compared to the direction those driven wheels are still pointing. The rally driver solution to that issue is deliberately kicking the back out so the rear wheels point in roughly the direction of the corner exit, but that has additional complications of its own.

The first is a question of skill. It's very easy to overdo it, wasting time catching it or just spinning out. Plus, it's not always an advantage to be sliding the driven wheels anyway. On a loose surface where you're trying to dig to the hard base underneath, or dry tarmac when the tyres fitted will cope without overheating, sure. But on wet tarmac wheelspin tends to be a time waster, spinning the power away instead of actually accelerating.

This is all irrelevant on the street though, because you should never be deliberately sliding about. However, it is crucial to understand the different behaviour of an FWD vs an RWD when it comes to throttle use and what can cause a slide or how best to recover from a slide, but that's something I feel everyone should be made to learn on a skidpan with a skilled instructor (this is a topic we can discuss a bit more in the future).

Ultimately though, it comes down to how the car feels, and in pretty much anything you're likely to drive on tarmac on a regular basis either configuration will feel good when it's been engineered properly.

Sam Hollier is an ACM journalist and a motoring fanatic who builds cars in his shed in his spare time.