Thursday, May 26, 2011

A quandary for the ages

There are some age old debates which will never be resolved, and that’s a good thing, for it means we will always have fodder for verbal discourse. Bird or Magic? Mac or PC? Godfather or Godfather 2? Creation or Evolution? Bordeaux or Bourgogne? Thus, in the past week I’ve had to revisit that most important of automotive questions: front-wheel drive, or rear-wheel drive?

I grew up and learned to drive, as did most Americans of my generation, in rear wheel drive cars, though they tended to be smaller than the norm, with smaller engines and manual transmissions. The first cars I bought were also rear wheel drive, but starting with my first new car, a 1984 Chevrolet Cavalier, then through a couple of Hondas and more Saabs than I can recall, I’ve never owned anything but front drivers. Certainly, there was a time when in New England when the available grip and stability of FWD in wintery weather held enough logic to demand that one choose it over RWD. Now, with limited slip differentials, traction control and stability control, those arguments are moot. With a set of snow tires and all the nanny controls switched on, it’s hard to tell what you’re driving in the snow.

When you get a bunch a car nuts together, especially those who road race, there is an overbearing prejudice against FWD, even if they do admit to the efficiencies in packaging of FWD which makes the configuration sensible for everyday boring cars. But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking real cars, fun cars. The RWD arguments are fairly sound. Are there any FWD cars in F1? NASCAR? Indy Car? Formula Anything? Does Ferrari or Porsche make a FWD vehicle? No. Not a one. Then the few FWD fans in that crowd will chime in about rally racing. While now dominated by AWD (which we will leave completely out of this discussion), there are still lots of FWD rally cars competing….and RWD, not so much. I’ve rather given up arguing the point. On the preponderance of evidence, one ought to prefer RWD if one is a car nut, yet I don’t. Hence I drive a Saab and not a BMW, yet another debate that can’t be decided rationally.

I had a chance, recently, to consider this question at In Control when I was teaching a class of police officers. Most of the class was done in our issue Camrys; but a few drills were done in Crown Victoria police cruisers. The final drill of the day was an auto-cross. It was a good set up—lots of hard acceleration, hard braking, hard turns, and sneaky stuff like decreasing radius turns and a diminishing slalom. It was quite difficult to manage the FWD Camry. In places I would have liked to shake the tail a bit, which I am accustomed to in that car, I didn’t have enough necessary inertia to break the rear free, thus the car understeered ponderously, forcing some turns into hand-over-hand maneuvers. Still, it was all predictable, if not easy.

Then it was time for me to take a turn in the Crown Vic. I can honestly say I’ve never been in a cruiser, let alone driven one. Did you know they have a secret switch to prevent them from coming out of Park? Anyway, the cruisers on loan from the Lowell PD are certainly not their best cars. Suffice to say that I felt like I should put on a black suit and tie, black sunglasses, handcuff a briefcase to my wrist, and have a partner that said, “Hit it.” I expected the Crown Vic to be a handful. In a sense, it was. It was vague and loose, but surprised me with the ease with which I could navigate it at speed, and not mow down cones. Then I entered my first sweeping decreasing radius turn. Where in the Camry I had to yield to the understeer and accept that more steering input would have no beneficial effect, I kept the wheel cranked 180 degrees and stomped on the accelerator. With the engine eliciting a muted roar, ok, more of a grumble, I got the rear of the car to make a rather elegant slide and just like that my turning radius diminished perfectly, and a quick correction to straight had me hurtling out of the final gate with the rear wheels still alight.

I was glad to see I still knew how to drive a RWD car. Yes, it was fun. No, I would not buy one. Not a Crown Vic, not a BMW, not a M-B. Well, maybe I’d have one if it came from Stuttgart and had a name like an emergency phone call. I still like the odd sensations of FWD. I like torque steer. Damn those who would exorcise that from all FWD hot rods. It’s FUN. I like the challenge of getting a FWD car to transition from understeer to oversteer. I like that FWD cars just aren’t supposed to be competitive with RWD cars, yet they are. I just like the way FWD feels, and that’s why you won’t see any RWD cars in my garage any time soon.

Just after my romp in the Crown Vic, a friend of mine posted this picture on his Facebook. Made me chuckle. Dave races Grand Am in a BMW which he built, so his assertion was predictable. [To his credit, Dave is the only person we know of who can perform an emergency lane-change, or moose test, maneuver in a FWD car, get it to rotate 180 degrees mid-stream and then go through the exit cones backwards.] A friend of his replied to the post with this article. I don’t know where this comes from or who the author is—despite the initials, it is not mine. The article recounts the authors experience in two identical Dodge Daytona race cars, one FWD, one RWD, and the contrast and comparison is fascinating. One of the conclusions thus read:

"Wait a minute. Control the radius with the throttle-that sounds like a good rear-drive characteristic. It is. Except with front drive, the front tires dictate radius, not the rears. In fact, this car doesn't much care what the rear tires are doing once the throttle is opened. And since the basic characteristic we experienced from the apex on was understeer, we found the front-drive Daytona exceptionally easy to drive quickly. It inspired confidence, never felt like it wanted to leap out from under us, and always went where we pointed it. What more could we ask for?"

Does the comparison resolve anything? Not at all.

"Which Daytona is faster? At this point in the ongoing development program, the rear-driver is still a bit quicker. But it depends on the racetrack. At Road Atlanta, the two cars were within a tenth or two. At tighter tracks, Mid-Ohio, for example, the gap was larger. But on faster circuits like Watkins Glen and Lime Rock, Showket believes the front-wheel drive may give him an edge. Which is better? Take your pick. Just remember to reprogram the driver to adapt his driving techniques to meet the car's requirements."

In fact, the observations only add rich perspective to one of those arguments which will never be settled. In the end, the French say it best: A chacun son gout.


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