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Home » Blog » The Return of the Rear Engine Car

A 907bhp hybrid transcontinental express from Lamborghini? Surely not.

This was just one of the attention-grabbing headlines at the Paris Motor Show last week. Along with stunts including Land Rover sailing their new Discovery Sport down the river Seine on a grass-coated barge with Rosie Huntington-Whitely in tow, and Volkswagen announcing its XL sport which is powered by a motorbike engine. The Mercedes AMG GT also stormed the show and concept cars ran supreme. All in all, there was never a dull moment at the 2014 Paris Motor Show.

But there was one car we feel didn't get the headlines it perhaps deserved. Although this European Supermini is not necessarily ground-breaking in terms of innovation or speed, it is a game changer for a different reason. The exterior is unassuming; a retro bubble car-esque design not dissimilar to the Fiat 500, a glass boot lid akin to many recent city cars, and a mixture of go-faster stripes and unique colour schemes.

What sets it apart is under the chassis. Specifically the rear of the car.  For under the glass boot lid lies almost no boot space at all. Not because it's an extremely impractical supermini, but because this is where the engine resides.

That's right - a rear-engine city car. With engineering committed to match the styling, its retro looks are backed up by a retro setup and configuration, and that's not something you see every day. At least not in the last half century.

In the throes of the 60s, along with Beatlemania, rear engine configurations were all the rage. Many of the popular, iconic classics such as the Volkswagen Beetle, Citroen 4CV and the original Fiat 500 all had boot space in the front. They sold in their millions to families across Europe and beyond.

The setup was popular for a wide number of different reasons, even weight distribution between the front and back which improves stability, good manoeuvrability in tight spots as well as rear wheel drive, which improves acceleration as weight is shifted to the rear of the car during movement.

It's not hard to see why initially, the configuration was so popular for a small car - built for tight turns and off the line speed.
Where it did fall down was its safety features which were poorly thought through and left little in the way of a crumple zone between the front occupant's legs. Oversteer was also a huge problem and cars were often extremely uncomfortable to drive.

Flash forward and modern technology has been able to address these issues and leave us only with the benefits that rear-engine cars offer. Ride quality has been improved, whilst interior comfort and space has been increased dramatically as the driver comportment can be pushed forwards in to what traditionally would be the engine bay.

The trend-setter

The rear-engined car in question is the new Renault Twingo, and manages to offer 13cm more internal cabin space whilst actually being 10cm shorter than the previous model. The Twingo has been produced in conjunction with Daimler and shares a platform with the new Smart FourTwo, which shares the same setup. 

If successful, both the Smart FourTwo, the Smart TwoTwo and the Twingo could set a precedent in practical motoring. One that might never reverse.

Arguably the manufacturer most famous for a rear-engine set up is Porsche, who still adopt the configuration in their Boxter and 911 vehicles. The rear engine has been a staple for Porsche as far back in their history as 1953 when the Porsche 356 used a variant of the Beetle engine.

Since then almost every Porsche, from older models to the brand new Boxster and the Cayman, have adopted the same layout. And no doubt, by sticking true to the original concept, Porsche have become synonymous with ride quality, stability, handing and acceleration.

Even the Porsche 918 Spider, the 900bhp hybrid supercar, makes use of much the same configuration. The relative longevity of the rear engine has been down to the excellent results it has provided down the years. Now it's time to see if the same successes can be recreated in a time when front wheel drive and front engine setups have become the norm.

In popular culture, the rear engine sector is fully occupied by the Porsche and other classic sports cars, including the Toyota MR2, the Lotus Elise and the Ferrari Mondial. Of course many of these cars are no longer in production, and at the moment there isn't a huge choice when it comes to rear-engined motoring.

But, if the joint venture from Renault and Daimler is anything to go by, it's quite possible that we could see a resurgence of the rear-engined car for everyday driving. The original Smart car was something of an innovation amongst city cars at the time, and in fact was still in production until earlier this year. They could well be set to do the same thing again.

Even more interesting were the variations that Daimler offered. The Smart was available as a roadster or even as a tuned Brabus edition, and the new model shares a similarly adaptable platform. It's quite plausible that somewhere down the line a turbocharged, convertible, rear engine city car could make an appearance.

Importantly, this also lays down the gauntlet for other manufacturers, who are always switched on to the latest developments. If the model proves to be successful, both in terms of sales and performance, we could soon see more and more rear engine vehicles on our roads. It's often said that all the best trends will come back around, only time will tell if the rear engine is a 60s classic that will have its time again in the 21st century.