Carmakers stick with rear-wheel drive

Four years ago the General Motors strategic plan called for replacing every car line that was not yet front-wheel drive with one that was by 1985. At the time only two of GM's primary body lines had front-drive. The only exceptions in the switch to front-drive were to be a few limited-production vehicles, such as the sporty Chevrolet Corvette and the plastic-clad Pontiac Fiero.

The world's biggest automaker has since scrapped its strategic plan and now intends to keep its larger cars rear-wheel drive indefinitely. Ford and other major manufacturers such as Volvo and Mercedes plan to do the same.

GM was by no means alone in thinking that it was the accepted wisdom of the day that powering a car through the rear wheels was simply out of date and an inferior technology. Today the question of just how far the front-wheel-drive system will spread inside the auto world is a seriously contested one.

The argument doesn't involve smaller cars, which are thought by all in the auto industry to be shoo-ins for front-drive configurations sooner or later. Most of the smaller cars, in fact, are already there. The exceptions are the older models such as the Chevrolet Chevette, and few expect to see them survive long as rear-wheel vehicles.

James Walker, a car buff and rally driver here, says in defense of the older rear-wheel-drive system: ``It fits the instincts of the driver. When going around a curve too fast, and the rear end starts to let go, the tendency is to let up on the gas and steer in the direction in which the rear end is beginning to slide.''

If the power is to the rear wheels, that's the correct way to recover control. But with front-wheel drive, the correct way to recover control is to add just a little bit of power and steer in the direction you want the car to go. That's both difficult and against the instincts of the driver, Mr. Walker says.

Race drivers also like rear-wheel drive because it lets them ``steer'' a car with the rear wheels.

``The sports enthusiast wants power under the rear wheels because it lets him control how much turn he makes,'' says James Dunne, a Detroit technical writer. ``You want to ask each set of wheels to do one job, power or steer. With front-wheel drive you're asking for both power and steering.''

To emphasize the point, he adds: ``Porsche will stick exclusively to rear drive.''

Even Cadillac is having second thoughts on the matter. For 1986 some of its de Ville models that are front-wheel drive this year will soon be rear-wheel drive.

In the bigger cars the advantages of front-wheel drive, particularly in terms of interior room, are diminished. ``Front-wheel drive still makes the most sense in small packaging,'' says Mr. Walker. ``But in midsize and larger cars, it's less and less important.''

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