Is Rear-Wheel Drive Always Better? BMW Might Not Think So

March 25, 2010
2010 MINI Cooper John Cooper Works Edition

2010 MINI Cooper John Cooper Works Edition

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Does rear-wheel drive matter to shoppers considering a premium or luxury vehicle? BMW apparently doesn’t think so, as last week the automaker revealed that it is developing a new front-wheel-drive small car line.

Though BMW will stick with rear-wheel drive for its larger and high-performance cars for the foreseeable future—and chances are this new smallest model may never come to North America—it’s worth examining whether shoppers looking at vehicles from BMW and other premium brands expect them to have rear-wheel drive.

And BMW might be on to something. A surprising 80 percent of customers for the BMW 1-Series coupe and convertible models didn’t even know that the model has rear-wheel drive, according to the German automaker.

The brand hasn't completely avoided the configuration; it designed and builds the family of Mini Cooper models, which are all front-wheel drive.

Rear-wheel-drive cars tend to be handle better and steer better, while front-wheel-drive cars have packaging advantages that allow more passenger and cargo space, typically, for the same overall footprint. Higher-power front-wheel-drive cars, in particular, typically have issues with torque steer—a phenomenon that requires you to hold on tightly to the steering wheel when accelerating rapidly.

Although BMW’s move might be smart, it still appears to be against the current, with a number of automakers (like Hyundai, with its Genesis) using rear-wheel drive to leverage a position in the luxury market.

2010 Cadillac DTS

2010 Cadillac DTS

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2010 Cadillac STS

2010 Cadillac STS

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Most of Cadillac’s front-wheel-drive models have gone away. The STS, formerly a front-wheel-drive model, was redesigned for 2005 as a rear- or all-wheel drive model, with the DTS the only front-driver left in the lineup. Even the DTS is due to be replaced in 2012 by the Cadillac XTS, a model that was shown in concept form with all-wheel drive at this year’s Detroit auto show.

Up until very recently, Audi has had a line of cars that has emphasized front- over rear-wheel drive. Audi has, in recent years, switched from an all-wheel drive system that favored the front wheels to a rear-wheel-biased one.

Honda’s Acura luxury brand puts the emphasis on front-wheel drive, while Lexus offers both front- and rear-wheel drive. Infiniti has in recent years remained entirely focused on rear-wheel-drive cars. All three also offer an all-wheel-drive option on some of their vehicles, but only in Acura’s case (Super Handling All-Wheel Drive, or SH-AWD) is it performance-focused.

Saab and Volvo also remain different among the luxury and near-luxury brands, both favoring front-wheel drive (though now also offering AWD).

What makes a luxury vehicle today? Is it rear-wheel drive and the proper engineering pedigree; is it traditional luxury; or is it the latest, leading-edge technology?

[Wall Street Journal]

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