Useful Car Tips

Front vs. Mid vs. Rear Engine Placement

May 08, 2020
The vast majority of cars on the road are front-engine, and for good reason. Front-engine cars maximize passenger space and thus, comfort. For most drivers, a front-engine car is all they need, which begs the question: what exactly is the point of mid and rear-engine designs? The simple answer is that mid-engine cars in particular perform best in vehicles where performance is the number one priority, like sports cars and super cars. Rear-engine cars also have some performance advantages but with one major drawback inherent to their design. The complicated answer is, well, more complicated than that. No design is better than the other, instead, it’s all give and take. Here’s how they stack up to each other, and perhaps why you may wish to consider adding a mid or rear-engine performance car to your stable in the future.


Front-engine cars have several advantages that make them the best choice for most drivers, or for those simply looking for a no-nonsense commuter car. This design has enjoyed considerable popularity throughout the 20th century and is poised to continue this trend throughout the 21st. Since only the front wheels in an FWD car receive power, placing the engine over them provides more traction, and thus more stability and safety. Space is also a big advantage here, as interior space is maximized when all major mechanical components are packaged up front. While a front-engine layout will probably suffice for most drivers, this design won’t be perfect for all. Front-engine vehicles are more prone to understeer than their mid and rear-engine counterparts. This relative lack of balance is less desirable for performance cars. However, plenty of stellar front-engine performance cars exist, from the venerable Mazda Miata to the BMW M4 coupe (the M3 is the nearly identical sedan) with years of racing pedigree. Still, a front-engine design inherently has worse handling characteristics than competing designs.


Weight balance is an important metric when attempting to quantify handling, and mid-engine cars are undoubtedly the best in this regard. With the engine located between the axles (in the approximate midpoint of a car), weight balance is maximized between front and rear. This ultimately translates to generally predictable and sharp handling characteristics, which are major advantages for any sports or performance car. Equal traction is maintained in all four wheels due to this design, making mid-engine cars very stable in the corners. There are some tradeoffs, however. In mid-engine cars, the engine typically occupies the area where one may usually find a back seat. This leads to nearly all mid-engine cars being two-seaters only, minimizing available interior space. Secondly, the weight distribution in this design may be a double-edged sword, as losing control and recovering from a spin is a difficult endeavor in a mid-engine car. With the center of gravity being in the center, stopping the spinning car’s momentum is quite difficult. The Alfa Romeo 4C Spider and the world-class McLaren P1 are just two examples of modern-day mid-engine cars, both with the telepathic handling common with a mid-engine design.


Perhaps the most uncommon of engine placement designs is rear-engine. Paired with uniqueness on the roads is uniqueness in driving characteristics, some of which may prove challenging to drivers new to this engine layout. With the engine placed directly over the rear (driven) wheels, a significant amount of traction is always available. This also leads to quick acceleration, a prime example being a blistering 0-60 time of 2.9 seconds with the all-wheel drive Porsche 911 Turbo S. This design—as you’ve probably guessed, isn’t perfect. With so much weight concentrated in the rear of the vehicle, physics dictates that oversteer can easily occur in the hands of an inexperienced driver. Also, space is still a little limited inside. Although 2+2 seating arrangements are available, back seat space should generally be reserved for children or adults you don’t like. Despite these drawbacks, Porsche, with its flagship 911 sports car, has proven that properly-adjusted suspension and chassis tuning can make a rear-engine car quite a weapon on tight roads and on the track.


Ultimately, deciding which of these is best for your next vehicle may be easier than you’d think. Looking for a Point A to Point B commuter? A front-engine car will be all that you need, although there are a plethora of stellar front-engine sports cars available for a little fun on the road. Need a sports car you can take out on the weekends for some time in the twisties? A mid-engine car is calling your name, and don’t worry, there are some relatively affordable ones available too. Want something a little more unique, with driving characteristics that will require some time to learn? Look no further than a rear-engine car, although your options are quite limited: the Porsche 911 is one of the very few cars currently sold with this engine configuration. As you can see, it’s not a question of better or worse, but more so which fits your needs most. There are no wrong choices here, so shop for the vehicles that are right for you!
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