What Is a Mid-Engine Car?

Jack R. Nerad | Mar 23, 2020

Mid-engine cars have had their periods of popularity through the years, each followed by a valley of decline. Most recently the 2020 Chevrolet Corvette sports car sparked a renewed interest in these types of cars because, after 66 years and seven generations with the engine in front of the driver and passenger, the current eighth-generation Corvette has the engine positioned behind them. In the classic mid-engine car, the engine sits between the front and rear axles, which is exactly where it is in the newest Corvette, and the driver and passengers sit ahead of the engine.

Mid-engine Car 2020 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray

Some of the earliest cars built used that configuration, in part because it was the easiest to assemble based on the rudimentary engines and mechanical components available at that time. For example, the famous Curved Dash Oldsmobile and the original Ford Model A (1903) were mid-engine cars, although in both vehicles the driver sat above the engine, not in front of it. Later Fords, Oldsmobiles and virtually all mainstream cars of the succeeding 70 years adopted what came to be the conventional front-engine layout, most with the engine driving the rear wheels via a driveshaft and a rear differential. Another shift came about 40 years ago when most front-engine cars switched to front-wheel-drive.

Mid- vs. Front- vs. Rear-Engine Cars

A front-engine car has its engine positioned ahead of the passenger compartment, and the engine typically straddles the front axle. A rear-engine car is essentially the polar opposite. Its engine is positioned behind the passenger compartment and typically straddles the rear axle or in some cases is mounted behind it. A conventional sedan like the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry or Chrysler 300 is representative of the front-engine configuration. The original Volkswagen Beetle and the contemporary Porsche 911 are examples of rear-engined cars.

The mid-engine layout got a re-boot in the 1930s with the dominant Auto Union Grand Prix racecars of the decade, capitalizing on its best aspect — superior handling. Placing the engine between the front and rear wheels makes it relatively easy to engineer a favorable balance between the weight on the front wheels and the weight on the rear wheels. This results in balanced handling. A mid-engine car is, in general, more likely than front- or rear-engine cars to respond to steering inputs in consistent, predictable ways.

With more of its weight over the front wheels, front-engine cars are prone to understeer or "push." In other words, when the driver attempts to turn, the car has a tendency to proceed on its straight-line course, not turning as rapidly as the steering input would suggest.

With more of its weight on top or behind the rear axle, rear-engined cars have a tendency to oversteer and potentially spin. That's the result of the heavy mass of the engine at the rear continuing on its original course and swinging the rear end of the car out in an exaggerated fashion when a driver initiates a turn. In some cases, the driver gets the impression that the rear of the car is trying to pass them.

Popular Mid-Engine Sports Cars

While the mid-engine layout offers definite performance advantages — superior handling and increased traction for the rear (driving) wheels versus front-engine cars — when you compare cars it also has disadvantages. The largest of these is the presence of the engine in the middle of what otherwise would be passenger and cargo space. The "packaging advantages" are the reason that most conventional cars, trucks, and crossovers are front-engine vehicles.

Still, the handling pluses of the mid-engine set-up has prompted many performance car manufacturers to use it. Currently, in addition to the 2020 Corvette, the 2020 Porsche 718 Cayman, 718 Boxster, and 718 Spyder use the configuration. All four vehicles mentioned are among the sweetest handling, most predictable performance-oriented street cars in the world.

The 2020 Acura NSX, 2020 BMW i8, 2020 Audi R8, 2020 Lotus Evora GT, and 2020 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider are a quintet of other mid-engine cars whose price tags make them reasonably accessible. Beyond the aforementioned nine, the mid-engine cars currently available new could be described with two phrases: "very expensive" and "even more than very expensive." As an example of the latter, the Bugatti Chiron is priced at just under $3 million. The Ferrari 488GTB, Ferrari F8 Tributo, McLaren 600LT, and Lamborghini Huracán Evo are relative exoticar bargains at between $250,000 and $300,000.

It wasn't always that way. In the Eighties and into the Nineties two-seat sports cars like the Pontiac Fiero, Fiat X/19, and Toyota MR2 brought the mid-engine configuration into the reach of virtually anyone who could afford a new car. These days well-maintained and well-restored examples of those models are bringing the uncompromised handling of the mid-engine car to new generations of buyers.

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