This is such an incredibly loaded question with examples on both sides of the aisle, but we’ll try our best to break down the advantages of either.
Historically, having an engine driving the rear wheels was the layout of choice for many car manufacturers – at least until the mid to late 1980s. Everything from the Toyota Corolla to the BMW E21 was RWD, although all of that changed for a variety of reasons as the market evolved.
For one, designing and building a front-wheel drive (FWD) car has always been a more cost effective and economical solution. An FWD car is less expensive to produce as it has fewer moving components, which in turn also means less parasitic losses which help to improve the overall performance at the tyre as well as fuel economy.
The other major reason FWD has become extremely common as a layout is the simple truth that it is a better idea for packaging when it comes to freeing up leg space and providing a larger interior without compromising the overall length or size of the car. With an FWD, you don’t need a centre tunnel to accommodate the propshaft to the rear, and similarly the engine can be placed quite tightly against the firewall which in turn shortens the overall length.
A lot of purists will look down on FWD vehicles as there is this strong opinion that an FWD car cannot handle well, but let’s examine whether this is really the case. In this day and age, very few vehicles are RWD because the market is fairly small. It’s even telling of the times when BMW, a company that once argued against the idea, has a range of FWD cars in their current line-up.
RWD has the obvious advantage of being able to split the duties of acceleration and steering. With an RWD, the rear wheels are solely used to propel the car forward or through a corner, while the front wheels are only tasked with steering the vehicle. With an FWD, those duties are combined and in turn has the potential to run out of grip more readily.
And yet, there are so many examples of amazing FWD vehicles. The classic Mini is a good example, being compact in overall dimensions but still being able to fit a family of four – and more importantly, on the world stage with various winners over time. Any French hot hatchback is also FWD, including such stellar examples as the Peugeot 106 Rallye to the Renault Megane RS 265. All of these cars handle exceptionally well through a combination of solid engineering and an understanding of the subject at hand.
The only problem is that as much as the market is being convinced that FWD cars are perfectly fine, once in a while an RWD model will make it through the bean counters in accounting and actually head onwards to production. The Toyota GT86 is one of the best examples of this, being the first revival for the brand since all of their models fast became champions of the FWD layout.
There’s also the fact that an RWD vehicle is a source of joy for those willing to be a little more adventurous. Drifting can be exclusively done with a RWD vehicle, meaning that if you were to opt for an FWD you will be giving up a lot of the fun of car ownership. As awesome as some of these FWD vehicles are, there is still nothing quite like managing an RWD car on the limit based purely on balance and precision.
So while FWD is the better layout for the mass market, RWD still has a couple of unique aspects that ultimately makes it a better choice for higher performance vehicles and race-cars. But it’s always important to remember that the drivetrain layout doesn’t always matter and if you’re the kind of person who truly enjoys driving, you’ll find the fun in a car regardless of which end the driven wheels are at.