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Tracing the RWD and FWD legends from the 80s to now

The motoring fold hit its stride in the mid-80s when cars transformed into what we recognise today.

Ntsako Mthethwa
July 31, 2023
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The world of motoring has evolved to become one of the most lucrative industries of all time, and if we're honest, it hit its stride in the mid-80s when cars transformed into what we recognise today. 

Some of the best technologies to emerge during that time include four-wheel steering, clutchless manual transmission and CD players, among others when vehicle manufacturers were making wild bets on what would lure customers. 

While that was an era of innovation and change in the automotive fold, more envelope-pushing vehicles were constantly introduced – especially in the front-wheel vs rear-wheel-drive areas. 

This article looks at the top rear-wheel-drive and front-wheel-drive cars introduced from the mid-1980s until today.


The most-used term when talking about 'tail-happy' cars during conversations around the fire and the history books tell us that the first automobile ever to use this configuration was built by Panhard in 1895. 

What is it? In layperson's terms, it refers to a powertrain distribution system that only places rotational propulsion on the rear wheels. This allowed car manufacturers to balance the weight of the transmission under the vehicle by aligning it with the engine's output shaft. 

Since then, manufacturers have worked tirelessly to perfect the technology to become what it is today. 

Although the drive system is older than you’d think, it has been part of some brilliant cars still dominating the roads today, built between 1980 and now. These include the likes of the iconic E30 3 Series, Mazda RX-7, BMW F10 M5, Toyota Supra, W204 Mercedes-AMG C63, Ford Mustang, Toyota GT 86, Subaru BRZ and Jaguar F-Type, to name a few. 

E30 325iS

With superb street cred, the BMW E30 325iS, dubbed 'Gusheshe', is still sought after by collectors who even want to pay extra for a clean example. Known for its spinning abilities, it was introduced to create a more affordable option for the E30 M3 that wasn't sold in Mzansi.

With a RWD configuration backed up by a superb 50:50 weight distribution for excellent levels of control, the 325iS was fast and perfect for throwing around in circles, thanks to a naturally-aspirated in-line 6-cylinder petrol engine with 143 kW and 265 Nm. By old standards, this was deemed powerful and a perfect rival for the Mercedes-Benz 190E. 

Mazda RX-7

With three generations built before its demise in 2002, the Mazda RX-7, nicknamed "The Japanese Porsche 924", was a RWD sports car that was powered by a lightweight rotary engine including a 1.1-litre 12A, a 1.3-litre 13B and a bigger 2.6-litre twin-turbo 13B REW engine. 

It was famous for its superb road handling and a rotary engine that shoves all the power to the rear wheels for some tail-happy sessions. 

BMW F10 M5

We refer to the F10 M5 as the last model of its kind simply because it was the last M5 to wield a rear-wheel-drive configuration before BMW M switched to the all-wheel-drive system. 

As the first turbocharged BMW M5 model, it was fun to pilot courtesy of a 4.4-litre V8 

engine with 412 kW and 680 Nm wholly channelled to the rear axle either via a 6-speed manual or a 7-speed automatic transmission plus an active M-Differential. 

The setup was good to make the M5 a more fun sedan than any vehicle has the right to be. With aggressive acceleration numbers, it was considered violent by any standards, thanks to 412 kW sent entirely to the rear. 

W204 Mercedes-AMG C63

Regarded as the top dog in the Mercedes-Benz C-Class range, the W204 C63, introduced in 2007, still holds its title today as one of the best-sounding vehicles to ever come out of Stuttgart.

Its iconic 6.2-litre V8 sent 336 kW and 600 Nm to the rear wheels, thus making it a RWD saloon that most fanatics still hold in high regard today. 

Ford Mustang

For the first time in many years since the Mustang was born, the local arm of the American marque introduced the iconic nameplate in SA, and few cars matched the nostalgia of a thunderous V8 naturally-aspirated engine paired with a RWD configuration. 

The Mustang is not only famous for its mass appeal and ability to drift, but it is considered an iconic car in large parts due to its Hollywood appearances. 

Toyota GT 86 and Subaru BRZ

Formed after a joint venture between Toyota and Subaru, this duo immediately became one of the most affordable sports cars in 2012. 

It packed a RWD configuration and a shared 2.0-litre boxer engine with 147 kW and 205 Nm sent to the rear axle. Though these outputs seem a tad less on paper, they were perfect back-to-basics sports coupes. 

Jaguar F-Type

Introduced in 2013 as the spiritual successor to the famous E-Type, the Jaguar F-Type was quick and attractive with a proper feel-good factor at its heart as well as a perfect alternative to German rivals. 

As a well-sorted car, it's comfortable and ticks the right boxes but be careful of the rear that gets overly lively at times. 


Besides RWD cars being fun and exciting when the situation allows, front-wheel-drive cars have always been a viable option primarily due to their compact nature. 

Unlike RWDs that shove power to the rear via a prop shaft, FWDs use a transverse engine layout, with the first model to feature such technology being a three-wheeled steam tractor built by Nocolas-Joseph Cugnot in 1769. 

By 1990, most vehicles used this technology, and we look at some of the best FWD performance vehicles to ever grace the automotive sector. 

Volkswagen Golf Mk1 GTI

About 39 years ago, Volkswagen introduced the Mk1 Golf GTI, which marked the beginning of an exciting era and a replacement of sorts for the iconic Beetle. 

At that time, it wielded a 1.8-litre 4-cylinder engine with 81 kW plus a 5-speed manual transmission that drives the front wheels. It proved to be a trendsetter, and this DNA still resides in the GTI today. 

Fiat Uno Turbo 

As a performance variant of the Fiat Uno, the turbocharged variant was powered by a 1.4-litre turbo-petrol engine with 82 kW and 161 Nm sent to the front wheels to achieve Golf GTI-rivalling performance. 

It was an exciting little car, and due to its tiny size, it was nimble while possessing fantastic agility qualities. 

Golf Mk3 VR6

As a nameplate that gained popularity in the early 90s, the Golf Mk3 VR6 is being sought after by collectors worldwide. It occupied the top of the Golf range, packing a 2.8-litre VR6 engine with 128 kW and 235 Nm shoved to the front wheels. 

Even though it's old, and there are better iterations of the Golf that came after it, it still counts for something in terms of how it showcased its dynamics on the road. 

Opel Kadett Superboss 

As a rival for the BMW 325iS, the Opel Kadett Superboss joined the local fray in the 1990s using a FWD configuration plus a 2.0-litre naturally-aspirated 4-cylinder engine with 125 kW and 228 Nm. 

It held the record for the most torque per litre for a naturally-aspirated engine until after 2009, when the Ferrari 458 took over. Besides that, the Opel Kadett Superboss has become a South African legend.

Second-gen Ford Focus ST 

Though discontinued for the local market, the Ford Focus ST remains a cult FWD hot hatch classic that gave the VW Mk5 GTI a run for its money. It used a 2.5-litre 5-cylinder turbocharged engine from Volvo with 168 kW pumped to the front axle via a 6-speed manual transmission.

Despite the occasional torque steer, the vehicle is enjoyable when needed and practical when not. Its exceptional performance and balanced chassis only added to its appeal.

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