Mercedes-Benz C320 4Matic. Photo by Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge
by Tony Whitney
Looking back at my road test vehicle roster over the last few months I was surprised to notice how many of the sedans I drove boasted all-wheel drive of some configuration or another. I suppose you could say that this “explosion” of AWD sedans has crept up on us in a sense, because some of the automakers involved haven’t been pushing them that vigorously. We’re all used to AWD or 4WD sport utility products and even station wagons, but the boom in “go anywhere in all weathers” sedans is a fairly recent development.
There was some interest shown by the auto industry in all wheel drive sedans a few years back and I even remember driving a pre-production Ford Tempo with this valuable safety feature. At that time, though, public interest was less than enthusiastic and interest by manufacturers seemed to fade.
It was a 2003 Mercedes-Benz C240 4Matic that first drew my attention to this new trend. Before the folks at Mercedes called me to say that they had one for testing, I must confess that I didn’t know the German automaker had added all wheel drive to its entry-level C-Class range – the news had slipped by be somehow. The car proved to be wonderfully grippy on gravel and dirt roads as well as snow-covered surfaces – a major benefit with any AWD automobile. The C-Class 4Matic is not that expensive either, though most AWD sedans seem to be slotted firmly into the luxury of near-luxury sectors. Mercedes has offered a mid-size E-Class sedan with 4Matic AWD for some years, but for 2003 even the big S-Class flagship sedan can be ordered with power to all wheels.
2003 Audi A4
Audi has been offering its Quattro all-wheel drive system on all sedan models for some years now and in fact, few North American buyers seem to want these models any other way. The Quattro system is available with the A4 entry-level, A6 mid-size and A8 flagship sedans from Audi. The success of the big A8 in Europe – the first car in this class to offer AWD – likely prompted Mercedes-Benz to offer a competitive system with its full-size S-Class model. It’s worth mentioning at this stage that many automakers offer station wagon versions of many of its AWD sedans, but this feature concentrates on models with four doors and a trunk.
Another automaker that’s long offered AWD with all its models is Japanese manufacturer Subaru, which currently lists Legacy and Impreza sedans with its all-wheel drive system. Subaru has long experience with AWD sedans and has reinforced this know-how in recent years with its involvement in the prestigious World Rally Championship. All-wheel drive or 4WD seems to be essential these days when it comes to winning World Championship rallies, but not all competing manufacturers offer models at the dealerships much like the ones they rally.
One upcoming AWD model that’s very much inspired by rallying is Mitsubishi’s Lancer Evolution VII. The latest “Evo” puts out 250 horsepower and is bound to be a major hit with buyers who
value performance over just about everything else.
Although Volvo has been building AWD station wagons for some time, it only recently began marketing an AWD version of its stylish S60 sedan. The S60 competes with prestige sports sedans like the BMW 3-Series and Audi A4.
Since Volkswagen is a sister company of Audi, it’s no surprise that the company offers models with an all-wheel drive system. The Passat sedan can be specified with VW’s 4Motion system and the upcoming Phaeton luxury model (which competes with the Mercedes S-Class, Audi A8 and BMW 7-Series) comes standard with all-wheel drive.
Interestingly, no North American manufacturer offers an all-wheel drive luxury sedan, but it’s worth noting that the new Cadillac mid-size SUV is based on the CTS sedan platform, which is
basically a 2WD layout. Could we see an all-wheel drive CTS somewhere down the road? It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Cadillac decided that this was what it needed to win some buyers away from aforementioned European models.
Britain’s Jaguar only offers its X-Type entry-level sedan with all-wheel drive and the history of this is interesting. The basic platform for the X-Type is related to the front-wheel drive Ford Mondeo sedan – not available in North America. Since owner Ford couldn’t contemplate a front-wheel drive Jaguar, the decision was made to go to an AWD system as standard, so the model becomes unique in its class in being available only in this configuration. The X-Type was developed to compete with BMW’s chart-topping 3-Series sports sedan, which can also be ordered with AWD, though not that many customers seem to want them that way.
At the lower end of the scale, Toyota’s new Matrix hatchback, and its Pontiac counterpart, the Vibe, are available with all-wheel-drive or front-wheel-drive. The least expensive way to enjoy the benefits of an all-wheel drive sedan is to buy a Suzuki Aerio. Like compatriot Subaru, Suzuki has extensive experience with AWD and 4WD systems, so the little Aerio is bound to be popular.
So far, domestic automakers – plus import nameplates like Nissan, Honda and Toyota – have restricted all-wheel drive systems mainly to SUVs, but if the current trend continues, expect them to make some kind of AWD response of their own. Automakers are quick to spot trends and the ultimate winner is, as always, the car-buying public.