AWD (4WD and 4X4) drivetrains were once limited to trucks, and the very rare Jensen, AMC, Subaru or Audi cars. Nearly 40 years have passed since the American Motor Corporation introduced the Eagle, or what is essentially the first production “car” to offer four-wheel drive.
While a handful of carmakers picked up on the technology, most considered it too costly and bulky to offer on a large scale. The last decade has seen an incredible turn around where nearly all, including Ferrari, offer AWD and related advantages on at least one of their products.
Volkswagen hit the ground running early in the 2000s with the Touareg after a limited run of Syncro AWD-equipped vehicles (Passat and Vanagon in North America). Within a few years, AWD technology made its way to other products and today, VW offers 4MOTION AWD on the Golf, Tiguan and Atlas. It is as of yet undecided whether it will be made available on the new MK7 Jetta, however.
The reason why Volkswagen can now include AWD with its latest products is due to the large-scale employment of the brand’s highly-flexible MQB platform. Yes, that’s right. The large 3-row Atlas SUV uses the same basic building blocks as the Golf, and the compact Tiguan crossover.
Volkswagen’s 4MOTION AWD setup reflects the desires of typical consumers where the system must be self-aware and do what it needs to do without driver involvement. Each vehicle functions primarily in FWD but the moment wheel slippage is detected, the AWD control unit gets to work. It activates the coupling pump which locks up the clutch pack to varying degrees – it all happens in tenths of a second. The AWD coupling unit is built directly into the rear axle differential housing and adds on average 110 kg (250 lbs.) to the car’s weight. Be it the Atlas or Golf R, all utilize the same layout with only variations for length, width and torque requirements.
What’s great is that nearly 100% of available engine torque can be sent to the rear wheels and once there, the system can manipulate power from side to side using the brakes. Obviously, these cars are not meant for serious off-roading but depending on the selected model, hill-descent and hill-climb are included as are various drive modes.
Our driving adventure took us around Lake Sacacomie, about 2 hours north-east of Montreal. The roads in the area challenged both driver and the car with its varying surfaces conditions and sweepers. While all vehicles performed admirably well, the Golf Alltrack proved to the be the gem of the lot.
Its size and performance impressed but what I appreciated most was its raised suspension (15mm of ground clearance over the Sportwagen) and ample wheel travel. It was as though the car was designed to tackle this terrain. With the Drive Mode set to Normal, the Alltrack handled slippery inclines and corners without losing its cool. We did hoon about on the frozen lake and despite the inability to turn ESP completely off like with the Golf R, I had loads of fun.
Although utility vehicles are great and all the rage, the Sportwagen and Alltrack trim are brilliant compromises. To prove that 4MOTION is what buyers were waiting for, sales of the Volkswagen Sportwagen doubled from 2016 to 2017 with the arrival of AWD last year. Of all the sales of the new Sportwagen, including the top-line Alltrack, 80% of them were equipped with 4MOTION.