Wales un­leashes its worst weather – per­fect for putting the di­verse four-wheel-drive sys­tems of six very dif­fer­ent cars to the test as we ask the ques­tion: is the fu­ture of the per­for­mance car all-wheel drive?

IT’S PITCH DARK, dis­tress­ingly early, and un­remit­tingly wet as I set­tle the in­voice at our less than salu­bri­ous overnight ac­com­mo­da­tion. John Barker sud­denly ap­pears along­side me at the re­cep­tion desk. ‘Look,’ he says, ro­tat­ing his lap­top to re­veal the video he’s play­ing. ‘I’ve found this film that shows how Honda’s SH-AWD set-up works.’ It’s probably one of the more savoury pieces of con­tent that’s been streamed within these yel­low­ing, dank walls.

We are mo­men­tar­ily ab­sorbed by this an­i­ma­tion, be­cause un­der­stand­ing the lay­out and work­ings of modern four-wheel- drive sys­tems isn’t straight­for­ward, steeped as they are in tech­nol­ogy, mythol­ogy and oft-re­peated un­truths. Four-wheel drive per­for­mance cars have evolved con­sid­er­ably over the years, from all-weather one-trick ponies, through those won­der­ful – and some­times frisky – Mit­subishi Evos, to ma­chines with the in-vogue tech of the mo­ment. Four-wheel drive can now be a very ac­tive in­gre­di­ent in a broad and dy­namic han­dling reper­toire, and is avail­able in a mul­ti­tude of forms that of­fer very dif­fer­ent out­comes.

On top of this there’s that com­mon mis­com­pre­hen­sion that four-wheel drive gives you more out­right grip, whereas trac­tion is a far more ac­cu­rate de­scrip­tion, and even that most fa­mous four-wheeldrive mar­ket­ing brand, qu­at­tro, isn’t as sim­ple as it first ap­pears. We have two qu­at­tro sys­tems in this story alone – the Haldex ar­range­ment in the S1 and the Crown Gear set-up in the RS4.

While it’s one thing to de­scribe how the sys­tems work – which we will through­out this piece – it’s an­other to ac­tu­ally feel what they do and how they im­pact upon the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Which is why evo is in Snow­do­nia, in Jan­uary, with six in­trigu­ingly di­verse cars – each with both axles driven in some form – and two days and a fair few miles ahead of us.

As I glance out into the car park, I see pho­tog­ra­pher As­ton Par­rott has al­ready

fired up the qu­at­tro (S1 flavour) and is wait­ing point­edly at the exit, im­pa­tient to try to catch that pre­cious light of sun­rise that’s cat­nip to all snap­pers.

In fact, any hope of some ethe­real dawn light will be com­pletely in vain. In­stead, none of us will be able to re­mem­ber see­ing so much rain as over the next 48 hours, as Wales is hit by a del­uge of me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal mad­ness. That said, while this might make for one of Par­rott’s tough­est as­sign­ments ever, we did want a stern test of the cur­rent all-wheel- drive per­for­mance car set, and mother na­ture has cer­tainly pro­vided that.

I jump into the Audi RS4 Avant first, a car we’ve so far only driven close to its In­gol­stadt home. If ever a car was made for get­ting around lu­di­crously swiftly in these con­di­tions, it’s the RS4 – in­deed, it was my choice last night when we all con­verged on our meet­ing point. As the miles passed with just the slight­est flut­ter of wind around the Audi’s wing mir­rors, I thought about how Barker might be get­ting on in that 16th cen­tury Span­ish in­stru­ment of tor­ture that Lam­borgh­ini of­ten likes to fit as a bucket seat, or what the NSX’S gar­ish blaze of dash­board il­lu­mi­na­tion might look like some­where on a dark Welsh night. Now we’re all in one con­voy, the big AMG up front, then the Audi S1, the Ford Fo­cus RS, the NSX, the Aven­ta­dor S, and fi­nally the RS4. Two days get­ting from north Wales to south, in atro­cious weather, is go.

Right at this very mo­ment, climb­ing the Llan­beris Pass, I’m pretty glad to be snug inside the RS4. Wipers on their fastest set­ting, an out­line of loom­ing moun­tains just be­com­ing vis­i­ble in the murk and first light, I track the Aven­ta­dor in front, a bow wave of wa­ter shock-blast­ing from its wheels and onto the slate walls, their jagged sur­faces per­ilously close to ex­trav­a­gant Ital­ian flanks like glad­i­a­to­rial spikes ready to im­pale the care­less. SW1 this is not, and yet the Lambo ap­pears to be hold­ing its head high, singing its inim­itable tune as only it can. I had for­got­ten, per­haps, the sheer depth, vol­ume and sweet tonal­ity of the V12, but here it is, a yowl, a real an­i­mal­is­tic, yearn­ing yowl that reaches right down into your soul and reaf­firms why big, nat­u­rally as­pi­rated V12s and su­per­cars re­ally are some of the finest things in life. When we reach the top, the Lambo’s driver looks rea­son­ably un­ruf­fled: would he be quite so cool had the Lambo been a rear- drive model?

Tempted as I am by the Avan­ta­dor’s beck­on­ing scis­sor door, I nev­er­the­less de­cide to take refuge from the rain and wind in the E63 S. On the way, I jog past James Dis­dale, newly va­cated from the Merc, who shoots me a look from un­der­neath the drip­ping lead­ing edge of his anorak that sug­gests the mean Mercedes has made a con­sid­er­able im­pres­sion. The twin-turbo V8 ka-booms into life and, for me at least, the sheer vi­o­lence of the E63’s ac­cel­er­a­tion never wanes. What seems in­con­ceiv­able pace for a large, up­right, two-ton sa­loon never be­comes mun­dane, never loses its shock

‘If ever a car was made for get­ting around swiftly in these con­di­tions, it’s the RS4’

value. Whereas the RS4 had flowed down the road, oc­ca­sion­ally dis­tracted by stand­ing wa­ter, the AMG feels like pi­lot­ing a Royal Navy de­stroyer down the Thames. It blud­geons its way through pud­dles, claw­ing fu­ri­ously at the road’s sur­face to keep ev­ery­thing mov­ing for­wards with a manic de­ter­mi­na­tion not to be de­flected off line. Ar­guably, the E63 has the most to gain from be­ing ca­pa­ble of distribut­ing torque to all four cor­ners, be­cause the im­pli­ca­tions of de­ploy­ing 604bhp to just two rear wheels in these con­di­tions are pretty ob­vi­ous.

The AMG finds tremen­dous trac­tion, but all of us find that what it can’t do is dis­guise its bulk. Dizzy de­scribes its exit from slow-speed cor­ners as ‘un­tidy’ (over­steer fol­lowed by a rapid de­ploy­ment of drive to the front axle to pull the car straight), which is in­evitable given the physics at work. The firm, rather brit­tle ride (not shared by the non-s E63, it must be said), par­tic­u­larly in the car’s more ag­gres­sive set­tings, and its very quick steer­ing ra­tio feel like de­vices to dis­guise the weight. Hav­ing said that, stick to a slow-in, fast- out ap­proach and the E63 S is sheer dy­na­mite across the ground, and a fine ex­am­ple of what adding four­wheel drive to a tra­di­tional recipe can achieve. Quite sim­ply, it’s hard to imag­ine Mercedes mak­ing this car with­out 4Matic+. With 627lb ft of torque it would be a slave to the ESP sys­tem if rear- drive only; as it is, you can have ex­tra­or­di­nary con­fi­dence in it.

Back in the RS4 and some food for

thought: Audi of­fered us two cars for this test, one with and one with­out the Dy­namic Ride Con­trol adap­tive damp­ing that was fit­ted to that first new RS4 we tested in Ger­many ( evo 244). We tried the one with­out this £2000 op­tion and it was a se­ri­ous dis­ap­point­ment. Its un­set­tled ride was at odds with the car’s erst­while abil­ity to play the serene GT- car on de­mand, and more than a few of my col­leagues ques­tioned where I’d left my mar­bles on that trip to In­gol­stadt. With DRC, the RS4 is trans­formed, thank­fully, so if there’s one thing to re­mem­ber, don’t, what­ever you do, buy a new RS4 with­out tick­ing that box. Need­less to say, it’s the DRC- equipped car we have here.

Af­ter his first stint at the wheel, Barker be­gins his RS4 love-hate re­la­tion­ship: ‘It’s very ap­peal­ing, ini­tially. Sounds pretty good – growly and char­ac­ter­ful – goes very well, and it all feels very pol­ished and grown-up inside. It’s not very dis­tinct though, is it? The arches are square- cut but quite sub­tle, and the cor­po­rate nose is hard to make much more ag­gres­sive, al­though they have tried.’

Re­mem­ber the one about four-wheeldrive Audis un­der­steer­ing? Was that the na­ture of the orig­i­nal qu­at­tro sys­tem, with its crude, fixed torque split, or the fact that Audi slung the en­tire en­gine block north of the front axle? Or both, per­haps? It wasn’t long ago that I had the op­por­tu­nity to drive a B7 RS4 again – that first V8- en­gined ver­sion – and while it was a lovely thing, I’d for­got­ten just how nose-led the han­dling bal­ance was once the car set­tled into a cor­ner. Fast for­ward to to­day, and the lat­est RS4, with its Crown Gear sys­tem, is noth­ing of the sort. Like its RS5 rel­a­tive, you can sense the rear axle play­ing a greater part as the cor­ner opens out.

What re­ally sets this RS4 apart from its fore­bears is the rear Sport Dif­fer­en­tial,

‘You tend to drive the Aven­ta­dor hard up to a cer­tain point, but al­ways with a good mar­gin in hand’

‘When the roads get re­ally slip­pery, the Fo­cus can start to feel sur­pris­ingly edgy at times’

which is stan­dard on UK cars. With this set to Dy­namic, the RS4 feels ap­pre­cia­bly more neu­tral and of­ten sur­pris­ingly tail­happy. The draw­back is that in ex­tremis you’re never re­ally sure what you’re go­ing to get. Some­times there’s an ini­tial phase of un­der­steer to work through, an­other time just a hint of over­steer. Yet on a third oc­ca­sion it’s easy to find the tail swing­ing so wide that a full arm­ful of lock is re­quired, and, very soon af­ter­wards, a de­ter­mined wind­ing back of the steer­ing if the front wheels aren’t to bite and spit the car off the road the other way.

Our con­voy is mov­ing in a southerly di­rec­tion now, and the roads are open­ing out into fast, sweep­ing curves span­ning bleak-look­ing moors barely vis­i­ble in the mist. I think I’m set­ting a rea­son­ably swift pace un­til I check the rear-view mir­ror and spot a small, red car flit­ting im­pa­tiently around be­hind me. Sure, Barker is a le­gendary ped­aller, but that lit­tle S1 has clearly got some se­ri­ous pace about it, and while I’m con­stantly on edge wor­ry­ing about the om­nipresent patches of stand­ing wa­ter, the S1’s driver seems com­pletely un­fazed. When we come to a halt, I find out why. ‘Chas­ing you in the RS4, I could see the al­lowances you were mak­ing for the lack of turnin bite, the avoid­ing of stand­ing wa­ter, the early brak­ing,’ says JB. ‘ The S1 felt lithe, re­spon­sive, planted, with great ride, com­po­sure, grip and trac­tion.’ Es­sen­tially, the ben­e­fits of a light car, as ever, are not to be un­der­es­ti­mated.

The ubiq­ui­tous ‘on de­mand’ Haldex sys­tem al­lows the S1 to de­ploy all of its con­sid­er­able torque with al­most no drama – there’s none of the wheel twitch­ing and scrab­bling a front- driver would be dis­play­ing in these con­di­tions, and while Haldex re­mains one of the more prag­matic sys­tems, shun­ning tai­lout the­atrics, its re­ac­tions have come a long way since its early days. So much so that Barker is af­ter more power, as if 228bhp in such a small car isn’t enough. Nice six-speed man­ual ’ box too, and the cabin re­mains tac­tile and taste­ful, even if the ex­te­rior is blink-and-miss-it mild.

Talk­ing of man­ual gear­boxes, a stint in the Fo­cus RS fol­lows. About to go off sale, it re­mains an enigma. On pa­per it has ev­ery­thing we’ve ever wanted from a Ford hot hatch: the power fig­ure, the badge, all-wheel drive, Re­caro seats, a man­ual gear­box – torque vec­tor­ing with the abil­ity to drift, for heaven’s sake… And yet, for a hatch­back, it is also a bit

porky (we’ve seen nearly 1600kg on our scales) and has a ride qual­ity that even in the soft­est set­ting is ag­gres­sively firm. But the Fo­cus needs that spring rate to sup­port its con­sid­er­able mass on a chal­leng­ing road.

What re­ally sets the Fo­cus apart from its four-wheel- drive hatch­back ri­vals is that it makes it very ob­vi­ous it’s an all-wheels­driven car – in fact, it of­ten feels more rear-wheel drive than front. A Golf R feels front- driven much of the time – be­cause it is – and neu­tral at most, but even a gen­tle flick through a fast curve has the Ford’s rear axle be­gin­ning to ro­tate around a cen­tral axis, and when the roads get re­ally slip­pery it can start to feel sur­pris­ingly edgy at times, cou­pled with the front tyres torque-steer­ing over un­even sur­faces. The win­ter tyres on this par­tic­u­lar car probably ex­ag­ger­ate that char­ac­ter­is­tic fur­ther still, of­fer­ing an ex­tra de­gree or two of squidge to any given in­put.

‘It’s hugely en­ter­tain­ing, if ul­ti­mately rather an overly con­trived ma­chine’ is Dis­dale’s luke­warm ver­dict as we shel­ter within one of the cars. The RS is a car, as ever, that re­ally splits opin­ion, be­cause Barker is much more of a fan, find­ing it ‘con­fi­dence in­spir­ing’ and en­joy­ing the ‘ grit­ti­ness’ of the feed­back through the wheel, al­beit wish­ing too that it had more ‘give’ to al­low it to breathe with the road in a more ef­fec­tive fash­ion. I get that side of it too, so we set­tle on an am­i­ca­ble dif­fer­ence of opin­ion as, out­side, Par­rott looks in­creas­ingly like a drowned rat and his cam­eras start to give up the ghost.

It’s time to de­camp to mid Wales, and at last the rain eases off and the pud­dles be­gin to be­come less la­goon-like. Time for the Lam­borgh­ini. We are around an hour from our fi­nal pho­to­graphic lo­ca­tion of the day, and it’s al­most dark. While the rain has sub­sided to lit­tle more than a driz­zle, murky brown wa­ter streams over the Aven­ta­dor’s roof and A-pil­lars at speed, oc­ca­sion­ally swat­ted aside by the swipe of a gi­ant wind­screen wiper. Head­ing swiftly to the Elan Val­ley, I feel like I’m lead­ing a rebel al­liance for­ma­tion in the Mil­len­nium Fal­con. Pe­ri­od­i­cally, I catch a glimpse of five pairs of daz­zling lights be­hind, par­tially ob­scured by the Aven­ta­dor’s en­gine bay slats and the ac­tive rear wing, which rises up and blocks much of the rear­wards vis­i­bil­ity at speed. Clearly you’re not ex­pected to be over­taken at the wheel of an Aven­ta­dor S.

A ra­tio­nal mind can pick a great deal of holes in this car. The squeaks and rat­tles inside the cabin of this 6000- odd-mile press car are hardly con­fi­dence in­spir­ing, and the design of the dash­board is not age­ing well, cer­tainly to these eyes. The in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem ap­pears to have come from an Audi of the pre­vi­ous mil­len­nium, while the crude­ness of the USB socket has us in stitches of laugh­ter. At this pre­cise mo­ment, what I’d re­ally value is a pair of ef­fec­tive head­lamps, but while the dipped beam is crisp enough, main beam would be amus­ingly in­ef­fec­tive for a su­per­mini, let alone a 200mph-plus car. Then there’s the sin­gle- clutch au­to­mated gear­box, a relic of a su­per­car era two or three gen­er­a­tions back – its shifts in Strada mode are in­fu­ri­at­ingly leisurely, al­though the sub­tle throt­tle lift re­quired even at full pelt is at least some form of car- driver in­ter­ac­tion.

But come on: you don’t ex­pect me to

‘The NSX ac­cel­er­ates like a Buc­ca­neer off the Ark Royal’s cat­a­pult’

judge a car with a V12 that revs out to 8500rpm on such a mun­dane ba­sis, do you? Frankly, I couldn’t care less if the Aven­ta­dor S came with a dog- eared road at­las for a sat­nav and the en­tire dash­board dis­in­te­grated when you so much as looked at it – this car is a re­minder of what it is to have a pas­sion for cars. I ab­so­lutely adore it. Ev­ery­body, and I mean ev­ery­body, loves the Lambo. Some, like su­per­car-averse Dis­dale, aren’t con­verted un­til they drive it, then sort of glow qui­etly with deep-set sat­is­fac­tion; oth­ers, like the cashier girl when we stop for fuel (the Lambo loves a drink, un­sur­pris­ingly) have their day made merely by its pres­ence. In Pearl White with quite ex­quis­ite tobacco- coloured leather trim, it’s like a su­per­star so­prano from the Mi­lan opera singing in a lo­cal Welsh inn, charm­ing the lo­cals and muck­ing in by mak­ing the sand­wiches. Its voice is strong, but its spirit is even stronger.

A V12 Lambo needs that ini­tial in­tim­i­da­tion fac­tor, and through its size, power and sheer vol­ume, the Aven­ta­dor S cer­tainly pos­sesses that. But it doesn’t last long. Nat­u­ral, ac­cu­rate steer­ing, well­judged damp­ing and a sense of agility bol­stered by the S’s rear-wheel steer­ing soon breed a guarded sense of con­fi­dence, which all-wheel- drive trac­tion fos­ters. The in­di­vid­ual Ego mode is best, with dampers and steer­ing set to Strada, and the driv­e­train to its noisy, most re­spon­sive, Corsa set­ting. So con­fig­ured, you can hus­tle the Aven­ta­dor more than you’d imag­ine, lis­ten­ing to its feed­back, but all of us are clear on how you tend to drive it hard up to a cer­tain point, but al­ways with a good mar­gin in hand. No one wants to feel the weight of that gi­ant en­gine be­gin to move, the ashen-faced mo­ment when a tank slap­per gath­ers mo­men­tum…

We con­vene, eat, drink and dry out at our pub digs for the night, and the con­ver­sa­tion is – fun­nily enough – 90 per cent about the glo­ri­ous Lambo. Much of that is spent laugh­ing about its foibles, the re­main­der how it might be the best tonic ever in­vented for a mis­er­able Jan­uary. The NSX is also win­ning fans at a rapid rate. Dizzy reck­ons it ac­cel­er­ates like a Buc­ca­neer off the Ark Royal’s cat­a­pult, while re­flect­ing that it’s ‘a fine ex­am­ple of what elec­tric mo­tors prop­erly done can do for true driv­ers’ cars’. Barker agrees, while de­lib­er­at­ing be­tween ham and eggs or lasagne with chips, al­though his stint in the Ja­panese su­per­car didn’t be­gin too well: ‘ We didn’t get off to a great start: I turned sharply out of the car park and the rear stepped out! It did it again soon af­ter, though this time swing­ing keenly into a soak­ing right-han­der onto a cat­tle grid. That se­cond time it felt like the rear was too soft. Later on I dis­cov­ered the mode dial, and with the sporti­est set­ting di­alled up, all such con­cerns van­ished.’

Over­all, though, he’s a big fan: ‘ The new NSX is a fine thing, a lovely blend of in­ter­nal com­bus­tion and elec­tric, mostly be­cause it’s a very sorted and ap­peal­ing ju­nior su­per­car.’ I only had a brief drive in it to­day, but af­ter ini­tially wor­ry­ing it all felt rather syn­thetic, I be­gan to warm to it im­mensely, and not just be­cause Dizzy left the heated seat on full blast.

The weather has not im­proved by the next morn­ing. It seems like an odd com­ment to make about a £145,000 su­per­car with such tow­er­ing per­for­mance, but the NSX is a slow-burner. Once you’ve got past the ra­bid low- down ac­cel­er­a­tion, for me at least, there’s a sense of ‘ what’s re­ally go­ing on here?’ Some peo­ple never re­ally get be­yond this stage, sur­mis­ing it as soul­less, as hap­pened in some quar­ters on ecoty 2016. But stick with it and the car un­der­neath be­gins to emerge. Hav­ing got over the mis­matched and gen­er­ally fairly un­ap­peal­ing in­te­rior, you start to no­tice how com­fort­able and sup­port­ive the driver’s seat is, the prone driv­ing po­si­tion that feels just right, and the lovely slim­rimmed wheel, so pre­cise in al­ter­ing the tra­jec­tory of the car. The NSX has ter­rific ride com­po­sure, a sense that each cor­ner of the car is per­fectly sup­ported, but most of all, it’s the in­te­gra­tion of the var­i­ous drive sys­tems that re­ally im­press.

One up­hill right-han­der sticks in the mind, be­cause it tight­ens af­ter what ini­tially ap­pears to be the apex and the NSX be­gins to scrub very slightly wide. The steer­ing light­ens, though, warn­ing of slip, but while there must be thou­sands of elec­tronic pulses and al­go­rithms go­ing on every se­cond to dis­trib­ute drive, it doesn’t feel like a bi­nary process. A slight

‘If the NSX is the fu­ture of four-wheel drive, it looks con­sid­er­ably brighter than the skies above us to­day’

lift ro­tates the car by a de­gree or two, and then there’s ter­rific drive out of the cor­ner, the elec­tric boost giv­ing the im­pres­sion that the twin-turbo 3.5-litre V6 is at least a third big­ger in dis­place­ment.

What’s re­ally no­tice­able is how deft the en­tire process is: the NSX gives the im­pres­sion that it’s merely a very well sorted mid- en­gined car, and per­haps that’s the big­gest com­pli­ment we can give it. If this is the fu­ture of four-wheel drive, it looks con­sid­er­ably brighter than the skies above us to­day.

I take the RS4 for the drive home, for the time-hon­oured rea­sons that road testers have al­ways, when there’s the op­tion, cho­sen pow­er­ful, four-wheeldrive cars on wet, dark nights: there’s a long way to go and I want to get there quickly and se­curely. Truth is, the S1, E63 S and NSX would all be bril­liant for this role, too. Their low- and midrange torque de­liv­ery com­bined with fan­tas­tic trac­tion makes them un­beat­able for 20- 60mph lunges, and they meld all of this with ride and re­fine­ment that al­lows you to cover long drives in the short­est of times, no mat­ter what the con­di­tions.

Four-wheel drive was once viewed with sus­pi­cion by the en­thu­si­ast, but what these cars clearly demon­strate is that, to­day, we’ve lit­tle to fear.

Above: weight counts against the Fo­cus RS, off the line and in terms of ride qual­ity. Bot­tom left: Barker has a love-hate re­la­tion­ship with the RS4

Top left: hog­ging the pumps. Mid­dle left: Ital­ian’s cabin is a mix of high-tech and a pre­vi­ous era


Above right: Aven­ta­dor S holds its head high in ap­palling weather. Be­low: RS4 can be sur­pris­ingly tail-happy

Above left: pho­tog­ra­pher Par­rott braves the el­e­ments as the heav­ens open. Top right: Aven­ta­dor’s rear-view cam­era re­duces the stress of re­vers­ing this £270k su­per­car

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