It’s amusing to consider how spoiled for choice buyers are these days. This especially rings true regarding how many different models come with four- or all-wheel-drive. Up to the 1990s, if you wanted all-four-wheels to help you up that alpine slope, your choices were usually limited to sedans from Audi and Subaru, or beefy, unsophisticated 4×4 trucks and body-on-frame SUVs. Now it’s strange if your premium midsize sedan isn’t offered in AWD, and it’s just short of criminal if you can’t spec a crossover with AWD.
The fine folks at Volkswagen are no different, offering a large portion of its lineup with some form of the popular 4Motion AWD system. From the small-ish Golf R to the leviathan Atlas SUV, the fifth-gen 4Motion system appears in all shapes and sizes. To test the mettle of the 4Motion, I flew to the ice-encrusted wilds of Saint-Alexis-de-Mont in Quebec, where VW put together a small winter driving program.
Our venue was Lake Sacacomie, a remote and breathtakingly beautiful font that freezes into an empty and very slippery expanse. VW brought along a smorgasbord of 4Motion for us to sample, all outfitted with winter tires, sans-studs.
I dipped my tire in the ice with a simple figure eight course, set up surrounding two round snowbanks. I warmed up my winter driving skills first in the Tiguan, dusting off the skillset I developed through three Michigan winters. Before the course was glassy from use, scattered patches of snow were your tire’s best friend, providing the best possible traction in this scenario. In all four course layouts that we experienced, you’re essentially sliding from snow patch to snow patch, catching the understeer, oversteer, or four-wheel-slide induced from exposed ice.
After a few runs, I experimented with the various drive settings, hunting for the perfect combination of slip with traction management. In the normal mode with all the systems on, all four VW models were stymied by the traction control and stability control, cutting throttle and applying gratuitous amounts of anti-lock brake pulsations to control the slide.
Winter mode was next, modifying the throttle mapping, traction control (T/C), stability control (S/C), and braking system to manage the inclement conditions. Considering this was an exercise in semi-performance driving, Winter mode cut the “fun” more than I’d like, deadening the throttle and rear-end slip more than I’d like.
The solution – Sport mode with traction control turned off, not unlike the same setting you’d use on tarmac. Crucially, leave the stability control on, as the Sport stability control calibration allows for more slip than regular, while still maintaining control. With the traction control off, the rear-end is much more susceptible than before, allowing for those sweet oscillating slides from corner to corner.
Back to the figure-eight. This is where I got a feel for the cars, starting with the Tiguan. The three-row SUV isn’t tiny, but it was great fun out on the lake. It was the star of the figure-eight course, rewarding quick inputs with meaty, controllable slides. With all the systems off, the Tiguan could hang the rear end out with the best of them, thanks to 4Motion’s ability to send 100-percent of available torque to the rear wheels.
The large Atlas was most at home on the slalom and the later circuit/track sections. The slalom was our second stop, incorporating sharp, hairpin corners with straights, perfect for the Atlas’ weight that helped it dig into snowy patches for impressive traction. On the circuit portions, the bulk made it the safest and strongest braking of the day.
The Golf R was the outlier of the group, serving as the only performance application of 4Motion in VW’s lineup. In lieu of the thick Continental winter tires on the other cars, the Golf R was shod with more aggressive performance winter rubber, giving up less ice grip for improved on-road control. The reasonably diminutive proportions of the R were its greatest asset, the short wheelbase at home in all environments. Moreso than the others, the Golf R’s performance-focused system excelled on the circuit portions, transitioning from slide to straight with minimal
As good as the Golf R was, the sweetest drive of the day was the Golf Sportwagen Alltrack. Its longer wheelbase combined with the 4Motion system and lifted ride height added up to excellent handling. Our tester was fitted with a six-speed manual transmission as well, providing the most controllable powerband of the group.
It’s highly unlikely you will ever find yourself in need of traction on a frozen lake, let alone in a performance setting. We didn’t drive any of the 4Motion cars for any extended period of time on the snowbound roads, but if their capability on raw ice surfaces are anything to go by, the 4Motion goes toe-to-toe with the best AWD systems in the industry.
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