Feature: Winter testing Mercedes Benz’ 4Matic winter driving mercedes benz insights advice auto brands
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Article and photos by James Bergeron

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Winter-testing Mercedes-Benz’ 4Matic system

Gimli, Manitoba – Those familiar with Mercedes-Benz automobiles will probably know what ‘4Matic’ is; Mercedes-Benz has been equipping its cars with 4Matic for 25 years. But many do not know what 4Matic is, or may not even know that Mercedes-Benz offers such a system on its passenger cars and SUVs.

No, 4Matic does not stand for four-speed automatic transmission; in fact, it has nothing to do with transmissions, but is the name of Mercedes-Benz’ lightweight and extremely capable all-wheel drive system.

Introduced in 2006, the fourth and current generation of the 4Matic system in Mercedes-Benz passenger cars offers 45:55 front-to-rear power distribution, more front-biased than the third generation’s 40:60 split. The 4Matic systems in Mercedes-Benz SUVs such as the ML and GLK classes differ by offering a 50:50 distribution of power, as demanded by the market.

According to Mercedes-Benz, its system is the lightest full-time, all-wheel drive system in the market, with a weight between 50 and 70 kg. Mercedes-Benz is able to achieve this by integrating the transfer case directly into the 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic transmission. The 4Matic system uses electronic sensors in conjunction with the ABS braking system to control torque distribution, instead of a more traditional mechanical centre differential.

4Matic, although very sophisticated and complex, is simple to explain: as any one wheel slips, the brakes are applied to it, redirecting power to the wheels that have grip. This system works in conjunction with the stability control and traction control system as well, which can be turned off (although not completely), allowing for some hooliganism.

Feature: Winter testing Mercedes Benz’ 4Matic winter driving mercedes benz insights advice auto brands
Feature: Winter testing Mercedes Benz’ 4Matic winter driving mercedes benz insights advice auto brands
Click image to enlarge

In Canada, four out of every five Mercedes-Benz vehicles sold are equipped with 4Matic – including vehicles on which it isn’t standard equipment – which proves that uptake by Mercedes-Benz customers is very high.

The price premium for the 4Matic system is just $2,200, according to Mercedes, while equivalent systems from BMW and Audi are up to $1,300 more than that. Perhaps even more impressive is that 4Matic doesn’t adversely affect the fuel economy of Mercedes-Benz’ vehicles. For example, the new-for-2012 C350 4Matic coupe is rated at 9.2 L/100 km in combined driving by Natural Resources Canada, as is the rear-wheel drive C350 coupe. The rear-drive E350 coupe is rated at 9.2 L/100 km, compared to 9.4L/100km for the 4Matic E350 Coupe.

On the ice of Lake Winnipeg, Mercedes-Benz offered us the opportunity to see for ourselves how the 4Matic system works in conjunction with traction control and stability control systems. On a skid-pad — basically a large, open circular area cut out of the snow in the lake — we attempted to get moving, slide out of control and then back into control using the stability control and 4Matic systems. With the stability control system enabled, 4Matic ensures that the tires grab the ice and away you go –- but go too fast though and the vehicle begins to understeer. At that point, there is nothing much you can do as the stability system cuts the throttle to reduce speed –- massive understeer ensues, but the system will attempt to brake the outside wheels to get the vehicle turning in the intended direction once again. On another course — a series of cones lined up to create a slalom — the system reacted quickly during avoidance manoeuvres and lane changes.

We were also permitted to turn off the stability control system to experience 4Matic in its most raw form. Turn in, gun the throttle to force the rear end of the vehicle to step out, and saw at the steering wheel while maintaining even throttle. This results in a drift around the skid-pad, making you feel like a drift champion.

For the most part, 4MATIC’s operation is completely seamless to the driver, and ready at all times to add safety to a daily drive on all the surfaces you may encounter. Of course, all-wheel drive is never a replacement for common sense and proper tires.

4Matic is available on 20 Mercedes-Benz models.




About James Bergeron

James Bergeron is an Ottawa-based automotive journalist. James holds a national FIA race license and actively races and stewards at race events.