Car Buyer Labs

Car Buying Advice, Tips, and Reviews

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Why You Shouldn’t Fear Rear Wheel Drive

Ask the average driver what they think about rear-wheel drive, and you will likely hear that rear-wheel drive makes a car uncontrollable bad weather–likely accompanied by dire predictions of fishtailing all over the road and crashing if you ever take a rear-wheel drive car out in the rain, or worse yet, snow. Well, CarBuyerLabs is here to set the record straight and clear the name of rear-wheel drive. No, rear-wheel drive cars aren’t death traps. In fact, rear-wheel drive brings a number of benefits when compared to front-wheel drive, which is why it has long been preferred for high-performance and heavy-duty vehicles. Today, we are even seeing a resurgence in rear-wheel drive as it makes its way into many of the latest electric vehicles.

So, how did rear-wheel drive develop its dangerous reputation? Why are rear-wheel drive cars so difficult to find if it is the superior system? And why should you go against the common wisdom and buy a rear-wheel drive car for yourself? Well, answering these questions requires a trip through the history of car design, as well as a few detours to explain some of the physics behind driving. But the trip isn’t long, so get ready to learn why you shouldn’t fear rear-wheel drive when it comes time to purchase your next car.

Rear-Wheel Drive, Front-Wheel Drive, and Manufacturing Priorities

When the car was first invented in the late 1800s, manufacturers tried every possible configuration they could think of. Both front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive were experimented with, but by the early 1900s, rear-wheel drive had come to dominate the market. The iconic Ford Model T was a rear-wheel drive car and helped cement the widespread use of the layout. However, it was not a matter of chance that rear-wheel drive was preferred by early manufacturers. Rear-wheel drive cars are mechanically simple, with the engine, transmission, driveshaft, and driven wheels running the length of the vehicle in sequence. Plus, powering the rear wheels meant that the front wheels could be used for steering without any complicated engineering.

Manufacturers would occasionally experiment with front-wheel drive for the next few decades, but rear-wheel drive would reign supreme for over half a century before front-wheel drive returned with a vengeance in the 1960s. By this point, automotive engineering had improved dramatically, and changing production methods meant that rear-wheel drive was becoming the more expensive layout to produce. The development of compact engines and transaxles meant that an entire front-wheel drivetrain could now be neatly packaged under the hood, saving time on the production line compared to a more elaborate, if technically simpler, rear-wheel drivetrain. The Japanese manufacturers were among the first to recognize the manufacturing benefits of front-wheel drive, but by the end of the 1970s, rear-wheel drive was on the way out when it came to mass-market vehicles.

Today, we are beginning to see another change in car design with the introduction of electric vehicles. Unlike gasoline or diesel cars, an electric car has no engine or transmission, and electric motors take up very little space. The primary driver of electric car layout is the battery placement, but the now-standard floor-mounted battery packs can power front or rear electric motors with equal ease. Given the freedom to choose which wheels to power, manufacturers from Tesla to Ford and Volkswagen have opted for rear-wheel drive to take advantage of the many benefits it offers.

A yellow 2022 Ford Mustang Mach-E is shown at a charging station with the driver approaching.

The Benefits of Rear-Wheel Drive

While ease of manufacturing has been the primary factor in whether manufacturers choose to use rear-wheel drive or front-wheel drive in their mass-market consumer vehicles, rear-wheel drive has always remained the layout of choice when it comes to sports cars, luxury vehicles, and trucks. There is one thing that all of these segments have in common: they are designed for performance rather than cost. But what is it about rear-wheel drive that makes it perform better than front-wheel drive?

While you may not consider it during your daily commute, driving a vehicle is largely about managing weight transfer. Simplifying things a bit, a vehicle is little more than a metal box suspended on four springs, and every input you make shifts the weight of the vehicle between those springs. Deceleration shifts weight forward onto the front wheels, while acceleration shifts weight backward onto the rear wheels. Further, putting more weight on a set of wheels gives them more traction, while taking weight off a set of wheels reduces their traction. Put simply, the harder you try to accelerate with a front-wheel drive vehicle, the less traction you have from the driven wheels. For a rear-wheel drive vehicle, the situation is reversed, giving the driven wheels more traction as you accelerate.

But there is more to the story than just the dynamic weight transfer that occurs while driving. You must also consider the static weight distribution of a vehicle at rest. In a front-wheel drive passenger vehicle, the weight of the vehicle is concentrated in the engine bay over the driven wheels. Combined with the fairly moderate acceleration that is considered acceptable on public roads, this means that the disadvantages of front-wheel drive are not terribly noticeable. However, when a truck is heavily loaded or has a trailer hitched to it, the majority of the vehicle’s weight is now concentrated over the rear wheels. This is why front-wheel drive trucks are uncommon, to say the least.

Why Do People Fear Rear-Wheel Drive?

If rear-wheel drive has so many advantages, why would it ever develop a reputation for being dangerous? Well, there is some truth to the idea that rear-wheel drive can be difficult to manage in slippery conditions. Front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive behave rather differently to driver inputs. It is easier for an inexperienced driver to get themselves into trouble with a rear-wheel drive car than with a front-wheel drive car–particularly since rear-wheel drive cars tend to either be older models lacking modern safety features or high-performance models with a lot of power available.

Cars lose control when the driver asks for more grip than the tires can provide. Mash the accelerator pedal too hard on a slippery surface, and the wheels will simply spin in place rather than propel the car forward. In a front-wheel drive car, overloading the driven wheels means you will continue traveling along the same trajectory until your car slows down enough for the tires to regain traction. This behavior (technically known as “understeer”) is relatively predictable and controllable for even an inexperienced driver.

Overloading the driven wheels in a rear-wheel drive car is a different story and will result in the rear end losing traction (“oversteer”). The natural reaction to this condition is to yank the steering wheel or mash the brakes, both of which can cause the car to go even further out of control. An experienced driver can correct oversteer, and some race car drivers even deliberately use oversteer to take corners faster than they normally could, but unexpected oversteer can be quite frightening to the average driver on their daily commute.

Technology Comes to the Rescue

Fortunately, automobile manufacturers have lots of skilled engineers doing their best to make cars as simple and as safe to drive as possible. If your last experience with rear-wheel drive was driving a car from decades ago (or if you have only heard about the dangers of rear-wheel drive from someone whose last experience with it was driving a car from decades ago), you may not be expecting just how much modern technology has tamed it.

The most obvious solution to the risk of overloading your driven tires is the introduction of advanced traction control systems. Mash the accelerator on a slippery surface in a modern car, and the computers will recognize the danger and stop the wheels from spinning before you get yourself into too much trouble. If traction control doesn’t kick in quite quick enough, electronic stability control will take over, helping you regain control before you end up in a ditch on the side of the road.

In gasoline and diesel cars, these systems primarily work by automatically braking wheels that are slipping. However, electric cars go a step further, precisely modulating the output of the electric motors so that the car never experiences wheel slip. It is nearly impossible to oversteer a Tesla even if you wanted to (and many drivers have tried) because the computers can react to what is happening faster than the driver.

Advanced traction and stability control systems are not the only reason rear-wheel drive cars are more predictable these days. The cars themselves are also simply better designed and tuned for easy driving. Modern tires also provide far more grip in even the worst weather (providing you are using quality tires suitable for the conditions), making it more difficult to overload them to the point of losing traction in the first place.

A white 2022 Ford Mustang Mach 1 is shown from the front on a race track.

Don’t Fear Rear-Wheel Drive

If you have avoided buying a rear-wheel drive car because of horror stories from friends and family, it is time to give rear-wheel drive a chance. Not only will you open up a whole new selection of some of the most enjoyable cars to drive, but you may just realize you enjoy the added benefits of rear-wheel drive. From pickup trucks to sports cars, rear-wheel drive unlocks a new level of performance that front-wheel drive cannot provide. And as the electric vehicle revolution continues to build steam, we might just be seeing more and more rear-wheel drive models making their way into the lineups of mass-market brands.