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Buying a Car: Is Rear-Wheel Drive Necessary for Performance?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro February 2014

If you ask most car enthusiasts for advice on a performance car, nearly all of them will say the same thing: Go for rear-wheel drive. But if you're buying a car with a focus on performance, is that really true? Is rear-wheel drive the only option? We've examined some of the reasons behind this line of thinking, and we've looked at whether rear-wheel drive is necessary for high performance.

Why Rear-Wheel Drive?

To start, it's important to understand why most car enthusiasts consider rear-wheel drive the best option for performance cars. The main reasons have to do with acceleration and handling.

When it comes to handling, rear-wheel drive is considered better because there's a division of labor between the wheels that are turning the car and those that are accelerating it. Since the rear wheels are putting the power to the ground, the fronts can be free to steer. That means they have less of a tendency to understeer, which is what happens when a car struggles for traction as the front wheels both receive power and attempt to make a turn.

Rear-wheel drive is also considered better for acceleration. The reason for this is that an accelerating car tends to push its weight back as it moves off the line. This weight transfer only enhances a rear-wheel-drive car's grip and improves its ability to quickly drive away.

Why Not All-Wheel Drive?

Given the benefits of rear-wheel drive, it might be easy to think that all-wheel drive is an excellent alternative. After all, all-wheel drive offers four driven wheels, not just two. Unfortunately, the problem is that most cars use front-biased all-wheel drive, which means that the rear wheels don't start working unless the fronts are slipping. The result is that all-wheel-drive vehicles behave like front-wheel-drive cars most of the time.

Can Technology Overcome Drivetrain?

We admit the arguments against front-wheel drive are strong when you're considering a performance car, but recent experience has taught us that technology is starting to narrow the gap between front-wheel-drive capability and rear-wheel-drive prowess.

The Ford Focus ST, for example, is a sporty hatchback with 252 horsepower and high-performance suspension and brakes. It's also front-wheel drive, which would generally be a huge demerit in the performance car world.

Recognizing that, Ford used technology to its benefit and largely eliminated many of the problems typical of front-wheel-drive cars. For example, there's a mechanism that minimizes torque steer (cars getting pulled to the side under acceleration), which is a common tendency of front-wheel-drive cars. The Focus ST also offers torque vectoring, which improves handling and reduces understeer. The result is that while the Focus ST doesn't behave like a typical rear-wheel-drive car, it also doesn't have many of the problems associated with front-wheel drive.

And the Focus ST isn't the only car with these features. Several automakers, like Nissan and Subaru, are adding torque vectoring to various models, and the Mazdaspeed3 is one of a few entry-level performance cars to offer active systems that eliminate torque steer and improve acceleration.

FWD vs. RWD: Our Take

In the end, it's hard to argue that the majority of excellent performance cars are made with rear-wheel drive. But modern technology is improving to the point where front- and all-wheel-drive cars are no longer the performance letdowns they once were. If you're intent on buying a car that's fun to drive, we suggest trying both front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive. You might be surprised to find fewer differences than you'd expect.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
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Buying a Car: Is Rear-Wheel Drive Necessary for Performance? - Autotrader