Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and California are armed with a legislative battleaxe and they’re bringing it to bear against the automotive industry. Fuel economy regulations are hitting like a war hammer, disrupting the market and crushing carmakers. In a mad dash to meet upcoming CAFE standards, manufacturers are dramatically shifting their product offerings. Downsized vehicles, hybrid drivetrains and diesel engines are some of the tools in their defensive arsenals.
One unfortunate victim of this efficiency stampede is rear-wheel drive. Slowly but surely, over the past 30 years, automakers have made the switch to front-drive, a layout that’s more economical in a number of ways. But not everyone is content driving a Nissan Sentra, or getting by in a minivan. For enthusiasts who care about performance, rear-wheel drive is king, but it’s a monarch that’s under siege. Keeping the dream alive, here’s a list of the Top 10 (reasonably) affordable RWD cars on the market today. Act fast before they’re gone in a puff of tire smoke.
2016 Chevrolet SS
After a few years on the sidelines, GM will be getting back into the rear-wheel-drive, large sedan segment. The lust-worthy Pontiac G8 may be a distant memory, but The General is not deterred by its market failure. The curiously named SS (Is it a ship? Is it the Nazi Schutzstaffel? We kid, we kid) packs a fire-breathing 6.2-liter V8 engine that delivers 415 horsepower with an equal measure of torque. Throw a six-speed automatic transmission into the mix and this car should be able to scamper from a standstill to 60 miles an hour in about five seconds; a manual with the same number of ratios is also offered. Unfortunately, all of this creamy goodness does not come cheap. Base price including shipping and handling as well as the gas-guzzler tax is more than $48,000!
2016 Nissan 370Z
Now, let’s depart Detroit and head across the Pacific toward Japan, an island nation teetering on the Eastern fringe of Asia. It’s home to origami, sushi and, oddly enough, rear-wheel drive. One true-blue performance machine to come from this country is Nissan’s Z car, a well-respected thoroughbred that’s nearly as old as the Ford Mustang. Today’s iteration is the 370Z. As its name implies, it’s powered by a 3.7-liter V6 engine. It belts out 332 horsepower and can be matched to a quick-shifting seven-speed automatic transmission or a tried-and-true six-speed manual. Base price is around $30,000.
2016 Chrysler 300/Dodge Charger
Next up, a duet of large sedans, and a vehicular class that used to be a staple of the American roadscape. Unfortunately, the traditional rear-wheel-drive, full-size car is an endangered species today. But continuing the tradition and proudly waving the banner for both Mopar fans and auto enthusiasts alike are the popular LX cars. The Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger are exciting offerings from Auburn Hills. They’re available with a wide variety of engines ranging from a smooth-running V6 to a hellacious SRT-tuned Hemi. Who says you can’t have fun and be (reasonably) responsible?
2016 Dodge Challenger
Getting some mileage out of its rear-wheel-drive architecture, Chrysler also builds the Dodge Challenger on a modified version of its LX platform. This Pentastar pony car is perfect for doing smoky burnouts and getting sideways. Like the Charger and 300, it’s offered with a variety of different engines ranging from a base V6 to a hopped-up Hemi. As you’d expect – and as there should be – a manual transmission is available. The Challenger starts at $26,995.
2016 Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ
When it comes to affordable fun, it’s hard to beat the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ twins. These sporty rear-wheel-drive coupes bring the classic two-door formula into the 21st century. With these cars, engineers made driving dynamics a top priority, and it shows. They’re both about as much fun as you can have for around $26,000. Any more would probably be illegal in the lower 48 states. Both of them are powered by a 2.0-liter boxer four-cylinder engine that delivers an even 200 horsepower. Drivers can choose between a pair of six-speed transmissions: either manual or automatic, but let’s be honest, you really want three pedals and the ability to shift gears yourself.
2016 Hyundai Genesis
Next up, the Hyundai Genesis Coupe. This rear-wheel-drive two-door is born to run, competing with traditional American pony cars like the Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang. Matching its primary adversaries – and beating them in some areas – Hyundai’s ambitious upstart offers a lot of interesting features, including an eight-speed automatic transmission; a six-ratio manual is offered as well. Only one engine is available, a 3.8-liter V6. Fortunately it’s stout, delivering 348 hp. The Genesis starts at $26,750.
2016 Mazda MX-5
Mazda’s MX-5 Miata is probably the most iconic roadster ever built. It combines fun, efficiency and, more importantly, reliability in a compact, lightweight package. Of course, it’s also rear-wheel drive and is available with a manual transmission. In the hands of a skilled driver, this affordable droptop can slice through corners with the speed and elegance of a samurai katana. This car is all new for 2016 and sports a significant weight loss that makes its modest 155 horses extremely effective. The Miata starts at $24,915.
2016 Chevrolet Camaro
Chevy sells a pretty popular model in the pony car segment; perhaps you’ve heard of it. The Camaro is the bow tie’s affordable hooligan, and it’s happy to smoke its tires clear across any unsuspecting parking lot. Buyers can opt for an efficient V6 engine, a naturally aspirated Small Block or even a supercharged V8 in the Camaro ZL1. For the 2016 model year, a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder serves as the base powerplant. Making dreams come true, a full complement of transmissions is also available: read automatic and manual, plus the car is even offered as a convertible. The all-new Camaro goes on sale this fall and pricing hasn’t been announced, but expect it to start at under $25,000.
2016 Ford Mustang
Credit goes to Ford for inventing the pony car segment when it introduced the Mustang in 1964. This long and low two-door struck a chord with young people growing up in the flower-power period, and America’s youth has snapped ‘em up by the truckload ever since. The car has provided five decades of delinquent rear-wheel-drive behavior and it shows no sign of stopping. The company nailed the formula when it introduced the Mustang all those years ago, and it has stayed true to its roots. A decent V6 serves as the entry-level engine, while a 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder is optional. Capping off the “normal” Mustang range is a silky smooth 5.0-liter V8, which delivers up to 435 hp. Naturally, special-editions of this car will be even more muscular. Mustangs start at $23,800.
2016 smart fortwo
Bet you didn’t expect to see a smart car on this list, but believe it or not, Daimler’s little runabout is actually rear-wheel drive. It also features a rear-mounted engine, just like the Porsche 911. But that’s where the similarities between these two vehicles end. Zuffenhausen’s legendary sports car is just that, an automotive icon, but the smart is anything but. The previous version was abominable, with a driving experience that bordered on infuriating. Fortunately, the car is all new for 2016. It’s grown in width and sophistication, and most importantly its repugnant automated manual transmission has been exorcised. In its place is either a dual-clutch self-shifter or a five-speed manual, either of which are worlds better. A new sub-1.0-liter turbocharged three-cylinder engine puts out 89 horses and 100 lb-ft of torque, which give this little runabout surprising squirt. If nothing else, the 2016 smart fortwo is worth a test drive.
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