Musings on the Motoring World

Are rear-wheel-drive layouts becoming redundant?

There is certainly an air of smugness hanging over Porsche’s headquarters when Ferrari unveiled a new plug-in hybrid range-topper known as the SF90 Stradale. At its heart lies a 574kW twin-turbo V8 – an evolution of that used in the F8 Tributo – which is aided by a trio of electric motors, two being attached to the front axle and another wedged between the engine and its 8-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Put together the SF90 Stradale boasts 736kW, or a neat 1000 metric horsepower, all of which are metered out through all four tyres where necessary. 

Porschephiles may recognise the Stradale’s method of power delivery as resembling that used in the 918 Spyder, Porsche’s challenger to Ferrari’s last hybrid, the LaFerrari. Furthermore, despite weighing 270kg more than the LaFerrari, the Stradale makes the best of its extra 28kW  by being ‘nearly a second’ quicker around Fiorano. Certainly a neat little tidbit from Ferrari to demonstrate the capability of its latest creation, which in turn, thickened the smug air around Zuffenhausen to a sultry quality.  

For years pundits had been ragging on Porsche for their decision to build the 918 Spyder as an all-wheel-drive hybrid, instead of scrapping the then-controversial hybrid batteries and front axle electric drive motor and turning it into another raw and pure rear-wheel-drive hypercar that would be closer in spirit to the hard as nails Carrera GT. The cooler heads at Porsche’s engineering department tried reasoning with critics throughout the 918’s development that the end product won’t be as fast around the track without all its hybrid ‘baggage’.  

The stakes weren’t looking better for Porsche when the production version met its hybrid hypercar contemporaries, the McLaren P1 and Ferrari LaFerrari. When the final stats were compared, the ridicule didn’t stop for the Porker as it turned up to the party with the most heft and the least power.

In an era obsessed with lightweight and sceptical of anything with battery-driven propulsion, the press and public were strangely unanimous on their initial hot takes on the 918 – Porsche had delivered a dud to a gunfight. However after several illicit comparison tests and a Nürburgring lap record later, it turned out that the 918 was no dud but in fact a high-powered rifle that picked off its rivals with aplomb. Cooler heads, in the end, did prevail. 

Though the SF90 Stradale hails from another era to the 918’s, its drivetrain concept is a sign of the times. To be more exact, not the rise of futuristic hybrids, but the fall of the traditional rear-drive cars. Rear-wheel-drive or, as is proclaimed by enthusiasts, right-wheel-drive, has gone from being the traditional and predominant drivetrain layout to a pseudo badge of passion and enthusiasm. If your car had rear-wheel-drive it was certainly no econobox, a sign that you were an esteemed person of culture, and whoever built it actually gave a damn. 

Right up to the late-2000s, there were strong reasonings behind this line of thought. Front-wheel-drive setups were not only compromised in its steering and dynamics, but there was also a perceived limit to how much power the front two wheels could take. All-wheel-drive setups, on the other hand, offered traction in exchange for blunt dynamics and, often times, bags of understeer. In light of these options, it was little wonder why enthusiasts hailed rear-wheel-drive cars as the epitome of vehicle dynamics.

All the power you want, with uncorrupted steering, and the penchant to wag its tail. Apply several seasons of Initial D and Top Gear, and what you are left with is a worldwide consensus that rear-wheel-drive is the only way to have any fun. But, as it is with most things in the automotive world as of late, nothing is sacred to the pace of progress.

At the turn of the millennium not only was tyre technology improving in leaps and bounds, but the insistence of more electronic safety systems led to the development of newer systems that were not only smarter but more intuitive. A point of which was exemplified by Ferrari 599 GTO, which its makers claim was faster around a track with the help of its electronic aids than without. Nowadays Mercedes-AMG will sell you a car with nine-stage traction control, in hopes that you will find the right difficulty setting to your satisfaction.  

Coupled all that with developments in differentials with quicker electric actuation, meant that not only was the implied “power ceiling” of front-wheel-drive cars raised time and time again, all-wheel-drive cars were now able to manage its power more effectively and deliver stunning results. The front-wheel-drive Nürburgring lap record holder, the Renault Megane RS Trophy R laps the ‘Ring faster than the previous-generation 911 GT2 RS could, while the quickest production car record holder is an all-wheel-drive Lamborghini Aventador SVJ. 

Although rear-wheel-drive cars aren’t entirely omitted from the records, with the majority of the top ten production lap record holders being rear driven, as the power stakes continue to rise we may see its level of representation start to thin out as all-wheel-drive systems, in the form of traditional mechanical or new-age electrical delivery methods, are able to put down more power, deliver more grip, and exact more control without any of the inherent drawbacks its predecessors were known for. 

As hot-hatches in both front and all-wheel-drive forms are becoming more powerful and quicker than sports cars of yesteryear, and the average power output of cars in the upper echelons of the performance car world are escalating far beyond the capabilities of mere mortals, the scope for rear-wheel-drive applications is steadily thinning. 

Even BMW and Mercedes-Benz, former stalwarts of the rear-wheel-drive cause are said to be introducing all-wheel-drive systems to the next-generation iterations of the iconic M3 and the C63 respectively. The end product might be more rear-wheel-drive with an all-wheel-drive aid in nature, but they believe that such an application is good enough to allay concerns about its weight and complication. After all, what good is winning the power stakes if fully harnessing it is beyond the reach of the average driver’s skill? 

What is certain is that more and more drivers are getting less interested in putting in the extra hours of finessing their driving skill beyond what is needed to obtain a license. The combination of an under-prepared driver in an overpowered ride would not only bring untold ramifications for the increasingly fragile reputation of a car maker’s responsibility in today’s safety-obsessed climate but might turn off a huge audience of drivers who simply want their car to make them go as quick as they would like to believe without the hassle. .

Producing a car that is a handful to get the most out of is only the cause for applause amongst a small group of enthusiasts, racing car drivers, and privileged pundits. Say what you want about all-wheel-drive Lamborghinis falling short of its fearsome reputation of old, the company have been selling more all-paw Lambos than it has ever been selling cars itself. Truth is, buying a car that would wrap itself around a tree at the slightest provocation isn’t anybody’s idea of a unique selling point.

This isn’t to say that rear-wheel-drive cars would be culled tomorrow in the name of safety. Regardless of the scale of economics front-wheel-drive layouts present, or the objective benefits all-wheel-drive systems deliver, the traditional archaic rear-wheel-drive, which hails from the dawn of the automotive industry, maintains an undeniable romantic aura, layering upon the average middling premium car, sports car, and luxury segments, the sort of sentimental value that the alternatives are devoid of. 

It is little wonder why rear-wheel-drive often shares the manifesto of the most passionate automotive engineers and bosses with that other archaic concept, manual transmissions. Relying on the past, present, and future aspirations of customers can only go so far, in the end, it is the market that dictates the price and direction of progress. Rear-wheel-drive may not be entirely redundant today, though there is an ominous feeling that underlines foreseeable trends and future developments that, like all things traditionalists treasure, its existence hinges on borrowed time.

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