"CHICAGO — Rear-wheel drive is making a comeback, and not just because it makes for a better experience than front-wheel drive.
RWD also lends itself to classic design proportions that give a car a prestigious, powerful look, sending subliminal signals to consumers that make them want it.
"The public can't tell you what lights are going off, but they like the performance-oriented proportions," General Motors designer Michael Simcoe said of the look that includes a long hood with its large space between the dashboard and front axle.
The long hood dates to luxury cars of the 1920s and 1930s, when they accommodated the engines of the time, often inline 8-cylinder jobs.
"If you ask someone to draw a luxury car, I'll bet you they would draw something with a long hood, big wheels and a small upper," Simcoe said, "upper" referring to the windows and roof. "Those are the traditional performance and luxury cues."
GM is using those cues on two new RWD models, the 2008 Cadillac CTS and the 2009 Chevrolet Camaro.
GM introduced the RWD 2008 Pontiac G8 at the Chicago Auto Show. The next-generation Chevrolet Impala, due for 2009, was expected to be RWD as well before higher federal fuel economy regulations put it on hold.
RWD gives designers "the perfect architecture for lower, sleeker and wider," said Bruce Campbell, vice president of Nissan Design America. "The head-turning cars will continue to have those qualities."
Infiniti, Nissan's luxury brand, dropped FWD models a few years ago to separate Infiniti's packaging and powertrains from those of Nissan, whose only RWD model is the 350Z sports car.
On front-drive cars, the engine is usually mounted transversely, over the front axle, allowing the passenger compartment to be placed farther forward to maximize the space for people while trimming the vehicle's length.
On rear-drive cars, the engine mounts longitudinally, usually farther back. Campbell says that allows the passenger compartment to be centered between the front and rear wheels, giving a car a more balanced appearance.
"The symbols and signals are different messages. Front-wheel drive really celebrates the cabin," Campbell said, but rear-wheel drive emphasizes performance and styling. "The driver feels like he's in the center of the car, where it gives the feeling of performance."
John Wolkonowicz, an analyst with industry forecaster Global Insight, says the proportions of RWD cars, such those few more inches between the front axle and the dash, shine in the showroom.
"Those proportions are what makes a rear-wheel-drive car look like it's in motion, gives it a very dynamic look," he said, pointing to the BMW 3- and 5-Series and the Ford Mustang as examples.
The industry's change to front-wheel drive happened in the 1980s to make cars smaller and more fuel-efficient. Packing the engine, transmission and drive axles into a small area let designers shrink the size and weight of cars without compromising passenger space.
Rear-wheel drive survived mainly on luxury brands such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz, where size and weight weren't as important. Those automakers didn't feel the same pressure to boost fuel economy or the need to sacrifice RWD's driving characteristics.
Wolkonowicz says that's what helped give rear-wheel drive an upscale image.
One of the knocks against RWD has been poor snow traction compared with FWD cars, but RWD cars can be designed to accommodate all-wheel drive. Chrysler did that with the 300, and Mercedes-Benz offers AWD on all its sedans to answer traction problems in the Snow Belt.
Traction control, which is widely available, also can improve grip on RWD cars. But Wolkonowicz still gives the nod to front-wheel drive in the snow — with amplification. "You have nothing to gain from front-wheel drive unless you need snow traction.""