Front-Wheel-Drive Is Packaging and Marketing Aide But Not Safety

If there’s one thing that you learn about snowfall, front-drive and anti-lock braking, it is simply: you wish one had never heard of the other. Granted, this is making a machine look alive but when you thin about it – and actually experience it – you wish the lions had cut these particular members out of the automotive herd and had made a snack of them.

Not a new device

It’s quite true that when it was first proposed and developed by Mercedes-Benz in the Dark Ages of the gas shortages of the 1970s and such, this exotic – at the time – piece of technology was supposed to help save gas by stopping a vehicle in the shortest distance possible with the least human interaction involved.

That was the theory, at least, and it seemed to work in rear-wheel-drive cars where the driving wheels were out back and the steering wheels were up front – at the time the natural order of things.

This was the situation until the mid-1970s, when the natural order was about to be turned on its ear. Volkswagen and then Chrysler introduced front-drive cars like the Golf and Horizon. They were little more than boxes on wheels, but the key was that they used transversely mounted engines that combined the driving wheels and the front wheels into a front-drive transaxle. At once, most of the weight of the car shifted up front. Indeed, the ratio was 69 percent up front and 31 at the rear.

Packaging Coup

From a packaging standpoint this was great because the transmission tunnel was gone and because you could use whatever wheelbase you wanted – in a format you wanted — you could actually fit five or six people in a car that was half-the-size of what had been “standard-sized” vehicles.

Some safety officials made a big deal of the notion that front-drive was inherently safer because all of the weight was over the driving wheels, making it easier to get into and out of snowdrift and parking spaces. What they didn’t All at once, you had tiny cars that could actually carry five and handle reasonably well.

Yes, there were problems that had to be dialed out – small issues like torque steer, trailing throttle oversteer and general oversteer – weren’t exactly small issues to face. With the first, if you hit the gas hard the vehicle tended to jump to the right. The second occurred on decreasing radius curves, such as offramps, where pulling your foot off the gas suddenly upset the balance of the vehicle and the rear end tried to become he front end. Finally, since the vehicle had 69 percent of the weight over its driving wheels, it tended to push hard to stay in a straight line. In other words, it fought you to do anything but go straight.

Don’t forget, though, this was the 1970s and the materials and engineering revolution that were to come were still some years off so the industry tried unequal length control arms and half shafts and other mechanical tweaks that did cut the problem down to a manageable size, but it was still there. It took about 10 years before a driver could truly note that it you couldn’t tell which end was driving the vehicle. It took some interesting engineering such as new A-frame and tube technology to bring these cars to heel and they did. Actually, the engineers didn’t have much choice. The boardrooms of Detroit were now filled with front-wheel-drive supporters who actually believed their own propaganda about safety and how you could go up a hill and get out of drifts easily. Actually, it makes very little difference to the car which wheels are the driving wheels, as long as the car moves ahead.

More Efficient Packaging

To the designers, though, the movement of the wheels up front meant all the difference in the world. Not only could they make the exterior smaller, but also the footprint could be smaller and yet vehicle could still carry five. And, because everything was made lighter-weight, then cars could become lighter and use smaller engines.

It still didn’t erase the basic physics of having all of your weight over the front wheels. That could be handled by driver education. So, here’s the education piece:

  • Slow down
  • Keep your foot off the brakes if at all possible
  • Never try to increase power through turns or corners
  • Don’t rely on anti-lock braking because all it is really good for is dry road, 70-degree driving
  • ABS systems tend to exacerbate skidding because they pump the brakes while your vehicle is plowing straight ahead, even with wheels cocked into a tight turn and when they finally bite, you are in for a very interesting surprise as the vehicle then tries to use ABS properly and the turn properly

What’s the solution? You have it right here: slow down, increase following distance and drive as if there were an egg under the pedals. It takes a bit of experience before it becomes second nature, but it does eventually.

Oh, and while many vehicles have turned back to rear-drive (BMW, Mercedes, for example) don’t look for the rest of the industry to do a mass exodus back. It just doesn’t make sense to their design teams.