ST-ALEXIS-DES-MONTS, Quebec – Yes, it’s winter, so almost on cue various carmakers are showcasing their winter-friendly models. What makes a car particularly adept at winter driving is all-wheel drive – no, it’s not really any safer to drive an all-wheel driver in winter than, say, a modern two-wheel drive car equipped with ABS, traction control, and a good set of winter tires.
However, AWD does add a measure of convenience, since it reduces the amount of shovelling needed when you’re snowed into a parking spot, and it does ease the flow of traffic when conditions are snowy, icy, slushy, or a combination of all of those, since four driving wheels are better at getting a car moving than two.
Many manufacturers offer AWD models in Canadian dealerships, and Volkswagen is no different. And assembled on frozen Lac Sacacomie, a winter wonderland located two hours northeast of Montreal in Quebec’s Mauricie region, are the five vehicles available with AWD bearing the VW logo: the Golf Sportwagen and Alltrack, the Tiguan, the Atlas, and Volkswagen’s sportiest all-wheel driver, the Golf R. Take note that on any of these models, AWD is available from the base trim on up, so you don’t have to dish out extra cash for features and frills you don’t need, just to have a VW that drives all four wheels.
The least expensive AWD Volkswagen is the Golf SportWagen 4Motion, – just $1,500 more than the base front-drive model. Next up is the , the Golf Alltrack at $34,345, and finally, .
Volkswagen’s 4Motion is a simple yet effective AWD system, contained in a compact unit that is mounted just ahead of the rear axle. The 115-kilogram unit contains an electronically controlled Haldex multi-plate clutch that engages only when additional traction is needed at the rear wheels.
When driving on a level road at a steady speed, only the front wheels propel 4Motion-equipped VWs, reducing fuel consumption compared to full-time systems. If any loss of traction is sensed at the rear, the Haldex clutch engages quickly yet progressively to transfer torque to the rear axle. Depending on the conditions, the clutch can engage completely, allowing full engine torque to drive the rear wheels.
That’s pretty much all there is to 4Motion, and its operation is not altered by the various drive modes. Drive modes vary depending on the model (Eco, Sport, Offroad, etc.), and they alter throttle response, engine and automatic transmission mapping, and ABS and traction control settings; they do not affect AWD system operation. For drivers inclined to do so, the stability and traction controls can be mostly turned off on all models but the Atlas, which maintains most of the safety features.
In practice on the snow-covered ice on Lac Sacacomie, 4Motion is seamless in operation. It permits easy and safe negotiating of the slalom and serpentine circuits carved though the snow onto the lake’s icy surface. All vehicles are equipped with winter tires, which further enhances handling.
With the sportiest modes selected and the stability control turned off on all models but the Atlas, they allow for some oversteer, which is almost always fun to experience when deliberate; if it happens on a winding public road, however, it can be terrifying. It’s for this reason that Volkswagen will not allow even the most reckless of drivers to turn the safety systems off completely. This is most evident in the 292-horsepower Golf R, which is shorter than the other cars on this winter event and more conducive to performance winter driving. It steers precisely on the loose snow atop the ice, and pivots predictably when it hits bare ice at the apex of the turns on the zigzagging circuit.
Where it comes apart, at least from a fun seeker’s perspective, is when you get into an exaggerated drift and try to power out of the corners with the rear end hanging way out and a cloud of powdery snow trailing in the rear. With too much steering angle and too much throttle, electronics take over and the throttle no longer follows your foot’s commands; the engine, instead, powers the wheels intermittently, which has the adverse effect of killing the drift and straightening the car out. While this behaviour is a buzz-killer from a purely entertaining perspective, it does provide a safety net if someone attempts this type of silliness – or inadvertently carries too much speed in a corner – on the open road.
The trick to turning some quick and engaging laps is to find the correct amount of countersteering angle, and feather the throttle so you’re just on the edge of electronic intervention. Doing this is actually gratifying as well as challenging, and enables smooth and controlled, if somewhat tame drifts. The SportWagen behaves quite differently, as it also applies the brakes aggressively to help steer the car back into line, though applying the same technique proves fruitful and fun.
Snowbound hooning on a closed course is one thing, and in that context, maybe excessive electronic intervention isn’t the ideal driving partner. But when you’re on your way to the cottage and a blizzard hits halfway there, you’ll be grateful that Volkswagen’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system has your back.