What's better than hopping in, cranking the wheel full lock, and mashing the gas?
Raphael Orlove recently asked Why Does Everyone Love RWD Now? Clearly he understands RWD. Look at his Baja Bug. I also enjoyed his article about the Subaru BRZ he recently drove, which is the poster child for the modern resurgence in RWD popularity. I own a BRZ myself, and have owned and driven many RWD cars before it. Yes, I'm a big RWD fan. So here's my answer to his question.
RWD is fun.
Burning donuts in an empty parking is totally senseless, and lots of fun. Or, if you actually use the steering to apply some semblance of control over the car, hanging the ass end of the car out as perpendicular to the direction of travel as possible is also a highly enjoyable experience. Yes, I've just described drifting. And yes, I believe that interest in drifting is one reason why RWD is popular today.
Compare this to front wheel drive. You go into a corner too fast. If you hit the brakes, you understeer. If you hit the gas, you understeer. If you do nothing, you understeer. Understeer isn't fun. And, according to Richard Hammond, when you understeer, you hit a tree, and you die. Dying isn't fun, either.
Yes, I know there's a handbrake, and handbrake turns can be fun. And I know that left foot braking can make a FWD car's butt dance around pretty well too. Team O'Neil taught me how. But I say that using a brake to make the car slide isn't nearly as fun as using the loud pedal and making those tires spin.
All wheel drive gets the job done, and does it well. Steer (and look) where you want to go, and the car puts the power where it's needed - enough to the front wheels to pull you out of trouble, but not so much to overpower them. That extra power goes to the rear, which can then slide a bit like a RWD car, but much more controllably.
It's too easy. Just point and click, like a PlayStation game. Maybe that's why AWD cars are so popular in them. But in RWD, the back wheels are constantly struggling to get ahead of the front wheels. This makes the back dance a bit under power, adding to the challenge - and the fun.
RWD is (generally) balanced.
50/50 weight distribution. That's the benchmark every front engine, rear wheel drive car strives for. The BRZ does pretty well, with 54% in the front and 46% in the rear. Others, like the Miata, many BMWs, and others, nail this target perfectly at 50/50.
Why is this important? Weight transfer. A FWD car is always going to be nose heavy, which is why it understeers so much. But in a balanced car, control inputs actually make one end of the car lighter than the other, rather than just making one end a little less heavy than it already is. The ability to put weight exactly where you want it is one reason why balanced cars like Miatas and BMWs are so rewarding to drive.
Sure, you can make an AWD mimic or resemble RWD - just send most of the power to the back. The AWD BMWs (and the original AWD Mustang) sent 63% of their horses rearward. Why that particular amount? Because that also happens to be the amount of weight on the rear wheels under full acceleration in a 50/50 car. And it works. But you still have the front wheels there to pull you through if you get in trouble. And AWD, with the extra driveshafts and differentials, is heavier than 2WD no matter how you slice it.
Mid-engine cars are a different story. They're not balanced, but a bit rear heavy, and there isn't much you can do about it. But mid-engine cars have a responsiveness in their steering that just isn't possible with a heavy engine between the front wheels. Whether you're talking about a Lamborghini or a rusted out AW11 MR2, the handling of a mid-engine car is truly something special. And you won't find any mid-engine car sending its power to only the front wheels (AWD, sure, I'll give you that).
The same goes for rear engine cars, like Porsches and Beetles. I haven't yet had the pleasure of driving one of these myself, so all I can come up with is that Porsche has done so much engineering, black magic, and blood sacrifices over the many years they've been putting the 911's engine in the wrong place to actually make it work without causing an Orlove.
RWD now has electronic aids.
More than anything, I think this is why RWD has become so common and available since almost dying in the 1980s and 90s. We've all seen the "Canadian Police Chase" video. In case you haven't, here it is.
This is the image most people have of the big classic American RWD cruisers, as opposed to FWD or AWD cars that easily go through snow. My own P71 with a posi and snow tires was actually one of the best winter beaters I ever had, but that doesn't change the general perception of them.
But with the advent of antilock brakes, other applications like traction control and stability control soon followed. Today, in any modern car, all four wheels are constantly monitored. If the speed of one differs from another, or if the car starts pointing in a direction other than straight ahead, brakes are automatically applied, individually to each wheel, to correct the situation faster than the human brain can react. Often this happens so quickly that the first indication the driver has of a problem is a flicker from the traction control light that isn't fully processed until the problem is already solved. With these systems fully operational, the typical RWD issues of wheelspin and oversteer are eliminated.
Suddenly, RWD has been tamed for the average driver. Manufacturers like Cadillac started introducing RWD back into their cars, making them look more like their German competition (who, ironically, started introducing AWD into more and more of their models). RWD has gone mainstream again, now that the average untrained driver is no longer concerned about getting stuck or spinning off the road.
This is great for enthusiasts who appreciate the joys of RWD. Suddenly there is a lot more selection of cars with our preferred drivetrain. Of course, sometimes the only way to disable the electronic nannies is to yank ABS fuses, but most performance oriented cars still allow you to shut them off from the driver's seat for some good old fashioned fun.
That's why I think everyone loves RWD now.
(Photo credits: Richard Nye, Allison Feldhusen)