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29 March 2014

Sriram Narayanan on: wheels

The wheel is the greatest invention of the human mind. Now, let’s all come to blows over which set of them the power should go to

Sriram Narayanan
Car image



I have been using a Merc C250 for a couple of months now. Its layout ticks all the petrolhead boxes. It’s got a longitudinally-mounted engine in front, and a propeller shaft running along the length of the car sending power to the rear wheels. So I live with the terms freely brandished about in motoring writing  – oversteer, positive turn-in, tail dancing like a ballerina etc etc. A rear-wheel drive car sends power to the rear wheels. So the steering feels perfect around corners, since the front wheels don’t have to do the dual job of steering and transmitting power. Besides, there is quite a bit of mechanicals at the rear of the car. This distributes the weight evenly along the car, compared to the nose-heavy front-wheel drive set-up.

Once, while taking an S-shaped flyover near my place, the C’s tail stepped out of line as is the nature of rear-wheel drive cars. When you unsettle the car on a road where a left-hander quickly follows a right-hander, and floor the throttle, the power flowing through the rear wheels makes them spin, causing the tail to step out a bit. It happened again early in the morning, when I exited a narrow lane to an empty six-lane highway through a 90-degree left-hand T-Junction. Ideally, I should have felt the souls of dead motoring journalists and car enthusiasts patting my back. It’s what all motoring writers and petrolheads crave for – the tail stepping out and the driver reining it back in displaying skill, machismo and chest hair. But frankly, on both occasions, I felt like the biggest idiot within a kilometre’s radius.

I am no expert driver. I can just about get the tail to step out and come back in and I doubt I can retain a long, graceful slide around a bend. But I have realised – quite contrary to what I have been reading and watching – that a good car has nothing to do with which set of wheels it sends the power to, or the weight distribution, or its ability to drift and hold the drift. In fact, unless you are on a track, or an expressway with long, high-speed curves, or a mountain road, you are never going to know which wheels your modern car sends power to. In a survey that shocked BMW, about 80 per cent of BMW owners thought their cars were front-wheel drive.

This whole fuss over how car A is better than car B because A is rear-wheel drive reminds me of school. I’d be looked at strangely when I came up with opinions like “the cool gang to hang out with is not that cool a gang to hang out with”. Or “filling up slam/autograph books is a waste of time”. Or “I don’t know what’s Backstreet Boys”. Okay, TG gave the RWD BMW 1 series the Driver’s Car of the Year. Personally, I find the FWD Merc A a more enjoyable driver’s car. In fact, I can think of a whole lot of simple front-driven cars that are brilliant drives – the Mini Cooper, the original Indian Ford Fiesta, or the first Fiat Punto even.

Here’s a true story. It was September or October 2011. Mahindra had invited all the motoring hacks to its facility near Pune, to try out the all-new XUV500. As I drove back in it to Mumbai, I was surprised to find front-wheel drive tendencies in what was to be an all-wheel drive car. I checked with Mahindra, which double-checked to say that the cars it had handed over were front-wheel drive, and the all-wheel drive versions were due to roll out in a couple of months. That very month, I read in one of the many Indian auto magazines a test drive of the XUV500 complimenting the grip that the all-wheel drive system affords the car. Of course, they didn’t know they were a couple of months early to that.

So the next time anyone says the rear of a car is behaving like a ballerina on a public road, and is therefore good, they ought to wear a ballet tutu and walk on their toes.

Tags: punto, fiat, cooper, mini, c class, mercedes, rear wheel drive, fwd, rwd, sriram narayanan

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