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The Quora Column

Is rear-wheel drive unfairly maligned?

Heroic burnouts? Advantage = rear-wheel drive. (Chrysler Group)

Heroic burnouts? Advantage = rear-wheel drive. (Chrysler Group)

In cinema and television, fast cars are synonymous with screech-inducing fishtail burnouts, plumes of smoke and reckless speeds. But the rear-wheel-drive layouts that underpin these memorable scenes have practical advantages that some drivers may not know about, and that flout conventional wisdom.

To find out why some drivers prefer rear-wheel drive to front- or all-wheel drive, we tapped Quora.com, the online question and answer community, for some insights. Responses from rear-wheel-drive enthusiasts covered everything from better weight distribution and more efficient acceleration to better handling.

Weighing in 

Several Quora users across multiple threads expressed that having the engine in the front and the drivetrain in the back creates better weight distribution.

"While a FWD car has most of the weight of the engine and transaxle (the transmission and axle assembly are one unit in a FWD car) over the front wheels, a RWD car spreads the weight of its drivetrain more evenly front-to-rear," Quora user Abhishek Arijit wrote.

Prathamesh Kale prefers the rear-wheel-drive setup as well. "The better weight balance of rear-wheel drive allows the car to handle better. The more even weight allows the car to drive neutrally through a corner. This means both the front and rear of the car have near equal loads acting upon them."

Traction control

Equalising the weight of the car can have additional benefits, such as improved acceleration.

"This is because when accelerating from a stop, there is a weight shift towards the rear of the vehicle due to its inertia," Amith Adoor, a mechanical engineer, wrote. A rear-wheel drivetrain traditionally helps “get the power down” more quickly than a front-drive layout, noted Kale in a later post. "In a rear-drive car this places extra weight on the rear of the car, essentially jamming the tires into the road [and] greatly increasing traction," he said.

Respondent Scott Siegel said that taking a sharp corner with front-wheel drive involves letting off the acceleration in order to keep the car under control, but rear-wheel drive cars don't have the same limitation. "With RWD you have the option of overwhelming the rear tires with power, pointing the nose in toward the apex [of the turn]," he said, adding that this helps control the car because the front wheels can focus on steering around the corner instead of handling both power management and directional inputs.

Keep it simple

Aside from these advantages, a few Quora users argued that the basic rear-wheel-drive system is more resistant to expensive fixes. Ron Leavitt said manufacturing was simplified, and Arijit said rear-wheel drive was "both simple and rugged – especially if it’s a solid axle design – and can take a lot of abuse without needing expensive repairs. Accidentally run over a curb in a solid axle RWD car, for instance, and you probably won’t break anything."

The biggest, and most often-cited, downside to a rear-wheel-drive car, of course, is poor traction in slippery conditions. Given front-wheel-drive cars concentrate their weight over the front axle, steering inputs are more likely to be obeyed by the car in snow, slush and mud. That said, proper winter tires can largely make up for a rear-wheel-drive car’s inherent disadvantages.

Whether simplicity has anything to do with it, it is clear that rear-wheel-drive wields some significant advantages over front-wheel drive – even if weekend drag races and Bullitt-inspired hot pursuits aren't exactly your thing.

(General Motors)

(General Motors)

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