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

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2010 BMW 1-Series

2010 BMW 1-Series

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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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Comments (14)
  1. Front-wheel drive benefits some people in the east who prefer it for driving in snow (Volvo, Saab), but primarily it's a cost-saving measure for the auto manufacturers who think their customers don't know any better (Acura, and now BMW). If you track the fortunes of Cadillac, they were successful when their cars were RWD and unsuccessful when their cars were FWD. Look at all the brands that added AWD after being FWD: Subaru, Audi, Volvo, Saab, Acura, Mini--all the brands that want to be upmarket. I think the Lexus ES is an outlier--otherwise Lexus is a RWD brand as well.
     
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  2. I'm laughing at this because you know the German engineers all turned white and got nauseous when they saw those survey results. It's the problem with growth ... all the WRONG PEOPLE end up buying your fine Chermun Schportz Carz ...
     
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  3. Hope BMW rethinks this. The reason I went from Honda to BMW is Honda stopped makeing a RWD vehicle after my S2000.
     
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  4. I doubt anyone buying an 'entry-level' BMW like the model positioned below the 1-Series will actually be a serious enthusiast so they probably won't care which wheels are doing the driving. This will be a car for posers who just want the badge. I pity the 6- and 7-Series owners sitting at the lights and seeing some douchebag in his new 0-Series pull up and give them the nod. lol
     
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  5. I was an R&D engineer at GM when we played with the original Morris Mini. After the Corvair debacle, GM decided, and I agreed that dragster performance was less importance than "Longer,lower,wider, faster and quieter". FWD cars have flat rear floors and less noise in the rear of sedans, wagons and vans. As aid earlier, cheaper to build.
     
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  6. Oh, 'nother thing. When defending the Corvair, GM pointed out that high performance DEMANDED rear engine/rear drive: F1 and Indy Car; boats and jet airplanes. Well, the Ford Mustang killed the Corvair, not Ralph Nader.
     
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  7. Lexus's 2 big sellers are FWD & they just added a 3rd .... 4th is on the way. Seems like a lot, if not most, luxury buyers are more interested in things like the badge on the hood than what wheels are moving the car.
    The average person probably would not drive in a way that would make RWD better for them anyhow ...
     
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  8. It seems like they want to compete with Mercedes-Benz on this particular segment. M-B has the FWD A-Class and B-Class as their entry-level cars on their lineup (except in the U.S., where the RWD C-Class is the bottom-end model), and quite frankly, they're overpriced junk heaps. M-B, however, is rumored to bring the B-Class in Stateside by next year. But still, who'd pay top-dollar for a FWD BMW or Benz?
     
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  9. The whole idea of what means luxury or premium is completely fuzzy now. Back in the day, BMW models drove differently than anything else on the market. Why wouldn't you just pick a Mazda3 instead of a FWD BMW...or for that matter a Mini Cooper S?
     
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  10. Allan, it's a badge thing. Most people (at least those with no car knowledge) would drive a FWD BMW simply because it's a BMW. They don't care if a Kia Forte Koup would run circles around it. Take the Jaguar X-Type, for example. It's FWD and uses an outdated Ford Mondeo platform. But does the accountant next door care? Of course not! They see that it has a Jaguar badge and they want it.
     
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  11. Actually, Jeremy, the X-Type is an All-Wheel-Drive vehicle, exclusively.
     
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  12. KLaSusa, not all X-Type models were offered in AWD. The 2.0 liter V6 (derived from the Ford Duratec) and 2.0/2.2 liter Duratorq diesel models were available in FWD.
     
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  13. KLaSusa, not all X-Type models are AWD. Base models using the 2.0 V6 (derived from the Ford Duratec) or 2.0/2.2 4-cylinder diesel were offered in FWD.
     
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  14. so im thinkin of either gettin a 06 BMW 525xi or a 09 Maxima S or a 09 Altima 3.5 SL, all around same price. Living in NY snow comes around, which is better FWD, AWD, or RWD
     
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