Why does Volkswagen Group hate rear-wheel drive?

Illustration for article titled Why does Volkswagen Group hate rear-wheel drive?

If front-wheel drive is wrong-wheel drive, Volkswagen and its many offshoots may be the wrongest automaker in existence. Even Lamborghini wasn't safe from VW's quattro-biased hands. Jalopnik contributor and rear-wheel aficionado Kevin McCauley's sick of it, and ain't no diff's gonna make a difference in his mind. — Ed.

I like rear-wheel drive. It's purer, simpler and direct exposure fills your head with unrealistic delusions of man-over-machine heroics. On Evo's Top 10 Greatest Drivers' Cars, eight were RWD. So why does Volkswagen, our soon-to-be #1 global sales overlords, hate it?

The way that gun nuts think the government is actively after their firearms, that's how I am about rear-drive. I fear that it will be regulated and marketed away on the grounds of "improved safety," "fuel economy" and "reasonability."

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Illustration for article titled Why does Volkswagen Group hate rear-wheel drive?

I think the growing prevalence all-wheel drive is the first step towards that. Why on Earth would you want two driven wheels powering the car when you could have four? I know that AWD is great, provides more grip and I'm even told it isn't always plagued with understeer. But in my head, despite it not always being the case, every AWD drivetrain begins life as front-wheel drive. Of course that's not true. Sometimes.

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Maybe I missed one (feel free to correct me), but out of the dozens of vehicles sold under VW's many nameplates in Europe and North America, only one is rear-wheel drive. The $290,000 Bentley Mulsanne is offered only in RWD which came as a bit of a shock. I expected it to share parts with the borefest Continental GT, which is driven by all four wheels.

This chart is based on Volkswagen Group vehicles sold in the United States in 2011-2012. Porsche isn't on it because, despite their unusual arrangement with VW , I don't consider Porsche under the umbrella yet. Lamborghini built the Valentino Balboni Gallardo LP550-2 in 2009 and still builds a 550-2 as a base model, but it's the brand's forgotten stepchild.

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To answer my own question, VW probably doesn't hate rear-wheel drive platforms: it's just more cost-effective to built cars front-wheel drive first and then offer all-wheel drive as an add-on. It's an effective strategy for building cars for a variety of purposes and pricepoints, but it's hard for me to take a sports car seriously when its beginnings source back to front-wheel drive.

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On VW Group's more exotic offerings (Bentley/Audi R8/Lamborghini), they're obviously designed from the start as rear-biased all-wheel drive, with the added traction serving as a safety net for owners in their high-horsepower toys. It's all very logical, but a bit of a shame. Why not the choice? Is Volkswagen Group's drivetrain strategy the plan that others will follow?

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I sure as hell hope not.


This story originally appeared on Distraction Control on October 30, 2011, and was republished with permission.

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DISCUSSION

This is narrow thinking mixed with hysteria (can anyone here ever remember any proposal to "regulate away" RWD)?

VW, excluding Porsche, is just not positioned in a way that makes RWD useful to it.

Rear-drive doesn't make sense in any market segment in which VW (division) is currently participating. Small family hatch? No. Small and midsize volume family sedans? No. Small convertible cruiser? No. Minivan and crossovers? No. The only VW (division) product that even conceptually makes sense as RWD is the CC, and there is no RWD platform appropriate for it.

Audi is a brand that has made its reputation for 30 years on all-wheel-drive. It was the pioneer of sophisticated AWD systems in cars. All Audi products except the A3/S3 and the TT are engineered much like RWD cars, except with AWD systems added. They have longitudinal engines, decent weight distribution, and poor packaging, just like the RWD machines you love so much. But Audi selling RWD would be like Brooks Brothers selling jeans — it would defeat a central attribute of the brand.

Lamborghini and Bugatti are at a point on the performance spectrum where AWD is a legitimate performance enhancer because RWD cars just plain run out of grip. You can argue that an RWD Lamborghini might be more fun, but you can't argue it will turn in better numbers. It won't.

FWD has big advantages. It allows for vastly better packaging, with bigger and more comfortable interiors in smaller cars. It allows for cheaper powertrain engineering (these days). It's more predictable for unknowledgeable drivers. Most FWD cars, except for enthusiast-focused models, would be worse at their jobs if they were made RWD.

Likewise, AWD is a boon to those who drive daily on snowy hills. That's a lot of people in the north half of the country. Yes, snow tires are very helpful, but AWD and snow tires together are better yet, and people know it.

I think RWD has become, and will continue to be, a niche product for enthusiasts. Its advantages, unlike those of FWD and AWD, are not really relevant to anyone else.