Business, Finance & Economics

Decoding the global lure of all-wheel drive

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What evil creature lurks beneath the thick white shell, black antenna extended forward and up, ready for the hunt?

In this case, just a high-performance sedan — the 2009 Infiniti G37 AWD. It was ready to stalk the snowy roads branching into an undulating and challenging world of white.

This $43,000, 328-horsepower beast proves that now, you can have your snow-frosted, iced-caked roads and eat them too – chewing them up, all wheels at work and controlled by computer, in sizzling cars once relegated to winter storage.

Sure, purists insisted on rear-wheel drive and power — and then parked their cars for winter — unless they were willing to put clunky and loud snow tires on all four wheels and lose performance in favor of little more than showing off their hot rides in cold weather.

Europeans, and some Asian countries, caught onto the notion of all-wheel drive long ago, mostly because rallying — a sport in which cars are tossed over wild terrain that includes mud, rocks, water and trees, and which involves spectators encroaching right up to the edge of narrow paths — is highly popular there.

Since the mid-1980s, all-wheel drive rally cars have been the virtually unbeatable jets of the international rally circuit.

So all-wheel drive came to be seen not just as a way to win races, but as a way to get the family to such winter playgrounds as Chamonix and Zermatt in Europe, the Furano, Niseko, and Rusutsu ski slopes of Hokkaido in Japan — where sub-Arctic storms howl in from Siberia, moisten as they cross the Sea of Japan, and engulf the region in deep, powdery snow.

So it is not a surprise that the first big push of all-wheel drive into the United States came from across both oceans: Subaru and Audi were the true progenitors of the all-wheel drive family car in the U.S., before the advent of the SUV.

Today, besides imports, you can find such American muscle cars as the Dodge Charger or Cadillac STS in all-wheel drive format.

The global popularity of all-wheel drive passenger cars arose among drivers who want improved safety without the added weight and — usually unnecessary — off-road capabilities of an SUV. With all-wheel drive, four wheels are in full play, as opposed to just a pair. That means critical electronic safety systems, which transmit power and braking to individual wheels, and have more ways to correct for driver error or sudden changes in road conditions.

Braking can be shifted wheel to wheel (ABS) to prevent brake lock and skidding. Engine power can be sent front to rear, side to side, wheel to wheel.

Studies have shown that cars with electronic safety systems — such as anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, traction control, and antirollover protection — are more than 40 percent less likely to be involved in an accident. And if a crash does occur, the systems cut the death rate by more than 40 percent. Although studies incorporating all-wheel drive have not been done yet, it is likely that the systems will further reduce fatalities.

For instance, in a 2008 list of the five safest cars, compiled by SafestCars.net, four offered all-wheel drive: the Ford Taurus, Mercury Sable, Audi A6, and Subaru Legacy. The fifth car, Saab’s 9-3, has become, for 2009, part of a Saab package offering that feature.

They realized this first in Europe and Asia, then in the U.S., because as George Kang, a senior analyst for Edmunds.com, told me, consumers have come to see all-wheel drive as a safety feature that offers "all-weather, not necessarily all-terrain performance."

There's another consumer force at work: fuel efficiency.

While older four-wheel drive systems used all wheels continuously — and thus more gas — today's all-wheel drive systems send power to all four wheels only as needed, making them more fuel efficient. Kang said all-wheel drive typically reduces fuel economy by "about a mile per gallon," a cost he called "very acceptable in the consumers' eyes."

It doesn’t cost much to add safety and utility, while adding the thrill of performance and that, he said, is "a lot of bang for the buck."

The extra cost of all-wheel drive these days is about $1,000 to $2,000. But what an expansive global lineup.

Here, for instance, by price range, is an eclectic sampling of the world’s passenger cars, many of them very high performance, available with all-wheel drive:

$17,000-$25,000

Subaru Impreza sedan and wagon, Toyota Matrix, Pontiac Vibe, Subaru Legacy, Mercury Milan, Ford Taurus, Subaru WRX.

$26,000-$40,000

Dodge Charger, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Volvo V50 sedan and wagon, Audi A3 and A4, Volvo S 60, Chrysler 300 series, Lexus IS, BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-class, Cadillac CTS, Volvo XC 70, Audi TT, Acura TL.

$40,000-$70,000

Lincoln MKS, Audi A5, Cadillac STS, BMW 5 Series, Lexus GS, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Lexus LS, Audi A8.

$70,000 and into the monetary ether

Nissan GTR, Porsche 911 series including Twin Turbo, Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Audi S8 and R8, Bentley Continental GT and Flying Spur, Lamborghini Gallardo and Murcielago.

 

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