Driving Emotion

Posted on September 17th, 2002 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

The Return of Four-Wheel Drive

It has defied the soothsayers the way that the four-wheel drive car revolution (as opposed to the four-wheel drive, off-roader, half-century-old, technology continuation) has continued to occur.

A decade or so ago, high performance (and invariably turbo) four-wheel drive cars were being adopted in significant numbers here in Australia – and in most other markets around the world. While many of the cars were also available in two-wheel drive configurations, it was the all-wheel drive cars which were stealing the limelight.

In addition to the cars from Audi – the company that really started it all (and yes, I know about the Jensen FF and even the Miller Indy car) – the Japanese and other Europeans joined the race and really made it haul. There were cars like the Mitsubishi Galant VR4, the Laser (Mazda 323) turbo, the Subaru Liberty (Legacy in most places) RS, and the Opel Calibra 4X4. And of course the wave of cars wasn’t limited to just four-cylinders: the Nissan Skyline GT-R, Mitsubishi 3000GT, the Subaru SVX and the Porsche Carrera 4 all showed that high performance all-wheel drive sixes could work very well, thanks very much..

Unlike previous four-wheel drive cars, these machines were – to a greater or lesser degree in the case of the GT-R and some Porsche models – constant four-wheel drive. There was no need for the driver to do anything when greater traction was required; instead the electronics or mechanicals looked after what was going on. All-wheel drive was used to give greater grip when engine torque would otherwise have overwhelmed the traction of just a pair of wheels – the results were overwhelmingly good.

It was, of course, rallying that gave the impetus for these cars… a technology migration from dirt and slippery roads to urban bitumen. Some manufacturers took it much further – both Audi (in the US with their Trans Am Quattros) and Nissan (in Australia with their all-dominating Australian Touring Car Skyline GT-R) showed that all-wheel drive has a vitally important place in racing on sealed tracks as well as in the WRC. For anyone questioning the performance benefits of four-wheel drive over two-wheel drive in hi-po applications, these were the answers.

But then despite all of that, the swelling surge of all-wheel drive technology seemed to abate.

Four-wheel drive stayed de rigueur in rallying, but in nearly all other forms of motorsport it was (and remains) outlawed. And, with a key marketing link denied them, manufacturers started to steer away from having drive to both ends. Of course, all-wheel drive has some significant negatives: it costs more, increases fuel consumption, and has the ability to require greater maintenance costs – even in things as simple as the regular servicing of fluids. Four-wheel drive looked like it was heading the way of four-wheel steering – for high performance road cars, at least, a decade-long flash in the pan.

The current radical change in direction has come from a completely unexpected source. In the (first) four-wheel dive hi-po revolution, enthusiasts were at pains to point out to the curious but uninformed why they had bought a ‘four wheel drive’ that wasn’t a metre off the ground and designed to show the way to the ghosts of Burke and Wills. “No,” they’d say patiently to Aunt Martha, “this type of four wheel drive isn’t about beaten-up bush tracks. It’s about safety and grip in all weather.”

In fact, many took to calling their cars ‘all-wheel-drive’ to separate themselves – and their cars – from the truck-like things that had previously carried the four-wheel drive moniker.

But, in a twist so unexpected it leaves me gasping, it’s those very same trucks that are behind the resurgence in passenger car, high performance, all-wheel drive!

You see, a huge number of uninformed and deluded people started to buy those self-same off-road trucks, believing that they had some personal need to go charging off into country that required knobblies and a low-range gearbox. Of course, 90 per cent didn’t require anything of the sort – they just liked the idea of having the capability that was never used – and off-road truck manufacturers, responding to the actual need by dressing it up in the clothes of the perception, started producing four-wheel drive trucks that became more and more car-like as time went on. And car manufacturers, noticing the same bizarre cultural need, started to produce cars that took most of the styling – and ride height, for ride height is a vital part of the styling – and applying it to cars.

Off-road trucks, logically requiring a name tag that no longer addressed how they were almost never used, became SUVs. And off-road cars, again never used off road, became ‘crossover’ vehicles.

But these terms are really just an interim step; some crossover cars are now becoming much closer to the traditional concept of how four wheel drive was applied a decade ago that soon they’ll simply be called ‘all wheel drive cars’. Take the Subaru Forester GT: an Impreza WRX wagon with some heavy-handed styling and a slightly elevated ride height. Or the car that I happen to have had as a press car for the last week: the Holden Cruze. Looked at technically, you could correctly guess that it’s a jacked-up, four-wheel drive version of the Suzuki Ignis… so closer in concept to the Jimny than the Liana. But drive the car, look at its passenger car tyres, talk to people about its perception and think about the marketing, and this is a lifestyle car. And it’s one where its viscous-coupled four-wheel drive makes a noticeable and demonstrable difference to its stability and on-road assurance. In fact, it feels quite uncannily like the Suzuki Swift four-wheel drive that I frequently drove about ten years ago…

And it’s not just in this migration from crossover back to passenger car that four-wheel drive is insinuating itself anew into our automotive existence. The popularity of crossover vehicles – coming equally from the direction of trucks and the direction of cars – has meant that nearly all manufacturers have now had to come to grips with passenger-car style four wheel drive. From BMW’s X5 – despite four-wheel drive versions of the 3-series being made years ago, BMW’s first real four-wheel drive car – to local manufacturers Holden and Ford developing Commodore and Falcon crossover vehicles, these manufacturers are opening a Pandora’s box of all-wheel drive technology.

It’s technology that can – and will – be easily applied to their other car lines. If one platform in the line-up needs four-wheel drive, then other bodies using that same platform can cost-effectively have drive to all the wheels as well…

And so all-wheel drive cars are about to hit the local high-performance streets in numbers greater than ever before. Is that a good thing? You’d better believe it is! No-one who has driven all-wheel drive high performance cars for any length of time has the least doubt that the results are fantastic; but I think that things are just about to get a huge step better. Because you see, there’s always been a real problem with the all-wheel drives available at semi-normal prices: they’ve pretty well all been turbo. (Yes I know: plenty of V8 four-wheel drives have existed. But they’ve either been SUVs or priced way up there. Or both.) And no matter how good the turbo system, a turbo car simply doesn’t drive with a razor-sharp throttle response or gobs of bottom-end torque.

Now, imagine a high-performance two door car with a big V8 developing, say, 350kW. Intelligently channel the torque through all four wheels, give it the suspension and brakes to match – and hey, that’s probably the Holden Monaro of two years’ time. (Or, if you live in the USA, the Pontiac GTO.) It could only be an utterly awesome car. Even sooner you’ll probably have available – if you live in Australia at least – a Mitsubishi Magna with perhaps 200kW of naturally aspirated six-cylinder power, four-wheel drive and an utterly unflappable chassis. Bring it on! From Ford? The 5.4-litre DOHC-per-bank quad cam V8 in an all-wheel drive wagon. Would that be the best family wagon in the world for the dollars? (Well, not if it still has leaf springs and a solid rear axle: cross fingers…)

And in that sort of marketing frenzy, you can expect other manufacturers and importers to respond accordingly. The most brilliant four wheel drive chassis that I have ever driven – and easily that, too – is under the Evo VII Mitsubishi Lancer. The Evo 6 was priced out of the market, flimsily built and poorly equipped. The next Evo to arrive on these shores you can bet won’t be any of these. The current Subaru Impreza STi and Liberty B4 are enormously behind the times in their engineering finesse; despite their blustering to the contrary, you can bet that Subaru in this country are telling their Japanese counterparts just that – and loud and clear. Subaru in the next round of models will need to lift their game enormously – or simply be relegated out of the high performance all-wheel drive race. My bet is that they’ll try desperately hard to stay at the front of a pack that they have helped foster.

In short, for car nuts it’s about to get absolutely fantastic….

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