When front-wheel drive really took over the motoring mainstream in the 1970s, the primary advantage touted by automakers had to do with fuel efficiency. So the recent news that two mainstream automakers are currently considering rear-wheel drive for important new products is an interesting development.
Actually, Kia is doing more than just "considering." The Korean OEM will bring out its next Kia Amanti full-size sedan on the same rear-wheel-drive platform underpinning the Hyundai Genesis sedan/coupe. Now, this certainly makes a kind of sense for Kia. After all, the Hyundai-Kia group invested a fair amount of money in the platform, and sharing it also helps share the development costs.
Plus, in a bizarre bit of biblical synchronicity, there's also "Genesis"-based thinking behind the other RWD news, that the next Dodge Avenger would move to the same RWD platform beneath the Dodge Charger and Challenger, as well as the Chrysler 300. However, in Chrysler's case, we're talking about the company's Genesis plan, a program to convince dealers to sell all of its American brands under one roof. If/when that happens, dealers then wouldn't have to worry about a FWD Sebring and a RWD Avenger competing for sales in the same showroom.
But why would these two automakers choose to push RWD now, when fuel economy is again a top priority?
Well, first off, you can skip any and all of that stuff about how modern technology has erased the fuel-efficiency differences between RWD and FWD. The fact of the matter is that a front-wheel-drive layout is inherently lighter than a rear-wheel-drive competitor, at least one that keeps the engine in front. It's a different story, of course, with rear-engined, RWD cars like the smart fortwo or Porsche 911. Anyway, the key is that a FWD vehicle can go without weight-adding components like a long driveshaft to connect the engine to the wheels. And lighter weight means better fuel efficiency. It's that simple.
There's also, I suspect, a simple answer to what Chrysler Fiat and Hyundai Kia are up to. While I mentioned that fuel efficiency is a top priority in the industry, it's definitely not the top priority.
For these two companies, I'd say the No. 1 goal is simply to attract customers anyway they can. Chrysler needs to rebuild its presence in the marketplace and the folks at Hyundai need to just keep building theirs. One of the best ways to do this is still by coming out with enthusiast-oriented cars, and there's no getting around the fact that the better weight balance in RWD vehicles, among other things, provides a better driving experience than one can get in a FWD ride.
In other words, RWD serves as the kind of proven product differentiator that can still attract customers and instantly put a shine a company's reputation '” see the Chevrolet Camaro or, for that matter, Hyundai's Genesis. Neither are quite fuel sippers; both generate a huge amount of buzz for their corporate parents.
And as long as that's the only criteria on which we're going to judge a RWD Amanti or Avenger, the cars are already a success.