VW wants to make drivers masters of their machines
AWD system now available as an option on even the base models of four of the German maker's vehicles
First off, let's get this straight: An all-wheel-drive vehicle will not make you impervious to the weather. You'll still slide on a slippery road and if you don't know how to control a skid, you'll still drive into the ditch, or worse, if you travel too fast for the conditions.
This is the beauty of being able to hoon around on a frozen lake, as I'm doing today in Quebec, on ice that's almost a metre thick. When I overcorrect the steering and the back end of the Volkswagen starts overtaking the front end, there's no harm done. I find the limits to the tires and the traction control and just slide around or thunk softly into a snowbank. No harm done.
Actually, most of the traction control is turned off, which is not a good idea on the road but a great idea out on the lake. If I leave the system activated on the ice, the throttle backs off to prevent any further spin and the car will straighten itself out. That's no fun.
I'm here to find out about Volkswagen's AWD system, which is now available as an option on even the base models of four of the German maker's vehicles. VW calls its system 4Motion, and although all the variations of all-wheel drive do basically the same thing – drive all four wheels and not just the front wheels or the back wheels – there are small differences in the ways they achieve this.
The Volkswagen method for all its vehicles is to fit an AWD coupling unit into a specially adapted rear axle, which is activated electro-hydraulically. When the road is dry, the VW will normally be driven by just the front wheels only, which helps to save fuel. Nothing unusual there. But when it gets slippery, or even just when you stand on the gas to accelerate quickly, the car's computer tells the AWD coupling pump to push its fluid into a special clutch and turn the rear axle. This happens almost instantly.
The clever part comes with the clutch that pushes the torque between the left and right wheels, so the right amount of drive goes to the most effective side of the vehicle, not just the most effective end. When the car corners, the torque eases off where it's not needed; when it accelerates, it pushes harder.
This is a relatively inexpensive form of torque vectoring that allows AWD to be a $1,200 option on the Tiguan compact SUV and a $1,500 option on the Sportwagen. It's standard on the peppy Golf R hatchback and Golf Alltrack crossover, and it's standard on the full-sized Atlas when you buy the more powerful 3.6-litre engine.
Passats, Beetles and regular Golfs only offer front-wheel drive. When the new Jetta is introduced this spring, "we are investigating the possibility of all-wheel drive with this car," a spokesperson says. "It's not going to happen the first year or the second year, but the trend is changing."
The relative affordability of the system helped boost its popularity in Canada last year. Sales of 4Motion-equipped Canadian VWs almost doubled in 2017 compared with the previous year. Part of this is because of the growing sales of SUVs, but it's clearly a popular feature: VW introduced AWD in its Sportwagen last year and promptly doubled sales of the wagon, with 80 per cent of them bought with the 4Motion option.
Does this all help out on the road? Sure it does. It means that when you turn through a curve on a snowy or icy road, or even just a road that's slick with greasy rain, then tires that slip will have their power cut back and tires that grip will dig into the surface. Not just one tire, but three or four, and that helps cornering. Obviously, good tires make all the difference and braking is unaffected, but additional grip will be available for holding to the intended direction. And it helps find traction on an icy road, too, or in deep snow on an unplowed road or parking lot.
In fact, Volkswagen has you covered with the braking, too. ABS usually prevents any locking of the wheels, but VW's ABS includes "chock braking," which permits momentary locking and releasing of the wheels on a loose surface. This allows small mounds of earth or snow – like airplane chocks – to build up in front of the tires and slow the vehicle more effectively.
Of course, I was oblivious to all this, careening around cones here on the frozen lake in all of Volkswagen's 4Motion-equipped vehicles. The tires skittered across the ice and threw up rooster tails of snow, but I stayed mostly on track and the cars found their way around a course that was almost too slippery to stand on.
I felt like the greatest driver in the world, master of my machine – and that's the whole point, isn't it?
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.