It’s one of the oldest quandaries in the business: how do you make a front-wheel-drive car that’s as pure and good and responsive to drive as its more traditional rear-wheel-drive equivalent? And more to the point, is it even possible to do so in the first place?
I still believe the answer is no, you can’t, not quite – because being pulled along by a car will never quite match the greater tactility that comes from being pushed by it.
Yes, there are all sorts of packaging benefits that automatically accompany front wheel-drive. And, yes, there’s also – in theory although not always in practice – greater fundamental stability and therefore safety in a car that’s being pulled along by its front wheels.
But the flip side is that a rear drive car will always, or should always if its engineers have done their job right, possess sweeter steering responses, purely because the steering system itself is uncorrupted by the thrust of the engine.
There are also many more options available to the engineers of rear-wheel-drive cars in terms of chassis balance. And by that I don’t mean suspension tuning as in springs and dampers and ride quality and so on; from that point of view it makes not a lot of difference which end of the car is being propelled.
Instead I mean balance, feel, adjustability, call it what you will. Most of which stems from the fact that the centre of gravity in the average rear-drive car will always be that little bit lower than in its front-wheel-drive equivalent. This has a fairly huge knock-on effect on a car’s aerodynamics (which are absolutely crucial when it comes to the continuing improvement of a car’s emissions and economy nowadays), its brake feel, its traction, its basic sense of balance; pretty much everything a car does while it's on the move, in fact.
And so, no, despite the obvious advantages in packaging and cost saving and ease of design and simplicity of construction and so on, the front-wheel-drive car is always going to struggle to deliver more beside its rear-wheel-drive equivalent where it matters most: on the road. And ultimately that’s why cars such as the excellent new Merecedes C-class (rear drive) and BMW 3-series will always be that little bit sweeter to drive than their front-drive equivalents from Ford, Audi, Volkswagen and the rest of them.