No longer ignoring the tremendous success of European rear-wheel drive (rwd) sport/luxury cars, U.S. automakers finally are following suit, abandoning a pervasive dependence on front-wheel drive (fwd) that developed during the fuel crises of the 1970s.

Now, DaimlerChrysler AG is tidying up a plan to convert its current lineup of Dodge and Chrysler LH-platform large cars to rear-drive for the '04 model year, sources tell Ward's. For decades, all Chry-sler passenger cars were built around front-drive architecture.

The current fwd LH sedans include the Chrysler 300M, Concorde and LHS, as well as the Dodge Intrepid, which accounts for about half the mix at the Bramalea Assembly Plant in Brampton, Ont.

U.S. carmakers' embrace of rear-drive now can officially be termed a renaissance (see WAW - Oct. '99, p. 34): Cadillac is returning to its rwd roots, and Lincoln LS went rwd and was named one of the best cars of the year. The revived Ford Thunderbird will be rwd, and Japanese automakers have scored big with recent rwd hits that include the Honda Motor Co. Ltd. S2000 roadster and Toyota Motor Corp.'s snappy '01 Lexus IS300.

Sources say that the next-generation LH, which is not due until the '04 model year, is shaping up to include a rear-drive Concorde, Intrepid and 300M, as well as the muscular Dodge Charger R/T shown as a concept in Detroit in 1999. Gone is the LHS.

The family also is expected to include the Hemi C convertible rwd concept, which generated a lot of traffic at the 2000 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

It is possible to build both fwd and rwd at Bramalea, says Plant Manager Bill Wolf, but sources say DC favors the riskier move of rwd only.

The move to rear-drive is being called a Tom Gale (DCC executive vice president-product development and design) decision and allows parts sharing with future Mercedes vehicles.