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The 4x4 Equation

What Makes Four-Wheel and All-Wheel Drive Vehicles So Popular?
Joshua Shapiro
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

(continued from page 2)

AWD is available on the Chevy Blazer and the Oldsmobile Bravada. But best of all, AWD is available on vehicles other than SUVs. Most minivans have an AWD option, which improves overall handling, towing and bad weather driving. Subaru has a complete line of reliable subcompact and compact sedans, station wagons and a sports car available with AWD. Audi also has AWD as an option on all its cars, including a sedan, sports sedan and station wagon. In Europe, Mercedes offers AWD, which it calls 4Matic, on sedans and station wagons, while BMW offers its 525ix with AWD. Its 325ix sedan, which was available briefly in the United States, is now the most difficult to find of secondhand BMWs.

Although 4WD is now synonymous with high-off-the-ground sport utility vehicles, where it truly shines is in the virtually unknown category of AWD sports cars. Sports cars routinely have high-performance engines that generate lots of torque, in addition to wide, low-aspect-ratio speed-rated tires, low centers of gravity and ground clearances, and tight steering and suspension geometries. Properly controlling a good sports car takes education and experience.

Sports cars are sensitive to changes in weight distribution during acceleration and braking. Depending on engine location, they will understeer (with front-wheel drive) or oversteer (with rear-wheel drive) through turns. And sports cars generate enough horses to overpower and spin the wheels. Anyone buying a Corvette or the like should attend a three-day specialized driving course at racing schools such as those run by Skip Barber, Bob Bondurant or Jim Russell to develop the necessary handling skills.

A trained racing driver will be able to take advantage of a car's handling, but novices can find pushing the limits of a sports car to be dangerous. AWD's true value is improving high-performance car handling for anyone who is less than a seasoned professional. By distributing the engine's power over all four wheels, many sports car idiosyncrasies go away. Tires are near impossible to burn. Steering is precise and forgiving. Road holding is measured and noticeably improved. Many people experience an identical reaction when first driving a 4WD sports car: "It feels like its riding on rails!"

Some track racing drivers initially carped at adding the extra 100 or so pounds of AWD to their cars. Because they can't oversteer and slide into curves, they found AWD to be a bit slower through fast turns. But it is faster through slow turns and much faster during rain and bad track conditions. Rally drivers, on the other hand, immediately took to AWD. Now, they will not race without an AWD-equipped car.

For the rest of us, a wide selection of AWD models, manufacturers and price ranges is available. Unfortunately, since every manufacturer of AWD vehicles is selling all it can build, there is no incentive to advertise. Most models are well-kept secrets.

One example of AWD is the Audi A6 Quattro, a $35,000 sports sedan that is a beauty. It just begs to be driven. It is fast, handles comfortably and has incredibly soft leather seats. Another little-known AWD sports car is the $35,000, 230 Bhp (brake horsepower), 3.3 liter boxer six-cylinder Subaru SVX LSi. Its radical styling and its AWD handling put it a world apart from its FWD cousins.

Among the less expensive two-seaters, Chrysler and Mitsubishi's joint venture, the Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX and its Chrysler twin, the Eagle Talon TSi, are real sleepers. Manufactured in Normal, Illinois, the turbo-powered and AWD-equipped GSX/TSi is only superficially related to the other models in its series. At $20,000 to $23,000, they offer the most fun per dollar of any sports cars I have driven.

In the mid-priced range, the GSX/TSi has a 320 Bhp big brother in the form of the $45,000 Mitsubishi 3000 GT VR-4 and its assembly-line twin, the $40,000 Dodge Stealth R/T Turbo. This twin-turbo V6 has AWD and all-wheel steering that make it especially agile, almost slippery. Any potential buyers should book track time to check out its performance envelope. In casual driving, I have found it to take curves on average 5 mph to 10 mph faster than non-AWD vehicles. Its California styling is a blend of traditional Italian bodywork and fussy Japanese high tech, and it favors luxury over performance. It is the first production car since the 1957 and 1959 Ford Skyliner to offer a power-retractable convertible hardtop. If it could go on a 1,000-pound diet and gain 20 percent more engine output, it would be as fast as it looks and a match for all but the superexotics.

Porsche now markets three AWD models, successors to the 911, which was first introduced in 1964. The base-model, $67,000 911 Carrera 4 Coupe is spartan but still has dual airbags and cruise control. Its stiff bodywork coupled with AWD make it difficult to give it challenging road situations. The six-speed, 270 Bhp version accelerates from 0 mph to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds and tops out on the track at 168 mph. For $8,000 more you can get it as a Cabriolet soft top. This spring, Porsche introduced a $100,000, 400 Bhp twin-turbo 911 model that will get to 60 mph in 4 seconds and top out on the Autobahn at 190 mph. This year's AWD models are sold out to the dealers and are in high demand.

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