Musings -- on the road with all-wheel-drive

This month our musing writer turns from the engineering of specific 4-wheel-drive systems to their most effective deployment in the service of the paying customer. J.W. draws on driving experience that encompass Subaru as well as the £50,000 homologation specials.

Over the past two months we have discussed the mechanical variety of 4-wheel-driven cars (rather than off road vehicles), so now it is time to examine how this rapidly expanding category perform. I have deliberately restricted these recollections to vehicles offered to the public, even at sky-high prices. In the case of competition cars, where it is necessary to manufacture a basic road car to achieve homologation, it is the limited production model I have recalled, not the competition model itself.

Let us begin by recognising that all-wheel-drive comes in three main car types: the cheaper £6,500 to £11,000) Japanese, who will have Lancia's HF Delta 4WD as a competitor at the upper end of that price range from January 1987 in the UK. Then there are Audi and executive class competitors from Ford and (unobtainable in Britain currently) BMW and Mercedes. Completing the trio of primary choices are the truly expensive homelogation specials in the £25,000 to £60,000 region with Porsche, as ever, determined to top allcomers with a combination of road and competition expertise in the 959, beyond £100,000.

First the Japanese. I have experienced both the £7,211 Toyota Tercel 4WD Estate and the equivalent saloon and estate-bodied Subaru mouthfuls (deep breath) Turbo 4WD 1.8 RX at £9,999 and £11,298 respectively.  The Toyota is used regularly by a photographic colleague, is absolutely reliable, a bit slow (just about 90 mph, just under 15 seconds 0-60 mph) and came complete with the challenge of a "Tiltmeter". I don't know what Toyota officially call this indicator of the angle at which the Tercel is travelling over adjacent hillsides, but the vehicle outline and graduation are reminiscent of an aeroplane's turn/bank instrumentation. I do know that is an immediate challenge to ruffians to climb aboard, charge along the nearest bank and obtain a larger departure from the 90 degree perpendicular than their companions'. This leads to large Toyota profits in the replacement roof and side-panel business.

The Subarus were tried at Donington race track, also over Derbyshire lanes, and for an overnight spell in the Thames Valley. As for many Japanese cars the enormous specification list of standard features — including a turbocharged four cylinder boxer motor of 134 bhp — leads to higher expectations than are realised at the wheel.

In Subaru's case you have to recognise that their success has been primarily in providing all-weather transportation at an affordable international price. Their system, minus central differential so you should select front drive only for parking manoeuvres, is strongly effective, but crude.

On a soaking wet evening there were the usual benefits of all-wheel-drive stability to be found on puddled lanes, plus the kind of fuss-free traction that two-wheel-drive cannot provide in such conditions. BUT, and it's an important but, Subaru's front and rear axles in 4WD are rigidly interconnected (a similar effect is found in an Audi with the differential locks engaged) and that means hard braking in wet conditions may well lock up both sets of wheels. This is exciting, but hard on the nerves of the driver and any oncoming populace. Audi overcomes the tendency with anti-lock braking equipment available through the range, but you cannot currently select locked differentials and anti-lock action in an Audi.

The signs are that Subaru have recognised the limitation of their system for performance use.  For a year now they have featured motor show displays with more sophisticated turbos and all-wheel-drive systems with central differentials.

As I understand it many of these improvements are now on sale on new Subaru models for Japan, and these should filter through to the UK next year, but no comment was available from International Motors at West Bromwich. An ironic address for those who remember Britain's performance lead in 4WD, the 1966-71 Jensen FF, a glassback coupé with Chrysler V8 power which achieved production only just beyond 300 and used much of the Ferguson system Ford and BMW utilise today, minus the Viscous Couplings.

At the £10,000-£12,500 level I think Subaru's present performance-orientated offerings are too costly versus the more sophisticated 4WD's from Audi, and an increasing interest from other manufacturers. If you are going to buy a Subaru car for its part-time 4WD, the cheaper (£6,500) 1.8 GLF hatch probably makes most sense. Alternatively Honda have their odd but effective Shuttle on a Civic base at £7,150; if  you can find one for sale!

Entering the £10,000 plus world the most important influence, but not the biggest sellers in the UK 4WD car market, are those Audis. The quattro range begins with the 80 at £12,313 and ascends through every main model line (90, coupé, 100, 200 and Avant cousins) to the charismatic 200 horsepower quattro turbo coupé at £24,024.

If you are one of Audi's typically professional customers — particularly a Scottish doctor or vet — the best buys are the cheaper saloons. I was fortunate enough to drive the complete range in Wales during last winter and the cross country pace in snow and ice of the 80 and 90 shamed their bigger brothers. The 80 is better balanced than most quattros because it has the comparatively light four-cylinder (ex Golf GTI of 112 horsepower), but there is yet another model change coming up for this four-door line so you must buy with this in mind. The new 80 is a rather bigger change than has been made hitherto, rather than the mild facelift of 1984. Also there is every chance that the 4WD system will be improved by the deletion of manual differential locks and the substitution of self-locking units, probably from Torsen Gleason.

When the Audi 80 changes, it is usual that the 90 and the coupé follow suit, all sharing the same wheelbase and floorpan pressing to date. However, such changes seem farther away. So it is worth underlining that the 2.2-litre, 136 bhp version of Audi's famous five is a much smoother unit than the original 2144cc (retained in turbocharged form on some models) and that the quattro system complements its extra punch beautifully: the worse the weather is, the more you will enjoy driving.

With the exception of the quattro 200 bhp coupé, the bigger quattros are not so convincing as their smaller bretheren. I like the 200 quattro saloon and its blend of genuine 140 mph pace with excellent stability and enormous cabin luggage space but many of my colleagues do not.  At £24,330 they argue that the 200 should be more refined and it is certainly true that Jaguar buyers would wince at the noise levels whilst BMW and Mercedes owners would be hard to woo away, for the same reasons.

The 1980 debutant quattro turbo coupé remains my favourite all-round blend between staggering cross country speed in safety and square-rigged integrity. Today it begins to look slowish as the hatchbacks creep down to the 7 second 0-60 mph bracket that it occupies on its original power output. However nothing matches its sporting and practical characteristics (minus points for poor boot space!) and it has an obvious place in motoring history as the machine that made others take performance 4WD seriously.

I have been privileged enough to drive the 20-valve/300 bhp Sport quattro on two occasions, including an overnight “ownership" in Ingolstadt. Of course it is ugly, but our (deliberately?) British Racing Green example was such a performer that I found its appearance irrelevant. In town use there was the absolute predictability of tick over and low rpm dependability to savour, a remarkable achievement from an engine developing 141 bhp per alloy-encased litre.

On the first night of Sport paradise I drove for about three hours in the cause of pretty pictures in the Upper Bavarian countryside. Returning to the hotel for a brief dinner, I could not resist the chance to venture out again "to check the lights."   I let the Sport grumble its way to the Munich autobahn junction, aimed the stubby snout approximately where I reckoned BMW's vierzylinder building would be on the Munich horizon, and pressed on through the gears.

Using only 7000 of the available 7400 rpm brought a maelstrom of increasing speed. Big Mercs and BMWs lolling along at 90-110 mph flicked into view and faded into the mirrors like abandoned hulks. The KKK-K27, one of Kuhnle, Kopp & Kausch's large turbocharger offerings, boosted 2133cc in the cool evening air to such effect that 270 km/h (168 mph) was displayed on the 300 km/h (186 mph) speedometer. The measured top speeds from independent magazines have all been in the 150 mph bracket that Audi claim, along with neck-twisting 0-60 mph sprints of under 5 seconds. Just like the appearance, I found such figures toward irrelevance.

The Sport is a stunningly quick car produced for a competition purpose, one that has retained road manners thanks to thorough production engineering and the preservation of a front engine. Though you may shudder at the thought, I will suggest it fills the same role for Audi as some of the more glamorous SWB Ferrari V12s performed in the sixties for Maranello.

That brings us to the traditional Group B homologation specials that I have experienced, all with mid engine, 16 valves for four cylinders and turbocharged: Ford RS200 (North-South): Peugeot 205 T16 (transverse): Lancia Delta S4 (supercharged as well, North-South)

The Ford, some £50,000 on present planning, can be dismissed swiftly as the competitions area at Boreham is still pre-occupied in turning out a definitive specification for road customers. The car I drove, on Sardinian loose and tarmac, was a very tired old hack that was simply running a low boost engine to simulate a road going 250 bhp. Even so the ride and handling were as impressive as the drive train was noisy.

Peugeot have been generous with opportunities to try the double World Championship winning T16 in its 200 bhp road car guise. It cost under £25,000 when I drove it at Donington (road and track) and alongside the quattro Sport in Germany. Generally it needed a firm 4500 to 5000 rpm minimum to generate significant performance (130 mph maximum, under 7 seconds to 60 mph) but the handling and braking was so good that the only comparison I could draw was that of a sixties or seventies club racing classic such as Chevron's 88 or the Lotus 47.  The T16 jinks from corner to corner so capably and rapidly that you can see, even in road terms, why the comparatively bulky front-engine Audi was immediately outclassed in World Championship rallying, despite the inevitably awesome generation of German horsepower from Audi (500 to 550 was routine last year).

The Lancia Delta S4 was also experienced on a Mediterranean island (Elba), which was not simply a silly press jolly. A lot of development work for competition over similar going is carried out on such unforgiving and twisty terrain. This super and turbocharged mid-engine wonder is confusingly like the Lancia HF 4WD Delta announced a few months ago in appearance, so I must make it clear that the S4 was the 200-off base for the competition car that has seen triumph and tragedy for the Turin factory since its winning 1-2 debut on the 1985 Lombard RAC Rally. The HF, a competitor for Mazda's similarly turbocharged 4WD hatchback (but the Japanese also have a 16-valve cylinder head incorporated) has yet to appear in motor sports, but looks set for an important future in 1987 Group A World Championship events.

Powered by Abarth-Fiat's 1759cc twin cam with four valves per cylinder, the S4 boasts a maximum of 250 horsepower at 6750 rpm and the supercharger-assisted mid range maximum torque value of 210 lb ft at 4500 rpm. That is enough to snap through close ratio gears (at the rpm regulator 7,200 rpm) to 41 mph in first, 65 in second, 92 mph in third and nearly 120 mph in fourth.  Top speed is regulated to 139.7 mph at some 6900 revs.

I have detailed the S4 because it will be largely overlooked in the scramble to field the latest equipment for Group A in 1987. However, the serious collectors amongst you might care to note that it was a truly emotional experience to drive the S4: staggering levels of adhesion accompanied by initial supercharger whine and turbocharger taking over an increasing work load in the middle rpm range. It bore comparison even with the great in Italian engine music. Remember also that the S4 was the fastest thing on four World Championship rallying wheels before the Corsican tragedy. It was never proved to my satisfaction but rumour had it that Henri Toivonen's time in the 04 at Estoril earlier in 1986 would have put him in amongst the Formula 1 contenders!

Other homologation specials experienced from the Group B era included the Citroën Mille Pistes Visa, and Clubman, 250 horsepower, MG Metro 6R4. Both were horrifically noisy within, primarily from the wailing of gear teeth, but the Metro at least had the excuse that it was intended only for competition, with no Type Approval. The Citroën is actually the most effective competition 4WD a privateer can buy on a limited budget, and I still think a determined British Rallyist could earn quite a lot of cash with such a car, particularly since Citroën have already withdrawn their BX Turbo 4WD World Championship team.  

Now back to the road cars beyond Audi. Those that followed Ingolstadt's all-wheel-drive examples, but not the techniques, included Ford's British engineered XR4x4 Sierra and Granada/Scorpios; BMW's 325ix and Mercedes with their 300E 4Matic.

I have had an XR4x4 for the last 12,000 miles, including running it in on the RAC Rally with a first service in Carlisle. I also managed to finish this year's Snetterton 24 hours in such an all Sierra.

I regard the £12,000+ Ford as effective and efficient company in winter or summertime, particularly with the £800+ Alfred Teves ABS brakes installed. However, it is not an inspired companion in respect of the engine and stodgy five-speed gearbox. Useful and reliable though it has been I do not think I will replace it with another such Sierra. The Granada Scorpio line does not feel so lively as the Sierra counterpart, even with the torque curve moved 1000 rpm downstream, but I thought the already outstanding 4 x 4 chassis worked even better in the LWB Granada -Scorpios.

BMW GB have been discussing the importation of the all-wheel-drive 325 for some months, but the UK and Germany have failed to reach commercial agreement, and the model is not to be offered in the foreseeable future.  I regard this as a shame enjoying the taming of BMW's World class six cylinder around a soaking wet circuit, particularly as we are also to be denied the M3 sporting 3-series.

Mercedes 4Matic was breathtaking, both in complexity, and performance within the Swedish Arctic circle. Plus efficient engineering solutions to mate mico-electronics, hydraulics and mechanical components. I liked the predominantly RWD handling characteristics more than those of any 4WD mass production saloon tried previously, but I'm still not convinced that Mercedes didn't solve a simple demand for extra traction in an inordinately complex (and therefore expensive) manner, however, 4Matic would get my vote amongst front engine rear drive models, converted to all-wheel-drive, that I have driven. A decision based purely on the controllable pleasure.

Finally, amongst our main groups are a trio of hatchbacks that promise to be the largest volume sellers in car 4WD: Golf syncro (lower case 's' is company style); Mazda 323i 4WD Turbo and Lancia Delta HF 4WD.  I still haven't experienced the Mazda — a press launch is taking place in September — but I can tell you about the Golf and the Lancia from firsthand experience.

The Golf is not really a full time 4WD, and its 90 bhp carburettor specification ensures it will not be a challenger in the outright performance compared to the 165 bhp Lancia. However the VW will cost "under £10,000" and is expected to arrive in Britain by January 1987. It worked well on icy public roads, but the initial under-steer exhibited in faster ice circuit use dumped a lot of hapless syncro apprentices from the Press into the snow banks. My feeling is that such a Golf would be ideal for the kind of professional who presently buys the Audi 80, or the user (farmer? weekend towing customer?) who needs fuss-free extra traction.

The Lancia HF 4WD has been mentioned strongly throughout these articles and I can only say that the transmission and chassis were remarkably effective by any standard when I tested the car over dirt and tarmac roads in Sardinia during May.  The 2-litre counterbalancer twin cam of Lancia Thema extraction provides at least the claimed 130 mph and sub-eight second runs to 60 mph.  Far more importantly the HF 4WD feels all of a piece in its construction and reactions, promising to give customers and Lancar new hope in Britain.

Overall, I remain convinced that 4WD has merit for the road customer who wants to arrive as quickly and safely as possible, whatever the conditions.  Following (not competing!)  the RAC Rally for the last four years I became sure that it is the grip on a variety of poor surfaces that allows such high averages to be maintained on a low heartbeat with 4WD.

I hope my experiences will help some of our readers in the selection of a system that will be suitable for their needs, but would add that we can expect the Japanese — particularly Toyota in the Celica — to add to the choice in the coming 12 months — J.W.