All-Wheel Drive Gains Traction






2007 Subaru Legacy GT Spec.B by Bengt Halvorson (6/2/2006)One step closer to the ultimate driving machine.



Doug Warren is tired of feeding his big sport-utility vehicle, so when his lease is up, later this year, the Detroit attorney is looking to switch to something at least a little more fuel efficient.


Warren already has eye on one of the new car-based crossovers, though he’s also open to a more conventional sedan. But the young attorney isn’t ready to abandon SUVs entirely. Whatever he buys next must offer a sport-ute’s all-wheel-drive powertrain.


“When I’m heading out to court early on a cold, Michigan winter morning,” he explains, “I don’t want to worry whether they got the streets plowed. I want to know I’m going to be able to get traction.”


The Motor City barrister isn’t alone. Across the U.S. , indeed, in much of the motorized world, buyers are paying increasing interest — and higher dollars — to products equipped with all-wheel drive.


The technology has been around for quite some time on the truck side, where it is often referred to as four-wheel drive, and outsells two-wheel-drive systems in most products. But all-wheel drive, or AWD, has only recently become a readily available option on the passenger car and crossover side of the showroom.


“It’s amazing, in the evolution of the automobile, how much impact the SUV has had,” says Dan Gorrell, head of automotive research for the Strategic Vision consultancy. “It has shown people they can have both fun and function. Now some of that functionality is starting to show up in sedans.”


Until recently, the few sedans, coupes, and sports cars with AWD were produced by a narrow niche of manufacturers, notably Japan’s Subaru and Germany ’s Audi. The upmarket arm of Volkswagen AG now offers only AWD-equipped products in the U.S. market, though it does offer front-drive models elsewhere.


“It is a real differentiator” for the brand, explains Johan de Nysschen, head of Audi of America, though the brand’s “quattro” technology is losing some of its uniqueness as other manufacturers come up with AWD systems of their own.



Ford Motor Co. long rejected the technology for anything other than trucks, such as its big F-Series pickup and Explorer SUV. Ford experimented with an AWD version o its compact Tempo sedan back in the 1980s and found few takers. But company officials now admit that in hindsight, they rigged the deck, since the Tempo was largely sold to fleet, where price, rather than traction, was the big selling point.


Ford has found that with more recent entries, geared to the retail market, demand for its AWD option has far exceeded expectations. So, to the current AWD-equipped products, such as the Five Hundred sedan, and Freestyle crossover, Ford will soon add its Fusion and Edge, as well as the Mercury Milan and Lincoln MKZ and MKX models.


With the exception of General Motors’ troubled Buick division, every mainstream automaker operating in the U.S. now offers at least one AWD entry. It accounts for 36 percent of Lexus offerings, and that number is expected to rise.


The Toyota division recognized that in many parts of the U.S. , “sales virtually came to a halt of our rear-drive models in the winter,” notes former Lexus General Manager Denny Clements.


There’s no question that demand for AWD is strongest in the snowiest parts of the country, whether Boulder, Colorado, or Boston . “But out here in California , it adds weight and doesn’t improve performance or fuel economy,” so there’s a lot less justification, says Los Angeles-based analyst Jim Hossack, of AutoPacific, Inc.


Hossack sees growing availability, but remains skeptical that AWD will become a truly mainstream option beyond the light-truck market. Fuel economy is a big reason. The added gears and drivelines add weight and increase internal friction, which translates into lower mileage.


Whether AWD hinders or helps performance is a matter of debate. Subaru points to its World Rally Champion, the WRX. And Audi has made performance a big part of its sales pitch for quattro. Then there’s the ultra-exotic Lamborghini, which features AWD on all of its high-power products, including the $295,700 Murcielago. Proponents acknowledge the added friction and weight can drain some off-the-line acceleration on dry pavement, but they counter that it improves handling — read speed — on winding and wet roads.


The number of U.S. buyers who put AWD or 4WD on their list of desired options has grown from less than six percent in 1990 to more than 24 percent today, according to CNW Marketing, a Bandon, Ore. , research firm. Not everyone can afford it, but as competition grows, makers are offering the technology — often in simpler form — at an increasingly affordable price.


High-line systems, such as the original Mercedes-Benz 4Matic, once carried premiums of $5000 or more. Today, AWD can be added to some vehicles for barely $1000 — and it is likely to become standard on more and more products, many analysts expect.



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