Quattro vs. FWD – Not Necessarily Better

By James Wong

10.11.2009

IMG_0371I 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, thisIMG_0368 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.

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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?

IMG_0385First 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.

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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?

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: James Wong

The only writer to be based in Asia, James provides a refreshingly different perspective to the automotive industry with his unique experience of living in the Far East. He is a prolific journalist who has written for several leading automotive publications in Singapore, including Torque Singapore and REV Magazine Singapore. He believes in the thrill of driving and champions for an appreciation of driving pleasure above the horsepower race. In September 2010, James relocated to the United Kingdom, London, bringing him to a whole new environment from which to start a new chapter in automotive journalism.

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14 Comments

  1. awd is the way to go in the rain

  2. AWD does not require you to also take dead steering, so of course, it’s better, and you can still get lurid power slides – you just have to drive faster, that’s all. And is that a bad thing? I don’t think so.

  3. I can think of no instance or any car model where I’d rather be driving a FWD over a AWD.
    Having owned an AWD Ford Fusion for over a year now (also a Haldex based system), I’m still delighted by the control, and handling abilities an AWD car gives you… snow, ice, wet, dry, sand, gravel… under any condition, you get superior control and handling. I can never go back to FWD.

  4. The merits of RWD against AWD might be interesting, but it is no contest when you compare AWD to FWD.

  5. Well, if AWD is so superior in every instance, then why are some of thw world’s highest-performing cars still RWD?

    It’s not a cost consideration since these cars are also among the most expensive in the world. Why are these cars sticking with RWD?

  6. For some reason, I’ve always thought the factor of having AWD was simply a brain dead operation. No standard of any kind or tests to prove whose AWD system is better. And even then, “better” is quite subjective as to what entails a superior system. Does that mean it allows you to play at the limit and only intervene when trouble comes? Or does it mean to snag you by the balls at every chance it gets? The best part is, who needs to worry about entry or exit speed when the computer will take care of it for me?

    The biggest hit against them is that it further severs the connection between machine and car. I don’t know WHAT my car is doing when AWD is transferring power to the different corners. Jost Capito had it right in designing the RS without AWD, simply because it was no faster, made it more complex, heavier, and deadened the experience. And don’t think that Ford has no experience with AWD either as they’re still relatively competitive in WRC (despite the dominance of Citroen), something which can’t be said about Mitsubishi or Subaru, cars which are “supposed” to be competitors to its RS.

    Then you turn to the Scandinavians. Both Volvo and (especially) Saab have been latecomers to the AWD game, yet, they face some of the worst snow seasons in the world. But they seem to have gotten by just fine without AWD. Too many people place AWD on pedestal to be worshiped and there needs to be more common sense involved. Just because you have AWD doesn’t mean it’s automatically safer. If anything, tires and driving skill are the most important factor. Oh and you can still burnout with FWD.

    Talk all you want about physics but the weakest point in the equation isn’t FWD, it’s the driver. Most of us won’t be professional drivers in any sense to really make the best of RWD (in before “I’m a race car driver”) or really even appreciate its merits (drifting is not a sport).

    Some more fun tidbits I came across:

    http://home.comcast.net/~cvetters3/test1.htm
    For some older race car comparisons.

    “The ride and handling engineers at Lotus found that for a given vehicle weight, power and tire size, a front wheel drive car was always faster over a given section of road. There were definite advantages in traction and controllability, and drawbacks such as torque steer, bump steer, and steering kickback were not insurmountable,” from the sales pamphlet of the Lotus Elan. Shame it was their only FWD car though.

  7. GHT – I think the answer is that a great driver doesn’t need AWD unless it’s snowing. The average driver does need it, though. The average driver can go faster in an AWD car.

  8. Horses for courses….I prefer AWD over F & RWD simply because I’ve owned AWD vehicles for much of the last twenty years. Faced with the choice of F or RWD then I’ll take RWD because I loath torque steer. RWD offers more challenges to the driver wheras AWD is almost a point and shoot proposition in the twisties – some people like to fight the car and road, others just the road so the former opt for RWD and the latter go for AWD. Generalisations, yes. But perhaps not too wide of the mark.

    But there are many vehicles that are offered with FWD and AWD options and in more than a few the FWD version is a better buy and a better drive. Subaru’s base model versions of Impreza comes to mind here. Sometimes the FWD version has been better engineered or better packaged than the AWD. In many cases, the AWD systems are substantially heavier than the FWD and if they come with the same engines then power to weight becomes more interesting determining factor than the driveline itself.

    AWD is great depending on where you live, how you drive and what sort of vehicle you want. But it ain’t always the best option and fortunately it isn’t the only option.

  9. I knew that when I started this article I was going to be opening a great debate about a topic that has been discussed to no end. I also realised that, upon finishing the article, I’ve left out a lot of valuable points raised up by you readers simply because there’s so much to discuss about this topic. I want to thank the readers for contributing their viewpoints.

    My stand on AWD vs. FWD or RWD is not definitive and it would be unfair to say which one is better than the other. Each type has its drawbacks and positives, and it’s quite a matter of personal preference here. So, no rights or wrongs.

    To GHT – it doesn’t seem to me that a disproportionately large number of high-performance cars are RWD. In fact, to name a few supercars equipped with AWD – the Veyron, the LP640-4 SV, the GT2, the GTR. There is no shortage of them. One thing you can say, though, is that FWD is very obviously missing from the best of the best. That is not to say they are not fun to drive. They just may not go around the track as quickly. Take the R26.R for example, that is one heck of a hot hatch to make it to EVO’s top ten drivers’ cars of all time…

  10. Give me RWD with all the modern options (traction control, etc.) And I’m happy.

  11. FWD is better on the snow than RWD. And FWD is more predictable on the snow than AWD. Just reply to commnet about Scandinavians.

  12. I’ll take AWD in every situation.

  13. @ILO

    Right, FWD is more predictable, going hand in hand in what I was saying about knowing what my tires are actually doing. It’s nice to have a safe guard I’m sure but you know what? If I wanted something to do that for me, I’d take traction control instead of saddling on a AWD system with, of course, the option of being able to totally turn it off should I ever want to go about hooning, be it in a FWD or a RWD.

  14. I don’t like the torque steeer of FWD either. Even the new systems designed to negate torque steer don’t take it away completely. Give me AWD or RWD.

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