The predicted resurgence of rear-wheel-drive passenger cars in the U.S. market has come to fruition, as new cars with this “classic” driveline layout proliferate in all luxury, large and specialty segments.

Ward's documents the growth of RWD cars — excluding any type of light truck, SUV or cross/utility vehicle, many of which still are derived from RWD light-truck platforms — from 2000 through the first half of this year. Total share of the U.S. car market attributed to RWD cars rose from 12.8% in 2000 to 17.7% for the first half of 2005.

Propelling the RWD renaissance is the sustained popularity of the boldly styled 300-Series from Chrysler Group, which raced from 0-to-107,820 units in 2004, the car's first full year in the market after replacing front-drive predecessors.

The high-volume 300-Series/Dodge Magnum tandem confirms RWD's return to viability for mainstream cars (Magnum is classified in Ward's segmentation and by the Environmental Protection Agency as a light truck rather than a passenger car, so is not included in these sales figures). Magnum sold 39,217 units in 2004.

But the RWD poster child is the restyled and reinvented '05 Ford Mustang, a perennial favorite that is tracking to sell in excess of 190,000 units this year — a super-size 30% increase over the 129,858 Mustangs Ford moved in 2004 and surpassing even the Chrysler RWD lineup and its broader market coverage.

Is 200,000 Mustangs by the end of the year a possibility? Analysts and manufacturing experts say Ford could crank out that many 'Stangs from the Auto Alliance International Inc. plant in Flat Rock, MI, it shares with Mazda Motor Corp.

But it likely would require concessions from Mazda to reduce production of the three Mazda6 variants also built at AAI. Ford officials have not confirmed any plan to hit that benchmark.

Selling nearly 200,000 '05 Mustangs will be a profit coup for Ford, but the number falls short of the nameplate's glory days: Ford moved slightly more than 600,000 of the pony cars in 1966.

The growth of RWD passenger cars also is fueled by a glut of new nameplates from premium-badge stalwarts such as BMW AG, Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus, the surging Infiniti luxury arm of Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. and DaimlerChrysler AG's Mercedes-Benz.

Since 2000, the RWD ranks have swelled with high-profile new nameplates such as the Cadillac CTS (2002), XLR (2004) and STS (RWD in 2004); Mazda RX-8 (2003); Nissan 350Z and Infiniti G35 (2002); Pontiac GTO (2004) and Dodge Charger (2005).

The G35 lineup has emerged as a major player in the lower luxury segment, along with Cadillac's rear-driven CTS. These two new RWD nameplates, alone, added almost 130,000 units to the market last year (G35: 71,178; CTS: 57,211).

European auto makers, which always have promoted RWD for its handling purity, continue to enjoy strong sales, thanks to the revived emphasis on RWD architectures.

Between its 3-, 5-, 6- and 7-Series last year, BMW sold 176,486 cars, almost all RWD, excluding a modest number of AWD 3-Series.

Likewise for rival Mercedes-Benz, whose three primary sedan lines — C-, E- and S-Class — racked up 148,665 units, a number that includes AWD variants, but does not account for sales of RWD coupe and other niche offshoots of those platforms.

Meanwhile, the loss of longtime RWD role players such as General Motors Corp.'s F-body Pontiac Firebird/Chevrolet Camaro and other RWD cars (including the now-discontinued Ford Thunderbird) is partially offset by a new wave of low-volume specialty cars such as the Cadillac XLR, BMW 6-Series, Chrysler Crossfire and even Ford's GT supercar.

Lest anyone forget, Ford also continues to make a meaningful contribution to the RWD ranks with its evergreen body-on-frame RWD classics, Ford Crown Victoria, Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car.

Together, the three frame-mates accounted for 202,053 units in 2004. And despite being the perpetual butt of auto-industry jokes, all three remain top-10 sellers among RWD nameplates.

Top-Selling RWD Cars

Brand Series 2004
Ford Mustang 129,858
Chrysler 300-Series 107,820
Bmw 3-Series 106,549
Mercury Grand Marquis 79,329
Ford Crown Victoria 70,816
Infiniti G Series 71,178
Cadillac CTS 57,211
Mercedes-Benz C-Class 69,251
Lincoln Town Car 51,908
BMW 5-Series 45,584
Source: WardsAuto.com