It wasn’t so long ago that the majority of cars sold used to be rear-wheel drive. Today, the transmission layout is often the preserve of cars and manufacturers that like to put an emphasis on driving pleasure, rather than just getting from A to B. As a result, some of these rear-wheel-drive models are among the most fun cars to drive on the road.
But what makes rear-wheel-drive cars so entertaining to drive? Well, the main benefit is that the front wheels are only dealing with the steering, while the rears are getting the power to the road. In front-wheel-drive cars, everything is happening up front, while the rear wheels are essentially just along for the ride, and this demands compromises. With rear-wheel drive, that compromise simply isn’t an issue.
The other benefit of a rear-wheel-drive layout is that a car in this configuration should have better balance, with the car’s weight evenly distributed between the front and rear wheels. Whether the car is mid or front-engined, having some of the mechanical pieces at the back will deliver this balance.
While a rear-drive layout delivers driving fun, it can also be more tricky to handle on the limit. While a front-wheel drive car will tend to turn to understeer (the front end of the car pushing forward instead of turning) when it loses grip when leaving a corner, a rear-drive car will get unbalanced at the rear, causing the tail of the car to swing out into oversteer.
This is oversteer, and it’s controlled by applying lock in the opposite direction of the corner you’re taking. Braking can amplify oversteer, which can cause the car to spin out if you’re not fast enough to react. If you do catch it in time, you might be tempted to apply more power to turn a potential skid into a drift, although this is a lot trickier than the sideways antics of various TV shows and YouTube videos would lead you to believe.
However, with the advent of smarter electronic driver aids, rear-wheel-drive cars don’t necessarily need to be lairy on a trip to the shops. Keep all the assistance systems on, and you’re never likely to encounter oversteer in even the slipperiest conditions.
Do a search for rear-wheel-drive new cars, and you’ll find a wide variety of models on offer. At the lower end of the spectrum, the Renault Twingo and Smart ForTwo/ForFour city cars are technically rear-wheel drive (with rear engines), but they aren’t much fun. The cheapest front-engine/rear-drive car on sale at the moment is the Caterham Seven 160, which starts from just under £17,000. It’s the classic two-seater roadster, and its small Suzuki engine is plenty powerful enough for you to have some serious fun.
The Mazda MX-5 delivers a similar experience in a far more modern package that you could use everyday, and it only starts from a couple of grand more. Move up the range, and the more powerful models, including the folding hard-topped MX-5 RF, and these models compete with another budget sports car, the Toyota GT86 and its Subaru BRZ sibling.
Elsewhere, the BMW 1 Series is the only rear-drive compact hatchback on sale, while the Ford Mustang is the cheapest V8-powered rear-drive car in the UK. The rest of the BMW range (apart from the 2 Series Active and Gran Tourers and xDrive 4WD models) offers rear-wheel drive, while it’s a staple of other premium brands such as Mercedes and Lexus.
There are plenty of rear-drive sports cars on sale, whether they’re front, mid or rear engined, and they have all been designed with driving thrills at the top of the agenda. Many come with a manual gearbox to maintain a pure driving experience, but the best auto-equipped models don’t lose any of their engagement due to the fitting of a self-shifter.
So what do we think are the best rear-wheel-drive cars on sale? Here’s our eclectic top 10, although all of these cars will put a smile on your face…