If any car layout could be described as classic, it would have to be the one where the engine is at the front and the driven wheels are at the back.
This arrangement was enormously popular for a very long time. Both front engine and front-wheel drive and rear engine and rear-wheel drive, along with engine anywhere and four-wheel drive, had all been attempted before the Second World War, often with considerable success, but they did not become widely used until later.
Nowadays, front engine and front-wheel drive is the most common arrangement. Rear (or mid) engine and rear-wheel drive is used in some small cars but mostly in very high-performance ones. Four-wheel drive is far more widely available than it once was.
Where does this leave front engine and rear-wheel drive? Well, it is no longer the default layout, largely because it requires space that could otherwise be used for passengers and luggage. As customer demand for practicality and convenience has increased over the years, the old set-up has fallen from favour to a large extent.
But not entirely. As we’ll see, 25 manufacturers selling cars in the UK still use it for one reason or another, and nobody is complaining about that.
How rear-wheel drive cars are the great motoring survivors
Most Abarths today are versions of the Fiat 500, but the 124 Spider is a derivative of the Fiat of the same name.
Both are in turn based on the fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 which, like the other three, has always been front-engined with rear-wheel drive.
Interior space isn’t much of an issue for buyers of these cars, and the layout is a major factor in the nimble handling for which all three are famous.
Despite switching to front-wheel drive for its smaller cars, Alfa Romeo has kept going with rear-wheel drive for other models.
This applies to the current 4C sports car and Giulia saloon, and to some versions of the Stelvio SUV, though most of these are in fact four-wheel drive.
Although it is recognised as an independent manufacturer, Alpina devotes all its efforts to producing modified BMWs which are quite separate from the larger company’s own high-performance M cars.
Most Alpinas are rear-wheel drive, including the petrol-fuelled B3, B4, B6 and B7 and the D3 and D4 diesels.
Other than a few racing cars, all Aston Martins have had their engines at the front, the alternative being almost impossible to contemplate in the case of such a traditional manufacturer.
Despite very high outputs in some cases, Aston has not yet produced a four-wheel drive road car. All its current models are rear-wheel drive.
Bentley’s Continental, Flying Spur and the Bentayga SUV, which together make up most of the company’s output, are all available exclusively with four-wheel drive.
The exception is the more traditional Mulsanne, whose 6.7-litre V8 engine drives through the rear wheels only.
BMW resisted front-wheel drive for a very long time, though it quietly dropped its objections when it launched the new MINI brand in 2000.
Nearly everything else BMW builds is available either wholly or partly with rear-wheel drive, with some ranges including four-wheel drive. All 8-Series cars and the semi-off-road X ranges are exclusively 4×4.
Front-wheel drive is still extremely rare within BMW, and is found only in the 2-Series Active Tourer and Gran Tourer MPVs. Confusingly enough, despite their names these have nothing to do with the 2-Series coupes, which are all rear-wheel drive.
All Caterhams are based on the 1950s Lotus Seven, which had the front engine, rear-wheel drive layout.
It would be very difficult to make a four-wheel drive version and absolutely impossible to make a rear-engined one without creating a new model from scratch, and Caterham has shown no signs of wanting – or indeed needing – to do that.
Ferrari waited for some time before moving the engines to the back of its F1 and road cars in the 1960s even after other manufacturers had successfully made the switch.
Things have changed so much since then that most people’s idea of a Ferrari is probably a rear-engined one.
However, Ferrari also never abandoned its tradition of building front-engined grand tourers, and today there is a choice of two – the 812 and the Portofino.
The GTC4 also has its engine in the front. but it’s available only with four-wheel drive, so for the purposes of this article it doesn’t count.
Due to its success with cars whose driven wheels were at the same end as the engine, Fiat abandoned the front-rear layout entirely for many years.
It came back with the introduction of the 124 Spider, a less powerful version of the Abarth 124 Spider already discussed and based very closely on the Mazda MX-5.
Ford’s mainstream models all have their engines in the front driving either the front wheels or all four.
That disqualifies them from this article, but Ford gets a mention because of two more specialised vehicles – the Mustang and the entry-level Regular Cab version of the Ranger pickup.
Hyundai’s only car with this layout isn’t really a car at all.
This is the i800, an exceptionally large and roomy MPV based on the iLoad van.
Front- or four-wheel drive Infinitis are the exception rather than the rule, though the front-wheel drive Q30 (based on the same platform as the Mercedes A-Class) is the most accessible model.
The larger Q50, Q60 and Q70 all have front-mounted engines and rear-wheel drive.
As one of the more traditional manufacturers on the market, Jaguar uses the classic layout in a great many of its cars.
These include the F-Pace, F-Type, XE, XF and XJ, though four-wheel drive is also available.
The only Kia to use this layout is the Stinger.
A very unusual model in Kia’s line-up, the Stinger is a sporty four-door with a variety of engines ranging in power output from around 200bhp to nearly 370.
The front-rear layout is the norm for Lexus, which uses it in the GS, IS, LC, LS and RC.
The exceptions are the CT200h compact hybrid, closely related to the front-wheel drive Toyota Prius, and the NX and RX SUVs.
As with other manufacturers already mentioned, Maserati’s long heritage makes staying with the traditional format seem appropriate.
The Ghibli, GranTurismo, GranCabrio and Quattroporte are all front-engined with rear-wheel drive. The only current Maserati that isn’t is the Levante SUV, which needless to say has four-wheel drive.
Most of the cars produced by Mazda would make no sense in their respective markets sectors with rear-wheel drive, but there is one which definitely does.
This is of course the MX-5, inspired by the 1960s Lotus Elan.
We are now into the fourth generation of MX-5, and at any of the changeover periods Mazda could easily have switched to front-wheel drive, or moved the engine to the back, if it wanted to.
However, either of these moves would have completely changed the character, and no doubt led to cries of horror from MX-5 fans. As the only manufacturer to have sold over a million two-seat sports cars with the same badge, Mazda seems to know what it’s doing.
Like its German rival BMW, but very much unlike Audi, Mercedes has stayed largely faithful to the front-rear format.
There are some outliers – perhaps most notably the A-Class – but the C-Class, E-Class and S-Class saloons all follow tradition, as does the fabulously powerful AMG GT coupe.
A front- or four-wheel drive Morgan is almost unimaginable, and if you think you’ve found one with its engine in the rear you’re looking at it from the wrong direction. Pay more attention to where the headlights are next time.
Every car Morgan builds has a front-mounted engine driving the rear wheels, and that’s all there is to it.
Nissans are generally front-engined, which half qualifies them for this article, but nearly all of them are driven through either the front wheels or all four.
There are just two rear-wheel drive models, and they are just about as different as they possibly could be.
One is the 370Z sports coupe. The other is the cheapest version of the Navara pickup, which is mostly sold as a 4×4.
The very long life of the 911 (it’s been around for 65 years now and won’t be going away any time soon) probably leads many people to think of Porsches as having their engines behind the rear wheels.
But Porsche has a tradition, though not a continuous one, of building front-engined, rear-wheel drive cars. The 924, 944 and 968 of the last century were all like this.
There are currently three front-engined Porsche models. The Macan and Cayenne are both four-wheel drive. So are most versions of the Panamera, but Porsche qualifies for inclusion in this list on the basis of the entry-level model, which is uniquely rear-wheel drive.
The controversial Cullinan stands alone among Rolls-Royces in having four-wheel drive, which – since it’s a large and powerful SUV – you would rather expect it to.
Rolls-Royce’s other models are the Dawn, the Ghost, the Phantom and the Wraith. All of them are front-engined and rear-wheel drive, like almost every other Rolls-Royce there has ever been.
Most SsangYongs have either front- or four-wheel drive. The only rear-wheel drive model is the Turismo.
This is the car formerly known as the Rodius. Never celebrated as a beautiful vehicle (quite the opposite, in fact), this enormous seven-seat MPV does have the advantages of a) having a lot of space and b) being relatively cheap.
Subaru nailed its colours to the 4×4 mast more than 20 years ago. Along with the adoption of flat-four ‘boxer’ engines in all its models, this is one of the features for which Subaru is most famous.
The elephant in the room is the BRZ. This has a boxer engine, but uniquely in Subaru’s line-up it also has rear-wheel drive.
The BRZ was co-developed with Toyota, which markets more or less the same car as the GT86. Both versions have been sold around the world, and another one was available for a few years in North America as the Scion FR-S.
Unless you skipped the last page, you’ll know what this is about. The GT86 is basically the same thing as a Subaru BRZ, with a few detail differences and a Toyota badge.
It is currently the only front-engined, rear-wheel drive car available from Toyota.
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