Drivers take heed of the top 3 dangers of front wheel drive

My name is Paul Podnar and among other things, I am a car enthusiast.

I have owned, restored, driven and collected cars and since I was 15 years old and I’m a few times older than that now.

I'm a medical technologist and have also worked for Mini Cooper USA and smart USA. I’ll be writing on many aspects of both modern and collectable cars with the hopes of being informative and to dispel myths. In future articles we'll discuss drive systems, aerodynamics, power systems, engine designs, ABS, steering systems, material use and more. Some of this may sound sort of dull to those who think that a car is just a device to get a person from A to B. But I feel that there are a couple of qualifiers that this simplistic description of transportation misses, and would even go so far as to say that once one is exposed to some of these other qualities of automobiles, their view will never be the same.

Safety, enjoyment, agility, economy, stability and even beauty… these are all qualities a car may possess and they all could be taken into consideration when making your next purchase. 

Most people have accepted front wheel drive (FWD). They view it as good for cars in snowy and icy conditions and while this is true to a point, I believe the public has been woefully under-informed about the potential dangers in this type of power transmission system so commonly found in use in production cars today.  

Most cars built from about 1900 through 1950 were front engine, with rear wheel drive (RWD). There were exceptions, most notably the Cord, Citroen, Mini and Miller racing cars, but for the most part, FWD was not in mass production by a great number of manufacturers till the mid to late 1970s.

Most automobile manufacturers in America continued producing RWD vehicles well into the 1980s and 1990s, and some are still made this way today. However, since the introduction of FWD, which was popularized by the Morris/Mini and Citroen of the late ‘50s, front engine/front wheel drive cars have increasingly gained in popularity.  

Their popularity is easy to understand because the old, front engine, RWD cars had terrible traction in ice and snow. This was because there was often very little vehicle weight centered over the rear wheels of these cars, since a heavy cast iron V8 engine was located in the front. When road conditions were poor, the rear wheels would easily lose traction upon acceleration and spin even in a light rain. That was why most people used studded snow tires in the winter and often even added snow chains in severe areas. With the exception of the rear engine, RWD Volkswagen Beetle and Chevy Corvair, most people would not experience an alternative drive system in a car till well into the 1970s.

So why did this great switch to FWD occur, and just what are the three dangers?

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Believe it or not, the great switch to FWD systems was driven by economics!

Manufacturers found that the compact, front engine, FWD system was cheaper to produce; it was adopted in most small cars quite quickly. Other benefits included a compact package, which offered a bit more room or possible weight savings. As car companies saw the public accepting this design, and even benefiting from it, they redesigned a greater number of vehicles to use FWD, including mid-sized and some full size cars. But FWD can be like a two-edged sword, (much like all wheel drive, which we’ll cover in another article).

While FWD is used in a majority of production vehicles today, you may see that it is effectively missing in racing cars and most luxury and sports cars, with notable exceptions like the Miller racing cars of the ‘50s and the Mini Coopers of the ‘60s. Still racing has not adopted FWD use because the safest, fastest and most predictable driving characteristics are still found in a rear wheel or four wheel drive design, and here’s why.  

While it’s true that most of the time FWD behaves pretty well, it may rear its ugly face and demonstrate those little realized aspects of FWD when driving conditions worsen and become more dangerous.

Danger 1 - Torque Steer and Wheel Hop

Because the front tires are responsible for both steering and accelerating the FWD-designed car, a condition can arise where on quick acceleration, the left and right front tires will fight with one another to point the car slightly to their side of the lane. In severe cases this can be associated with a condition called wheel hop, where the amount of power being transmitted to the front wheels is just too much for the tires and suspension to lay down on the road, and a wheel actually “hops” off the pavement, further exacerbating traction problems. As the vehicles weight shifts to the rear tires because of a sudden acceleration, even less weight is available to the front tires so both wheel hop and torque steer continue and worsen, sometimes even shifting your car out of its lane.

Danger 2 - Loss of Uphill Traction

When you climb a hill using a rear drive car, the weight shifts from the front wheels to the rear to improve traction. Compare this to the car that uses FWD, where just when you need the traction, climbing a hill with a minivan full of kids and groceries, you lose traction as the weight shifts to the rear wheels.

Danger 3 - Induced Skid

At the limits of cornering, in the rain, or snow or when adverse conditions suddenly arise, like when sand is blown across curving Highway 1 in California, a typical driver will feel the car become unstable and instinctively lift his or her foot off the gas pedal. Whether you were taught to do this or take some other action, it seems most people just do it. Now in a RWD car, lifting your foot off the gas pedal is perfectly acceptable and will start to slow the rear wheels, anchoring the rear of the car behind you where it belongs, while not disturbing the grip of the front tires as they steer the car to safety. However, in a FWD car this is exactly the wrong thing to do.

When you surpass the limit of traction in a FWD car to the point where it becomes unstable, most people instinctively lift their foot off the gas pedal. This effectively slows the front wheels only, actually worsening the situation by potentially inducing a more severe skid of the front wheels towards the outside of the turn. This is known as understeer. A highly-trained driver knows that with FWD car, the driver should keep a bit of power on the front wheels and turn them into the turn to help bring the car out of the understeering state, while lightly applying the brakes to help slow the car to a safer speed.

This does not mean your FWD car is unsafe, because in most normal situations the problems described above do not occur. However, it is the fact that just when you need it most, FWD often lets you down. For the skill level found in most drivers and especially first time drivers, FWD may be more of a negative than an positive, which is why car companies like the Mercedes continues to design rear engine, rear drive vehicles. Talk with some of your friends who have been in a skid with a front drive vehicle and you’ll see a light bulb go on as they nod in agreement with the my explanation.

Next month I’ll describe the different types of four wheel drive (4WD) and the associated problems of a system that, while possessing the potential to be one of the safest designs for every motorist, also has a dark side which causes many of the problems on our roads today.

Thanks and happy motoring!

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Volume 1, Issue 4, Posted 1:17 PM, 07.28.2010