Echo Booming – There is No Right or Wrong Wheel Drive

By Dan Sherman

That's why we don't have front wheel drives

According to BMW USA’s website, “At BMW, we believe that history and compromise cannot be made at the same time.” Along with the bold claim that BMW builds the “Ultimate Driving Machine,” this statement has reached consumers and journalists alike through decades of high-performance luxury cars. Millions of Millennials like me literally buy into—or aspire to earn enough money to buy into—the BMW brand message. But, as portrayed in the ad above, BMW’s marketing relies on the fact that BMW makes only rear- and all-wheel drive cars.  Front-wheel drive would be a “compromise.”

Car enthusiast blogs are in a state of chaos regarding BMW Global CEO Norbert Reithofer’s recent announcement that the company would, for the first time ever, develop front-wheel drive cars by 2014. Savvy types will be quick to point out that BMW’s MINI brand already sells front-wheel drive cars, but this new development represents a departure from BMW’s own brand strategy as well as a macro-level industry shift to front-wheel drive platforms. Furthermore, Reithofer revealed that an astonishing 80% of BMW 1-series owners think their vehicles are front-wheel drive. Will BMW alienate enthusiast and yuppie Echo Boomers with its new direction? More importantly, does Generation Y even know, or care about, which wheels are driving? I polled 20 Echo Boomers to find out.

First, though, let’s clear up the confusion regarding the typical characteristics of rear-, front-, and all-wheel drive:

RWD (Rear-Wheel Drive)

  • Enthusiast’s choice; offers better handling in dry conditions
  • Heavier overall, resulting in worse fuel economy
  • Easier to package in large cars
  • More expensive

FWD (Front-Wheel Drive)

  • “Wrong-wheel drive” offers better handling in wet/snowy conditions
  • Lighter overall, providing better fuel economy
  • Easier to package in small cars
  • Cheaper

AWD (All-Wheel Drive)

  • Handling compromise between RWD and FWD, but offers better handling in wet/snow than either
  • Heavier, with worse fuel economy than both RWD and FWD
  • More expensive than both

Of my interviewees, 30% profess indifference with regard to drivetrain. Two car nuts pointed out that their Volkswagen GTIs prove FWD can actually scratch their enthusiast itch. The other 70% preferred RWD for sporty performance and/or AWD for winter traction. Asked to guess their cars’ drivetrains, 20% were wrong or didn’t know. Interestingly, the two BMW owners polled incorrectly guessed that their cars were FWD!

European emissions and American Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards constantly rise, mandating that a manufacturer’s fleet meet certain average standards for CO2 emission and fuel economy. While small FWD offerings from BMW will have greater mass-market appeal, the brand will remain undiluted and all-important 3-Series sales should remain almost untouched. xDrive, BMW-speak for AWD, has increased the brand’s prominence without denting the brand image, which allows for a similar transition to FWD additions to the lineup.  For other manufacturers, RWD can make a sports car’s niche allure but FWD offerings won’t break BMW’s brand.

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