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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 3)

For now, there is only one AWD superexotic--the 5.7 liter, 492 Bhp Lamborghini Diablo VT. More spacecraft than car, it has a top speed of over 200 mph. Its 12 cylinders give it more torque horsepower, and higher top speed without turbo boost. This is one very powerful automobile, so powerful that a four-camshaft 1,000 Bhp version of the engine has powered winning offshore racing boats and given new meaning to the term "land cruiser." With a suggested retail price at a daunting $220,000, it is available through a more affordable lease program of $52,000 down and about $3,000 a month.

AWD enhances the handling of all of these cars. It almost eliminates the possibility of the rear end breaking into a spin while going through a curve. AWD sports cars are much less boring and clichéd than SUVs. They get better gas mileage. They are fun to drive. The real downside of 4WD and AWD is the need to relearn the limits when switching back to the world of traditional 2WD sports cars.

The future is bright for those desiring 4WD. Manufacturers are gearing up new models and more manufacturing capacity. This should mean more choice, less time in waiting for back-ordered vehicles and even lower prices for buyers. Should mild winters prevail and the interest in sport utility models decline, the market would be glutted and manufacturers might have to initiate buyer incentive programs to move surplus product. Even if buyer demand remains strong, there would be an SUV war in the marketplace.

For the prospective buyer, this glut translates to an embarrassment of riches as every major luxury car maker but BMW, who already acquired Land Rover, plans to bring out new sport utility vehicles by 1998. This year, Toyota is bringing out its RAV4 compact SUV, already a best-seller in Japan. Not a replacement for the family station wagon, it is upscale competition to the compact Suzuki Sidekick as a fun car to take to the beach or as a personal SUV with better gas mileage for the daily commute. At the beginning of 1996, Lexus will introduce a six-cylinder Lexus LX450. Based on the Toyota Land Cruiser, it is targeted at "prestige, luxury, urban driving" couples who would shudder at scratching the lacquer on their new $50,000 car. Later in 1996, expect the Toyota 4Runner to get an overdue update.

Ford is also badly bitten by the SUV bug. It is toying with the idea of adding an AWD Taurus to its line. Expect to see models derived from Ford's popular Explorer badged by Mazda, Mercury and, in 1998, possibly even Jaguar. Aimed at the Range Rover market, the $50,000-plus Jaguar LUX is likely to have a sophisticated, height-adjustable, active-air suspension along with lots of leather, deep pile carpeting and polished wood trim. Lincoln is still considering its own 1998 luxury offering.

Honda is also looking at the luxury sport utility segment and is considering a leather-trimmed version of the Isuzu Trooper that may be marketed as a $40,000 Acura this fall. Infinity is also due late next year to launch a vehicle aimed at the same market. It may be based on the Nissan Patrol, a large Land Cruiser-like platform now only available in Japan. The Nissan Pathfinder itself is due at the end of this year to get a total makeover.

Chrysler has cancelled its plans for a new luxury SUV, the Dodge Adventurer, based on its Ram pickup truck. But it is still considering introducing a youth-oriented, compact Plymouth Back Pack, based on the Plymouth Neon chassis. GM is of several minds regarding new SUV offerings. It withdrew and is now reintroducing the Oldsmobile Bravada. GMC Truck is trying to differentiate itself from Chevrolet's models and capture the high end of the SUV market. Meanwhile, Chevy management is doing its best to prevent the move. At the same time, Cadillac is working on a Chevy Tahoe-based SUV powered by Cadillac's Northstar V8 engine. The projected price is no surprise--$50,000.

In Alabama, Mercedes is busy building its first manufacturing facility outside of Germany, geared to introduce an "All Activity Vehicle" in 1997 that may even sell for under $50,000. And Land Rover, the image leader that most of these companies are chasing, is slated to introduce its CB40, a luxury compact SUV that it would like to sell in high volume. Land Rover, like other manufacturers, is concerned that by 1998, the U.S. government will raise the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards for light trucks.

If, by 1998, you are tired of suburban traffic jams looking like upscale military convoys, additional AWD choices are on the horizon. This fall, the Audi division of Volkswagen will replace its 90 series sedans with a new V6-powered A4 model. Early reviews of the European model indicate that the A4 is worthy competition for the 328i. Unfortunately, Audi is not bringing over the turbocharged 1.8 liter version of the A4. Nor is it hurrying to bring over its aluminum-bodied A8 luxury sedan.

A bit farther north, the sensible Swedes at Volvo will introduce AWD versions of their popular sedans and station wagons to the U.S. market in 1997. And Land Rover is even considering putting its 4WD expertise into a series of luxury sedans and wagons.

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