Counter Steer: Does Rear Wheel Drive Still Sell?

I know this is going to come as a huge shock to the system but I have been seriously wondering if rear wheel drive is even considered by the “masses ” of car buyers. Is it an automatic disqualifier if a car is solely propelled from the rubber out back?

This past weekend while at Oktoberfest here in Munich, a German in his late 20s told me over a few liters of beer that rear wheel drive is bad in the snow and he would never drive or buy one because of it. This guy was not an enthusiast, more on par with cars being appliances that get you from point A to B although his dad works support for the DTM. His commentary though, made me consider this idea that people have been brain washed into all wheel drive or nothing.

Formerly I blamed this AWD or bust mentality on Subaru in the US, but with Subbie sales and marketing nearly non-existent in Deutschland it has become more apparent that this Audi ‘s fault. Years of Quattro advertising and all the new marketing from BMW ‘s xDrive on the German ski slopes is pushing people towards all wheel drive. I am not going to argue the points for rear wheel drive here, we all know it is more performance oriented and can be better in snow than front wheel in many applications and all wheel drive has its issues as well but I want to explore the ramifications of this gentleman ‘s comment.

A German, that has gone through the entire training program here and can undoubtedly drive better than the vast majority of Americans thinks he needs all wheel drive to drive in winter. Like most Germans he considers the financial investment, environmental impact and wear and tear into his thought process and still thinks that the plusses far exceed the consequences,(not trying to stereotype but this is what we talked about!) To me this is sad. It is also the reason BMW now offers almost every model with xDrive.

Simply put; the general consumer thinks it is needed it. If not every general consumer I would bet the majority now share this train of thought. In a country like the US this more than likely only comes into play in the part of the country with snow as no one needs all wheel drive driving in South Beach but it sure does play a significant role in what vehicles people would consider buying.

With all that said, this almost proves BMW M ‘s rationale for xDrive variants and could also be part of the reason the all new F30 3 Series has not sold well stateside. It ‘s hard to sell something with rear wheel drive in the major sales area of the country to the masses, especially if they think that they “need ” all wheel drive to survive. Maybe BMW made a mistake in not offering xDrive from the start of production in the new 3 Series? In the next month we ‘ll see if this was the real reason for the poor sales or maybe it is because of the packagaing and price (that ‘s a different story all together).

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  • les

    I’ve been in 2 accidents and both were in FWD and in the snow. I have never once had the slightest problem with my RWD BMW in the snow. I’m not thrashing through feet of snow every winter but a few inches has never keep me from getting to work and home again.

  • Johnparke

    People have what i like to call a “truck mentality”. A lot of people buy trucks (or at least the bog ones) for the very slight chance they might have to tow something. In this case they are buying AWD cars for the slight chance they need it.

  • Bob Hayhurst

    This does make for interesting discussion. A quick search of Carmax for NEW Nissan Murano’s (a vehicle sold at CM) shows that they have 18 AWD vehicles and 4 2WD drive vehicles. This is no science project for looking at AWD versus 2WD sales but I I think it could indicate that what is being said in this piece may be true. Is it applicable to BMW sales? I don’t know; but what it does show, I think, is that the consumer is either being led down the path of needing all wheel drive or are demanding it from the manufacturer/dealer. The question; is it about real utility (safety, bad weather handling, blah blah blah) OR about profitability for the brand; that is something to consider. I’ll wait for the follow up article before I make up my mind even though I think I know the answer…

  • Stephen MacArthur

    It’s hard to make the argument that, when equipped with similar tires, AWD is worse than RWD in the snow. All parts of Germany see snow each year, so I could understand why it’s practical for most Germans to at least consider or even prefer AWD vehicles.

    Back to the title of the article, no, outside of the niche sports car market I don’t think RWD is a selling point these days. Even within the sports car market, AWD is a selling point (FF, GTR, Carrera 4, WRX/STi, Quattro, etc)! In the mass market, most people don’t know or don’t care which wheels are driven. It is easy to “brainwash” most people into believing AWD is good insurance to have. Of course, manufacturers love selling AWD models because they command a higher price compared to the equivalent FWD or RWD models.

  • I live in the mountains in Utah and drive an e82 with Michellin snow tires. It handles way better than my MINI did in the snow, but does take a bit longer to get up to speed as my wife’s e91 wagon with AWD. On hills I always feel better having power coming from the front and rear tires, but even here most roads are plowed enough that my e82 is fine. The added weight of all wheel drive would offset the fun factor that I experience on dry pavement most days.

  • Kevin Bartlett

    I would say it is certainly the case here in Michigan that AWD is a big selling point. I’ve been trying to find an X1 s28i (the rear wheel drive one) and so far they don’t exist here. It is X drive or nothing. I’d prefer the efficiency of rear drive and happily use snow tires (since they arguably make as much difference as does AWD). I currently drive a MINI Cooper S JCW, 8 years and 100,000+ miles now and not a problem in winter weather. Of course finding a new BMW with a manual transmission seems almost as unlikely nowadays too.

  • Adam

    I just wonder if the added weight, complexity, cost and upkeep of AWD will mesh well with the new economy standards in the coming years. Even the manufacturers admit that all wheel adds all those things at a penalty to the vehicle. Engineers will tell you that all wheel drive does add traction off the line and maintains grip well but at the limit it wont rescue you from loosing it. I for one dont like how an STi or Lambo snaps sideways under fast cornering, or the Quattro trademark… Understeer!

  • r_k_w

    Rear wheel drive hasn’t been a selling point for a long time. Many consumers don’t even know (or care) whether their 2WD car is front or rear wheel drive.

  • Evan

    I had to go south to NJ from Boston to find a dealer who’d order a RWD E91 for me. There are so few days when you actually drive in snow per year that with good all seasons (and especially if you get dedicated winter rubber) that one would need AWD. It adds weight (basically carrying an extra passenger with you no matter where you go or what you bring). It dappens steering feel. It is more mechanically complicated to have extra drive shafts. It lowers fuel economy. It costs more. If I lived on a dirt road which was rarely plowed, then I’d conceed that AWD would be helpful. But very few instances actually make it very helpful. And in terms of steering and stopping in poor traction conditions, AWD isn’t what helps, its the rubber you have at each corner that matters most. That being said, we know most 1er buyers in Europe thought their cars were FWD or didn’t know. Hence the upcoming 1er FWD UKL derivatives. And I agree that it was Audi with its quattro push that has resulted in xDrive and 4Matic being everywhere. There basically aren’t any RWD versions in New England for sale if there’s an AWD option. Some segments are opposite to this though- there used to be a lot of AWD minivan options and the take rate ended up being so low, only Toyota offers a minivan with AWD now. The mass effect of marketing and believing you need a $1500 plus upgrade with a downgrade in economy is quite something.

  • jeavon

    I believe rear wheel drive is still ok. It is proven for decades. It’s just a matter of fad if ever rear wheel drive goes out of style.HR Licence QLD

  • lavardera

    And what is your reasoning for RWD being better than FWD in the snow? Did you lay that out in a past post?

  • Dr Obnxs

    Audi and Subaru didn’t force anyone to do anything. Don’t blame the messanger, blame the customer. There are tons and tons of examples where people buy what isn’t in thier best interests even though they know better. Sure no one “needs” AWD for close to every driving situation, but then, no one “needs” a 300 hp passenger car. Will we dump on those that think they need AWD when they don’t, but not dump on those that think they need all that power, when they don’t? From where I sit, it seems to me the decline in AWD or whatever has a lot more to do with the general decline in cars as something other than transportation. When I was a kid, I could tell you the make, model and year of pretty much every car in my neighborhood by the sound of it’s exhaust! Now, my kids can’t do that, but they can tell who has an iPhone, and what generation it is. If the public doesn’t know how cars work, how can they appreciate the differences in technology? For the guy who said he hated his RWD car in the snow and wouldn’t buy another RWD car because of it, I wonder if he ever thought about the tread pattern or tires that he was running. His handling problems could have come down to just that (I don’t really know….) While car enthusiasts never were a huge percentage of the driving population (at least in recent history) I fear that the percentage is dropping day by day. As less people really care, the “performance car” will give way to the “rolling appliance”…. Oh wait, that already happened when the Minivan came out…..