Volkswagen invited us to the snow-capped mountain peaks of Queenstown and a racetrack in Cromwell to ‘get to grips’ with their 4MOTION All-wheel drive system and tell us why it’s so important to the brand.
Although the 4Motion itself actually only appeared by name in 1999, Volkswagen has been involved with AWD systems as far back as the 1970s with projects in remote areas such as Antarctica. Over the subsequent decades, the systems have evolved from viscous coupling (transference of torque and rotation by the medium of a viscous fluid), through to Syncro/Torsen (Torque-Sensing) and five generations of Haldex-style (Intelligent AWD). Are you still with me? Anyway, according to the brochure, VW’s 4Motion ensures that the vehicle does not slip or lose control at any point, it constantly monitors driving conditions and reacts to the slightest wheel slip, delivering extra traction to the wheels with the most grip – we’ll be the best judge of that.
With the sun still yet to rise, we boarded a modified MAN truck in Wanaka and headed up to the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds to ‘Get a Grip’ of VW’s 4Motion system through a series of exercises devised to have us lose as much traction as possible.
Upon arrival at the top of the mountain, we were greeted by a large display of VW’s current range of vehicles, both Passenger and Commercial. From the performance-driven Golf R, to the luxurious Touareg, a powerful Amarok V6 580 and even a Crafter, all very different in so many ways but all sporting snow tyres and a VW 4Motion system.
The exercises were broken down into three stages. An all-wheel-drive slalom, a pendulum ‘circle’ drift and a high-speed mixture of both. With time and the rising sun against us, we immediately switched off the vehicle’s ESP systems and cracked on.
Apparently, the secret to AWD drifting is weight distribution and timing. When accelerating the 4Motion system is continually seeking to put traction to whichever wheel(s) it can and specifically in the direction the wheels are pointing, however, remove drive to the wheels and the laws of physics take over. The theory is, accelerate, then turn but at the same let off the gas and the ‘pendulaum’ effect will result in an oversteer drift, simple. You’d think that on a surface as slippery as ice or snow getting out of shape would be even easier, well yes and no. Too much steering input can cause understeer, too late or too early on the accelerator sends you in multiple directions or a full spin, same goes with countersteering and aggressive (or too soft) pedal work. A one-off is ok but then try to attempt a slalom drift!
Of course, with their smaller wheelbases and lower centre’s of gravity, the passenger vehicles were arguably easier to handle (I personally still struggled) but the Commercials are a mission unto themselves.
The key to the Amarok’s stability is a Torque Sensing (Torsen) Differential, it gives permanent drive to all four wheels with a 60/40 rear to front bias. Even with its powerful and torquey engine, getting the acceleration pedal right in the Amarok is difficult. Its lighter rear and heavier nose made it harder to ‘pendulum’, with more speed and aggression being the only option, however, it’s still a mission to get this truck to drift turn. The chassis feels stoic and the suspension is soft, when it does begin to drift, patience is needed before re-applying acceleration to get around the next turn.
The four-wheel-drive Crafter gets a Haldex-style coupling. An electronically controlled permanent 4×4 system, that can distribute as much as 60% of the power to the rear wheels. Driving a hefty 3T+ GVM delivery van on snow and ice would on the outset seem perilous. Having a high centre of gravity, a long wheelbase and being light on the frame, should offer the driver no end of problems, but in actual fact, it’s much the contrary. It’s smart and intuitive and harder to ‘drift’ than the Amarok. Steering inputs are less than subtle as is the acceleration, but the system is quick to correct any loss of traction resulting in it tending to drive the slalom rather than slide. Upon reflection, this actually made sense, a very responsive 4Motion system that’s better for carrying large loads, offering better traction and movement when under load stress.
As I said before, from a passenger vehicle point of view the exercises were a little bit easier. With a smaller wheelbase and a more responsive gas pedal/steering combination, the likes of the Golf R, T-Roc and Passat wagon shifted their weight and inturn ‘rear end’ with more gusto although it was a continual fight against their on-board 4Motion systems. The two SUVs (Touareg and Tiguan) were quite tons of fun and in many ways, quite the happy medium. Plenty of weight to throw around but very responsive too.
A helicopter ride back to the hotel gave us a chance to rest and relax before the following day’s exploits – namely Highlands Park racetrack.
Taking to the tarmac with all the same vehicles from the snow (bar the Crafter), we rotated through the range at speed – high speed. In ‘follow the leader’ style, we raced around the circuit reaching speeds not far off 200km/h at some points. Of course, the Golf R came into its own in terms of speed and handling (quickly followed by the Arteon and T-Roc) but the two surprises for me were the Amarok and the Touareg. Sure the Amarok ‘boated’ more than the others but it carried its momentum well through the chicane and long sweeping corners and the large SUV with added 4-wheel steer, just seemed to corner on rails. There was plenty of tyre squealing and a fair share of burning rubber/brakes but the overall feeling of total control was exceptional.
With a reported 38% of New Zealand’s roads being unsealed, 4Motion has proven to be a popular option with VW drivers. 49% of passengers vehicles are sold with this system and a whopping 66% of Commercials. But now, having experienced what this system is capable of, whether you’re heading off the beaten track, racing down the track or even having your parcels tracked, I strongly recommend you tick the 4Motion box when ordering your next new Volkswagen.
Thanks for the pics Chris Benny