Quattro vs. FWD – Not Necessarily Better
By James Wong
I was asked to do a comparison on two cars with very similar credentials. Both are powered by a 2-litre direct-injection turbocharged engine and both possess a six-speed dual-clutch gearbox. But one big difference is that while one is front wheel drive (FWD), the other features Audi’s Quattro all wheel drive, albeit in Haldex guise. The two cars I am referring to are the Volkswagen GTI and the Audi A3 2.0T Quattro. I tried to assess the cars objectively, with the differing drivetrain in mind, but in truth the A3 differs so much from the GTI that it deserves a review of its own. But, that’s another article for another day, so for this piece I shall concentrate on the different driving styles the two drivetrains offer.
FWD wasn’t a big a problem before as it is now. A modern car has to meet safety regulations that previously just wasn’t there before. For instance, anti-lock brake systems (ABS) as well as electronic stability programmes (ESP) all are becoming standard fare in even the cheapest of cars. These technologies don’t come for free; their penalty comes in the form of weight. Not only that, the market is demanding that cars should be comfortable and easy to use, so luxuries like leather, an on-board navigation computer, automated wipers and lights, among other things, were all built into cars. While this allowed them to be more user-friendly and convenient, this meant that the weight of cars steadily increased to the point where it was necessary to introduce more power to match the performance of their predecessors. And the puzzling growth of the physical size of cars also contribute to this serious obesity problem. Cars of every new generation are usually wider, longer, higher to provide more of everything, from larger engine capacities to longer rear legroom. Where exactly are we heading to with all the upsizing? We’ve reached a point where the phrase “less is more” is really relevant here.
What does this mean for FWD cars? With more power to pull more weight, a greater strain is placed on the front tyres to propel the car forward. With the weight of the car now being a problem of inertia more than ever before, what little grip that a FWD car may have to its front wheels are compromised. Add a lump of turbocharged torque and you’ll get the infamous wheel spin, something that so easily plagues powerful front wheel drive cars nowadays. This immense power jump also means torque steer is now a real, troubling issue that plagues many powerful FWDs. To curb that issue, some manufacturers have sacrificed steering feel in return for more control of the mischievous front wheels.
Cars like the Volkswagen GTI mentioned suffer from wheel spins all the time. It may be fun sometimes, but most of the time it is downright embarrassing when you’ve made barely any progress even with all that power. The result is that the driver is made to be gentle with his throttle, and to modulate it carefully to make meaningful progress. Is that what we really want from a sports car?
On top of that, in a FWD car the front wheels are made to both steer as well as to put down power. With these two functions happening at the same time, understeer occurs when making a change of direction. This is the situation whereby the front wheels lose traction and then the car runs wide from its cornering line. The front wheels have simply too many things to handle and it can only take that much.
This brings us neatly to Quattro. Audi has Quattro applied to virtually every model in its line-up, and when one thinks of Audi they think of Quattro. In its entry-level car, the A3, Audi has cleverly offered Quattro with its 2.0TFSI engine, where it was only available in the 3.2 and S3 models before. As previously mentioned however, Quattro that comes with the A3 is a Haldex-based system. In layman terms, it basically means it is a FWD most of the time unless the system senses that grip is needed in the rear wheels. In which case, power is transferred to the rear wheels. How does that improve the drive of the A3?
First up, wheel spins are a thing of the past. Put the car through its paces at full bore in the wet and there’s no hint of slippage, not even a slight wheel spin or chip. I was not quite sure if the system could offer so much grip under such conditions, but it proved me wrong. Grip was simply immense and staggeringly abundant; you’d have to be driving very hard (or very stupidly) to get this car off its course. At a long sweeping corner that I would usually proceed with caution in the GTI, I go at maximum attack with the A3, simply because the grip offers so much confidence it inspires you to go faster and faster and be amazed that the car still glues to the road. It’s a pity then that the steering is void of any feel; it is accurate, no doubt. But if you had played Need For Speed on the computer with a steering wheel before, then you could just about imagine how it was like to steer the A3. This is a common complaint for Audi cars, and it was especially disappointing considering how wonderful the steering in the R8 felt in my quick test drive of the uber Audi.
That aside, the fantastic grip would spoil you silly with frankly incredible cornering ability; there’s no need here to feather the throttle or to take it easy. You drive it hard and it accepts it with no fuss or drama, giving you rapid progress through practically any type of road. It is easy to drive fast, and maybe it’s a bit too easy – you don’t need much of any counter-action with the car as you may need with a FWD or a RWD when it understeers or oversteers. In the A3 you are rewarded with neutrality, with neither of the steering maladies of the aforementioned drivetrains. This means you’re always in control. Whether you like this or not is personal, but for me I love it, especially when it means I can drive in the rain like I would in the dry, without having any fear that I may lose control of the car. I never quite fully understood the meaning of the word “unflappable” until I tried the A3. “Persistently calm, whether when facing difficulties or experiencing success; not easily upset or excited.” Yup, that definitely is it.
So is Quattro better when compared with FWD? Sure. It does away with all the negatives of a FWD, and even a RWD, to give you neutral ground from which you can exploit the car fully. But while this may be better compared to the quirks of a FWD car, some fun of a RWD is getting the tail to run wide so you can bring it back on a leash again. It’s that sense of achievement, and the fun you’ll have to get there, that is somewhat missing in the A3. Yes, you can corner at incredulous speeds. And yes, you may have endless grip. So you may be the car that reaches the finishing line the fastest, especially for a novice driver. But is it not how fast you get there but how you get there that counts?
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