Community Question: Does Rear-Wheel Drive Still Matter?19
What begs us to ask this most blasphemous of questions? In one word, Infiniti.
You see, Infiniti is a brand that has built its recent reputation and success on offering luxurious vehicles with a performance edge. Unsurprisingly, all of these vehicles are based on rear-wheel drive platforms — a fact that lends them even more credibility among automotive enthusiasts.
So you can imagine our surprise when we found out a couple of months ago that Infiniti is planning an onslaught of vehicles based on front-wheel drive platforms. In case you’re not familiar with Infiniti’s latest product plans, the brand will have a new three-row crossover, a sub-compact hatch to supposedly fight the BMW 1-series, as well as an electric car that shares the platform with the Nissan Leaf. All of these will be front-wheel drive and the crossover will offer all-wheel drive as an option.
Other than that, what surprised us were statements from Infinti executives about the decision to back off the rear-wheel drive only stance. According to Nissan VP of product planning Larry Dominique, “Customers really don’t care that much about the platform beneath the car. They care about the car.” Dominique continues by saying that “there is a performance perception with rear-wheel [drive]. But we’re comfortable that we don’t need rear-wheel [drive] to deliver the performance we need.”
At the end of the day, Infiniti’s decision made us wonder whether Cadillac will eventually make the same
decision mistake and offer a lineup comprised of RWD and FWD vehicles. In Caddy’s case, it seems that the brand is well on its way of doing just that — since the SRX rides on a modified Theta architecture driven by the front wheels while the upcoming Lambda-based crossover will also be based on a front-wheel drive design.
So what do you think? Is RWD still relevant? Is it still needed? Is there a relationship between drivetrain and brand? Or are consumers simply ignorant and don’t care? Sound off in the comments below.
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It’s surprising for Infiniti to say such a thing, as they have garnered a lot of attention from enthusiasts from their G and M vehicles, both of which are RWD.
However, if they care more about moving metal in volume, FWD-based models seem to be more successful (i.e.: Lexus ES, RX, Cadillac SRX, Buick Regal) then their RWD counterparts. So, if they care more about money than about perception, then Infiniti has made the right decision in their own eyes.
I’ve had numerous S-Class MB’s, I tried a 4matic in 03 and didn’t like the steering feel at all, switched back to RWD and was way happier. I haven’t tried the 4matic on an S550 yet but wonder if it has improved much. If even MB can’t get an awd car to have the pure, natural feel of RWD than I think they’ll always be a place for it.
I think consumers are ignorant and really don’t care.
Would you buy a FWD ZR1?
I don’t think a FWD ZR1 would exist (or even be possible)!
Infiniti = poor excuse of a car company , they cannot even define their direction and are taking the steps that almost put Buick out of business. I think they need More MBA’s making these decisions at Infiniti so they can really tank fast. Bob Lutz is Laughing about this decision and is helping GM plan accordingly for future product. Wait for the next Buick Enclave, and LaCross and the UUV which all will help put Infiniti in dire straights quicker..
This move is very surprising to me since Infiniti was doing so well with their new-found RWD-only strategy/direction. So much for making awesome cars…
I agree that the average consumer doesn’t know or care whether the car is front or rear wheel drive. I also think the as all-wheel drive becomes more common, none of this will matter. All of that aside, those of us who want the best handling characteristics we can get know that if it’s not AWD it has to be rear wheel drive. Front wheel drive is for sissies.
That’s kind of sad, though, isn’t it? That the average consumer doesn’t care…
Even so, I think that AWD isn’t the answer to everything. Because RWD isn’t only about the drive wheels, but it’s also about weight balance: Audis, Acuras, and Volvos are inherently out of balance, even with AWD.
Flat out around corners is FWDs’ DNA.
For me, and for every auto enthusiast, RWD matters and should always matter.
I’ve owned more than 25 cars and every time I am seduced by a front or AWD car, I inevitably long for rear drive and front wheels that aren’t at war with torque. VW GTI, Subaru WRX STI, MINI Cooper Clubman S, Saab 900 T, Audi A6, etc… all fun cars, but I always went back to a rear drive BMW, Mercedes or Porsche. I even had a brief affair (all of two weeks) with a 95 Chevy Impala SS. That car had so many factory defects that I sold it back to the dealer.
Infiniti is flailing in the water and drowning fast. Nothing it creates gets much market traction. Why? The cars (forget the SUVs) are great driver cars. They get good reviews. They are well engineered, balanced, handle smartly and have fun powertrains, etc. But Infiniti fails for one simple reason: Styling. A great, emotional design trumps even bad marketing. And Infiniti has never had it. Even the terrific G37 Coupe doesn’t tug heart strings line the Nissan Z.
Maybe the styling language is too feminine for the luxury class. It’s hard to put my finger on the exact reason, but not many people are dying to have an Infiniti. From day 1, Nissan made a horrible and apparently irreversible mistake with the advertising and styling. The Q45 was by far the better car and with the air suspension, it was beyond fun as the enthusiast’s choice.
Supposedly Infiniti was going to take on BMW and Lexus targeted Mercedes. I think both failed, but Lexus certainly is successful and profitable with its own place in the market. The new Infiniti JX is ugly and it will sell in predictably low volumes.
But back to rear drive. You simply can’t put lots of torque to the front wheels before you have a disaster. AWD smooths that out but, for the most part, it detracts from the sporting characteristics (with some exceptions like the Porsche C4S, 911 Turbo, the Ferrari FF or the Audi R8). I’m always going to prefer neutral front wheels with sharp steering and feeling the rear wheels push me forward rather than being dragged, nose first, down the road. Can you imagine a Corvette or Camaro or Charger SRT8, an M3 or an SLS AMG without RWD? I can’t.
Cadillac too would be making a huge mistake by veering towards front drive again. That worked so well in the 80s and 90s, right?
I just wish there were more affordable (under $30k) rear drive cars on the market. The selection is slim.
Very well-put, Todd. I really liked what Infiniti had stood for with an entire RWD lineup. But now it seems they’re trying to squeeze any and all sales from the luxury segment at the expense of overall brand image. What they should be doing is focusing on styling. Infinitis are good-looking… but are by no means beautiful the way a BMW is.
Ironically, here’s what Shiro Nakamura, Infiniti’s global design chief, had to say about the decision to introduce FWD vehicles:
“If you look at where we were several years ago, Infiniti’s design language was a little too similar to Nissan. That was bad for a luxury brand, and we needed to move Infiniti far away. We needed rear-wheel drive to help us differentiate between the brands. But I think we’ve been very successful in achieving that. Look at all of Infiniti’s vehicles. They loo nothing like Nissan’s.”
So they used RWD to differentiate styling from Nissan. It wasn’t about performance, but more about forcing their designers to make different designs. Looks like different, in this case, doesn’t have to mean pretty, elegant, or beautiful. Oh, and the JX is just plain ugly. Oh well, down the drain Infiniti shall go.
It looks like Infiniti is trying (desperately, and a decade too late) to take a page from the Lexus playbook:
Lexus managed to fill its inventories and volume leaders with with rebadged Toyotas. Sharing those platforms, adding some luxury features and giving the cars the “Lexus Magic Touch” including a big price increase spelled huge profits for Toyota.
The ES = Camry or Avalon, depending how you look at it. The RX, a huge seller, is just a Highlander. The GX is a 4Runner and the LX (as ugly as it is) is just a Land Cruiser. CT = Prius, HS = Camry Hybrid. At least the IS, GS and LS remain rear drive with AWD optional.
But Lexus made its name on the rear drive LS sedan, now a competitor, albeit not my choice, to the BMW 7-series, Mercedes S-class and Audi A8. Infiniti started the same way but kept shooting itself in the tires at every redesign and bad marketing campaign.
Cadillac has nothing to compete with the Germans at the flagship level and neither does Ford. I’d argue that the new Chrysler 300C is a good challenger to Lexus or Infiniti. It cost thousands less, handles very well and has an impressive array of luxury features. Unfortunately, the Chrysler badge doesn’t carry much weight if you’re shopping for a Lexus (or less likely, an Infiniti).
To my dismay, both Mercedes and BMW have acknowledged that their customers, at least at the lower end of the scale, don’t have a clue that the car is rear or front drive. That’s very sad, to me. Both now plan to offer Golf-sized entry level cars (Mercedes B-Class and BMW 1-Series) that are front drive. The only glimmer of hope is that the BMW chassis is said to be able to support any form of drive – front, AWD or rear. So it’s still possible for an enthusiast’s RWD 1-Series in the future.
Cadillac should build the rear-drive Ciel or something damn close to it. At $100k+ it’s at the same price point as most of the big German competition as well as a fully-loaded Lexus. And the Cadillac ATS had better be damn credible if it’s going to come to market almost the same time (Q1 2012) as the completely-revamped BMW 3-seires and only a few months after a seriously freshened Mercedes C-Class (due next month).
With hybrid rear-drive systems trickling into the market and some sophisticated clean diesels also finding their way into the rear drive segment, I think rear drive still has room to expand and flourish. At least that’s the way the movie plays in my slightly-deluded mind.
I believe performance cars should be RWD or AWD. I just can’t imagine a FWD Corvette or Camaro. RWD handles different. There may be a weight or cost advantage to FWD that Infiniti is looking to capitalize on. FWD is nice in the snow, but performance cars don’t normally go out in it.
Bah! I think all possible “weight advantages” are wiped out by the unbalancing that’s a FWD vehicle.
RWD is the number one criteria on my shopping list. I would love to buy one of the upcoming Cadillac ELS or XTS, and I would be willing to go over my $40K budget for my next new car to the tune of $20-25k in order to get extended range electric or full hybrid technology in a luxury package. But FWD entirely eliminates those cars for me. I will be looking at the new ATS, CTS, or Cadillac’s new flagship sedan instead.
Even All Wheel Drive is not a solution, because All Wheel Drive based on an FWD car is usually never rear wheel biased ( notable exception is Audi, where people realized that they had to have something RWD-like, without abandoning their FWD ideology ), and even if AWD is RWD biased, there is still some pulling in the front wheels, and unnecessary fuel consumption, without much benefit for somebody who loves RWD.
I do not mind some cars in a luxury maker’s lineup that are FWD, but I certainly cannot buy them.
When a brand decides to go (almost) all RWD, it sends a message to its customers about the purpose, mission, and raison d’etre. Bob Lutz knew why he had to move Cadillac to RWD, and BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar, Rolls, and even Lexus and Infinity know that, too. A few FWD cars here or there don t destroy that message, but they do represent a slippery slope that Lincoln and Volvo fell victim to.
Hart Fischer, Sierra Madre, CA
Great comment, Hart. I completely agree.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the only car that currently fits my driving desires (rear drive, and fun), space needs (4 door) and budget (under $40k, preferably) is the Dodge Charger. The new Pentastar V6 coupled with the 8-speed automatic should get over 30 mpg (which I kind of need for weekly LA to PS drives) and still, fully-loaded, it comes in around $36k. Every other rear drive car in the price range is either (1) much smaller or (2) a coupe – I hate to admit it, but I really need the 4-doors. I’d be very interested in the new Caprice/G8, but that isn’t being sold to the public.
What is the consumer saying; is it possible that consumers are driving the fwd luxo push, otherwise we probably would see a mix of rebadged holdens as buicks and Caddies. Lutz is back to drive a more holistic design/quality and refinment push this is clearly GMs new focus, thus the delay on many intro’s across the board. We all love the rwd experience but fwd sells…
Yeah, FWD does sell. I wonder if I should have posed the question as “Do people even know what wheels drive their car?” or maybe even “Are drive wheels a determining factor in automotive purchases?”
Besides those who opt for AWD, I personally think consumers don’t know the difference. They’re certainly not seeking out vehicles based on FWD/RWD… and making their decision that way. The small exception being those who think FWD is safer in winter. But those people would rather get AWD anyway.