Rear-wheel drive (RWD) typically places the engine in the front of the vehicle and the driven wheels are located at the rear, a configuration known as front-engine, rear-wheel drive layout (FR layout). The front mid-engine, rear mid-engine and rear engine layouts are also used. This was the traditional automobile layout for most vehicles up until the 1970s and 1980s. Nearly all motorcycles and bicycles use rear-wheel drive as well, either by driveshaft, chain, or belt, since the front wheel is turned for steering, and it would be very difficult and cumbersome to "bend" the drive mechanism around the turn of the front wheel. A relatively rare exception is with the 'moving bottom bracket' type of recumbent bicycle, where the entire drivetrain, including pedals and chain, pivot with the steering front wheel.
The vast majority of rear-wheel-drive vehicles use a longitudinally-mounted engine in the front of the vehicle, driving the rear wheels via a driveshaft linked via a differential between the rear axles. Some FR layout vehicles place the gearbox at the rear, though most attach it to the engine at the front.
The FR layout is often chosen for its simple design and good handling characteristics. Placing the drive wheels at the rear allows ample room for the transmission in the centre of the vehicle and avoids the mechanical complexities associated with transmitting power to the front wheels. For performance-oriented vehicles, the FR layout is more suitable than front-wheel-drive designs, especially with engines that exceed 200 horsepower. This is because weight transfers to the rear of the vehicle during acceleration, which loads the rear wheels and increases their grip.
Another advantage of the FR layout is relatively easy access to the engine compartment, as result of the longitudinal orientation of the drivetrain, as compared to the FF layout (front-engine, front-wheel drive). Powerful engines such as the Inline-6 and 90° big-bore V8 are usually too long to fit in a FF transverse engine ("east-west") layout; the FF configuration can typically accommodate at the maximum an Inline-4 or V6. This is another reason luxury/sports cars almost never use the FF layout.
- Even weight distribution — The layout of a rear-wheel-drive car is much closer to an even fore-and-aft weight distribution than a front-wheel-drive car, as more of the engine can lie between the front and rear wheels (in the case of a mid engine layout, the entire engine), and the transmission is moved much farther back.
- Weight transfer during acceleration — During heavy acceleration, weight is placed on the rear, or driving wheels, which improves traction.
- No torque steer (unless it's an all-wheel steer with an offset differential).
- Steering radius — As no complicated drive shaft joints are required at the front wheels, it is possible to turn them further than would be possible using front-wheel drive, resulting in a smaller steering radius for a given wheelbase.
- Better handling at the hands of an expert — the more even weight distribution and weight transfer improve the handling of the car. The front and rear tyres are placed under more even loads, which allows for more grip while cornering.
- Better braking — the more even weight distribution helps prevent lockup from the rear wheels becoming unloaded under heavy braking.
- Towing — Rear-wheel drive puts the wheels which are pulling the load closer to the point where a trailer articulates, helping steering, especially for large loads.
- Serviceability — Drivetrain components on a rear-wheel-drive vehicle are modular and do not involve packing as many parts into as small a space as does front-wheel drive, thus requiring less disassembly or specialized tools in order to service the vehicle.
- Robustness — due to geometry and packaging constraints, the universal joints attached to the wheel hub have a tendency to wear out much later than the CV joints typically used in front-wheel-drive counterparts. The significantly shorter drive axles on a front-wheel-drive car causes the joint to flex through a much wider degree of motion, compounded by additional stress and angles of steering, while the CV joints of a rear-wheel-drive car regularly see angles and wear of less than half that of front-wheel-drive vehicles.
- Can accommodate more powerful engines as a result of the longitudinal orientation of the drivetrain, such as the Inline-6, 90° big-bore V8, V10 and V12 making the FR a common configuration for luxury and sports cars. These engines are usually too long to fit in a FF transverse engine ("east-west") layout; the FF configuration can typically accommodate at the maximum an Inline-4 or V6.
- Road grip feedback — front wheels are not affected by engine and gearbox, thus allowing for better feeling of tyre grip on road surface.
- Under heavy acceleration (as in racing), oversteer and fishtailing may occur as the rear wheels break free and spin. The corrective action is to let off the throttle (this is what traction control automatically does for RWD vehicles).
- On snow, ice and sand, rear-wheel drive loses its traction advantage to front- or all-wheel-drive vehicles, which have greater weight on the driven wheels. This issue is particularly noticeable on pickup trucks, as the weight of the engine and cab will significantly shift the weight from the rear to the front wheels. Rear-wheel-drive cars with rear engine or mid engine configuration do not suffer from this, although fishtailing remains an issue. To correct this situation, owners of RWD vehicles can load sandbags in the back of the vehicle (either in the bed, or boot) in order to increase the weight over the rear axle, however speeds should be restricted to correctly predicted available grip of the road.
- Some rear engine cars (e.g., Porsche 911) can suffer from reduced steering ability under heavy acceleration, because the engine is outside the wheelbase and at the opposite end of the car from the wheels doing the steering although the engine weight over the rear wheels provides outstanding traction and grip during acceleration.
- Decreased interior space — Though individual designs vary greatly, rear-wheel-drive vehicles may have: Less front leg room as the transmission tunnel takes up a space between the driver and front passenger, less leg room for centre rear passengers (due to the tunnel needed for the drive shaft), and sometimes less boot space (since there is also more hardware that must be placed underneath the boot). Rear engine designs (such as the Porsche 911 and Volkswagen Beetle) do not inherently take away interior space.
- Increased weight — The components of a rear-wheel-drive vehicle's power train are less complex, but they are larger. The driveshaft adds weight. There is extra sheet metal to form the transmission tunnel. There is a rear axle or rear half-shafts, which are typically longer than those in a front-wheel-drive car. A rear-wheel-drive car will weigh slightly more than a comparable front-wheel-drive car (but less than four-wheel drive).
- Rear biased weight distribution when loaded — A rear-wheel-drive car's centre of gravity is shifted rearward when heavily loaded with passengers or cargo, which may cause unpredictable handling behavior at the hands of an inexperienced driver.[It needs to be noted that rear engine cars are by their very nature, rear weight biased.
- Higher initial purchase price — Modern rear-wheel-drive vehicles are typically more expensive to purchase than comparable front-wheel-drive vehicles. Part of this can be explained by the added cost of materials and increased labor put in to assembly of FR layouts, as the powertrain is not one compact unit. However, the difference is more probably explained by production volumes as most rear-wheel cars are usually in the sports/performance/luxury categories (which tend to be more upscale and/or have more powerful engines), while the FF configuration is typically in mass-produced mainstream cars.
- The possibility of a slight loss in the mechanical efficiency of the drivetrain (approximately 17% coastdown losses between engine flywheel and road wheels compared to 15% for front-wheel drive — however these losses are highly dependent on the individual transmission). Cars with rear engine or mid engine configuration and a transverse engine layout do not suffer from this.
- The long driveshaft (on front engine cars) adds to drivetrain elasticity. The driveshaft must also be extended for cars with a stretched wheelbase (e.g. limousines, minivans).