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