Has Rear-Wheel Drive Reached Its Limit?

Tim Marrs

We can all agree on certain fundamental tenets of automotive wisdom. For instance, you generally shouldn't have more than 300 hp going to the front wheels. To anyone who argues otherwise, I invite you to drive my grandfather's Northstar-powered 1998 Cadillac STS. When you're in the midst of a 45-mph burnout in the rain, you might ponder the vexing issue of weight transfer unloading the motive end of the car.

If front-wheel drive is impractical above 300 hp and all-wheel drive is suitable for anything we can throw at it, does it stand to reason that somewhere in the middle lies a practical horsepower limit for rear-wheel-drive vehicles? In the past few months, I've gotten a chance to drive two cars that illustrate the challenges of harnessing really stratospheric power: the 1001-hp Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport and the 838-hp Mosler Raptor.

I get my date with the Veyron Grand Sport on a canyon road outside of Pebble Beach. Accompanying me is genial British racing driver Andy Wallace, who demonstrates a novel means of enjoying your Grand Sport while staying out of jail -- upshift to the highest gear possible, floor the accelerator, and listen to the turbos go bonkers spinning and dumping boost while the engine lugs at low rpm. I know that doing such a thing is like using fifty-year-old Macallan as mouthwash, but I'll bet really rich people do that, too.

"We've had this engine making 1500 horsepower," Wallace tells me. The problem is, at that level of boost the transmission would fall out and melt into a scalding crater of lava in the middle of the road (I'm paraphrasing). Horsepower is not the limiting factor in Bugatti supercars. Traction is.

The most incredible thing about the all-wheel-drive Veyron is not its engine but its drivetrain. A Veyron just digs in and goes. I try not to indulge in hyperbole, but when I floor the Veyron, we pass a tribe of Morlocks and the Wicked Witch of the West, and the sky turns green and commuters fly past on personal dirigibles, and then I hit the brakes and we return to our dimension. The Veyron has 1001 hp and, for a few glorious moments, I use it all. If there's any such thing as accessible four-digit power, this is it.

A month or so later in Los Angeles, I nab the keys to a Mosler Raptor (in case you're wondering, Mosler licensed the name to Ford). The Raptor weighs 2580 pounds and uses a mid-mounted, twin-turbo, 838-hp V-8. It is rear-wheel drive.

This time around, the passenger seat is occupied by a female vocalist named Abby Cubey. The Raptor, you see, has its own theme song, which is called "Feel My Fire" and features Cubey singing breathily about driving fast and revving engines and such. So while stereo Cubey urges me to hit the gas, actual Cubey is sitting right there encouraging me to do the same thing. Imagine if you were listening to "Radar Love" on the radio with Golden Earring front man Barry Hay riding shotgun. You'd do what the song says and speed into a new sunrise.

So when a red light turns green, I let out the clutch and get the Raptor rolling across an intersection toward an open span of gently curved urban street. As soon as we're pointing straight, I nail the throttle and the car erupts in a bass cacophony accompanied by a brutal shove of acceleration. I have a split second to think, "Hey, this is fast but controllable." Then the turbos hit.

It's like a bomb went off behind the rear bumper and we're surfing the shockwave. I upshift and it happens again, except now we're going much faster. The rear end scrabbles for traction and I find myself countersteering at perhaps 65 mph. I back off the gas, because I am not ready to visit third gear of the Mosler Raptor on this particular street. Not even if Waylon Jennings were sitting next to me singing the Dukes of Hazzard theme song.

So what's the power limit for rear-wheel drive? I haven't figured that out, although I think 838 hp is beyond my personal skill set. But don't worry, Mosler is working on a new Raptor that doesn't have 838 hp -- it has 1212 hp. The company will require a mandatory two-day racing school for owners to learn how to drive it. That strikes me as a good idea.

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