You have choices and may not even know it. You find a car that trips your trigger and take it for a spin. Often it handles well just because you like its looks. Do you care if it is front wheel drive (FWD) or rear wheel drive (RWD)? Are all wheel drive (AWD) better? Is AWD the same from manufacturer to manufacturer? Like most things, it depends.
I started out with my first car that was rear wheel drive. It was an air cooled VW Beetle. With the engine hanging behind the driving wheels it was great in the snow and on dirt roads as long as you understood how it would react once you reached its limits. When it let go it was like Thor’s hammer and that weight took over. Porsche drivers, with their higher horsepower cars learned about it as trailing throttle oversteer. Go into a corner a little hot and you learned to grit your teeth and keep the power on. If you were foolish enough to lift the rear end would try to swap ends with the front giving you the cold rush of that “oh shit” feeling.
There were other rear wheel drive cars out there and I had a chance to drive many of them. The Jaguar XKE with its twin cam six cylinder engine was a powerful car (as fast as the Pontiac GTO’s acceleration) that had european handling and a body that was simply beautiful. Its sculptured curves said sex like a tight leather dress on a beautiful woman. Jaguar would later come out with a V-12 version, but I always liked the light and agile six cylinder version. Compared to most American cars of the 60’s it invited you to find a road with some undulating turns and delight you with the smell of oil, the thrum of the six, and wind blowing past your grinning face as you braced yourself against the leather bucket seats.
If you had a particularly tight road to transverse you might be better off with a Spridget. This was either the MG Midget or The Austin Healy Sprite. The most desirable was the “Bug-eyed” Sprite. It had no mechanical difference between it and the MG Midget, but its looks were irresistible. A pair of headlights apparently shoved into the fenders on either side of the grill gave it the look of a frog or bug. These short wheel-based cars with their converted four cylinder tractor engines could be thrown around with abandon to scare the willies out of your date and throw her into a fit of giggles.
It was the summer of 1964 when I saw my first Shelby Mustang. I wouldn’t get to drive one for a few years, but it was love at first site. I was used to seeing cars squat in the rear and raise up on the front tires when the driver poured on the coal. This car just hunkered down like it was getting sucked to the road. A throaty roar drummed through my body as it turned a corner in front of me and disappeared down the road. By the time I was able to sit in the driver’s seat it was a Shelby GT500 KR. It had lost a lot of the race car attitude, but became a tail happy muscle car with little provocation.
Front wheel drive cars were rare at first. SAAB had this weird car that had a two cycle engine that would scorch an autocross track. It was front wheel drive. In the mid to late 1970 FWD cars multiplied like rabbits. It was hard not to find one. Gasoline availability had experienced two dramatic shortages and that had finally convinced people to think light and small. VW brought out its Rabbit. Honda had the Civic. American manufactures were struggling with the concept. They had first tried FWD with some large cars like the Rivera and the Toronado, but they were from the era of gasoline at twenty cents a gallon. Trying to scale them down to economy size proved to be a conundrum.
These FWD cars were a different driving experience. Take them hard into a corner and they would pull you around like a dog pulling you by his leash, but bring it in too hard or start to loose your grip and it would understeer in a most horrible fashion. I found I preferred the tail happy RWD that you could at least modulate with the throttle. Not that I didn’t enjoy my FWD Ford Fiesta. It was interesting to autocross with it against the Rabbits. They would lift their rear wheel in a corner like a dog peeing on a tree and the Fiesta would lift the opposite wheel. The Rabbits had independent rear while the Fiesta had a solid axle.
Then came AWD. My first drive was in a 1997 Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX. I ended up buying the car. AWD and turbocharged engine was a wonderful combination. The AWD forgave the fact that you didn’t have the natural talent nor seat time of Mario Andretti. The factory wisely dialed in some understeer but that didn’t keep me from forcing it into oversteer. It still had the stock tires. They were 215/50-17 Goodyear’s that were squeezed on to six and a half inch wide rims. I took an off ramp with the confidence of a fool. This car could get me through anything, but physics can be cruel when you violate its laws. The sunroof was open and the windows were down. It was a beautiful afternoon in the spring. The car entered the corner and the tires started their serenade and the rear started to come around. I caught the tail and kept my sights on where I wanted to go as the car slithered around as if I had been slaloming down a ski slope. Dried grass flew up as the car drifted from asphalt to road side lawn and back again. The car came to a halt on the grass. I looked at my companion sprinkled with the dried grass and wisely decided to get out of there.
The narrow wheels and pitiful tires were replaced soon after with much wider and stickier tires. My naivety was replaced with maturity commensurate with my age along with the decision to save these experiments to the race track.
AWD is truly addicting. Later I drove Audis, Subarus , etc., ending up with another Mitsubishi. The Evolution VIII MR to be exact. I had been spoiled by AWD and knew it would be hard to go back, just as I had been spoiled by turbocharging. The AWD technology keeps improving. The Evo has an active center differential (ACD). With LSD’s on either end and ACD in the middle it is constantly making the most of any traction it gets. Mitsubishi is promising even more with the Evolution X. It has sensors to measure the amount of G forces in any direction that is used to compute the optimal power transfer to the tires as well as adapting the brakes to the maneuver that is being attempted. This technology is astounding.
In the dry and in the wet AWD is probably the best. As long as you keep in mind the realities of physics and with the technology that is coming that will be very hard.
I still love taking out my friend’s Corvette. One has a 2002 Z06 that is astounding and the other has the 2006 C6. I have taken them for rides in the Evo MR and they have been impressed with the acceleration and handling in particular, but I am amazed by the torque that is available from their V8 engines as they lope along at 2000 rpm. Tail happy? Yes, but the key word here is “happy”. The Corvette is an exceptional handling car, especially in the Z06 models.
FWD is no slouch either, but can be really challenged when you build in some real power. I remember chasing down a Dodge SRT4 on the Tail of the Dragon and being impressed with the handling given the FWD layout. If they had packaged it in AWD it would have been an amazing car. VW did with their R32 version.