Overwhelming majority of cars sold to an average Joe are front wheel driven (FWD) econo boxes with interior made out of cheap plastic. FWD scheme allowed manufacturers to develop low cost simplified production lines where motor and transmission guts are dropped into chassis in the form of a single block. While this model decreases manufacturing costs it creates effect of torque steering: the torque difference between left and right wheel results in steering wheel turning itself every time the car accelerates. Scale of this self-steering effect depends on amount of torque sent to wheels.
In small cars with tiny engines the torque steering effect can be ignored but if you want to drive a car with a bit stronger motor (Focus ST comes to mind) you cannot hold the steering wheel like it is your new born baby.
In the rear wheel driven (RWD) model front wheels steer and rear wheels push the car. Although transmission tunnel eliminates the middle space in back seat (who needs it anyway?) it makes car not only handle well but it also distributes weight between front and rear axle. This was not considered as a luxury – it was common sense.
Today cars are sold almost exclusively as FWD soap boxes. They offer back seat for three people (if you squeeze them like sardines in a can) and boot large enough to accommodate three dead bodies. Unfortunately the hard work that front wheels are forced to do makes the entire car heavily understeer and it is not willing to take corners with speed higher than a lawn mower. Car makers tell us: FWD is the new standard and RWD is a luxury. Yeah, like combination of good handling and cramped back seat has ever been a luxury...
Average Joe who wants to drive RWD cars is left with overpriced German imports (Infiniti is not much cheaper) and poorly made and overweight American cars. None of the American auto makers offers an affordable small to medium size lightweight RWD car with good handling and manual stick. Camaro has poor visibility, Challenger is just a bit heavier than your house, Charger is too big and it has appearance of a dog with Down syndrome. The manual transmission for a RWD Dodge is a $1000 option. In addition, installing 8-speed automatic gear boxes made those cars behave like women in a shoe store. Cannot decide what gear to shift – too many options!. The only sensible offer would be Mustang since it is the lightest RWD here but it is a coupe so its boot is minuscule.
Since FWD econo-box market is dominated by Japanese and Korean automakers you would think that simple affordable RWD platform would obviously have to come only from GM or Chrysler since they have long tradition of front engine RWD cars (Corvette and Viper are expensive performance cars so they do not count here). Wrong! Chrysler is not capable of producing anything better than mafia’esque 300C and heavy Charger. The only promising RWD sedan platform that GM had, Holden Commodore, was designed and built by Aussies (sold in US and Canada as Pontiac G8). Unfortunately G8 disappeared when GM decided to kill Pontiac brand.
The surprise arrived from Japan when Toyota and Subaru designed simple lightweight front engine rear wheel drive car with manual transmission. Subaru BRZ and Toyota FT-86 (sold in America as Scion FRS) are well handling simple cars that do not pretend to be anything more. Although they are not sedans with big boot nor they are versatile hatches, they are very important cars in modern motorization. They prove that it is still possible to make an inexpensive RWD platform with simple 5-speed manual transmission. Auto maker that is perfect in producing desperately boring vehicles like Corolla and Camry managed somehow to show us how to build a car that is fun to drive!
We may still be far from seeing small RWD sedans coming from Japan but BRZ and FRS represent a first baby-step toward an affordable universal RWD platform. General Motors, it’s your move now….