Opinion

Why All-Wheel Drive Performance Will Kill Off Traditional Sports Cars

Driving excitement and precision are not limited to RWD offerings any longer.

Performance cars used to follow a tried and trusted formula. Big engines and manual transmissions were important but rear-wheel drive was a core aspect of every recipe. It was common knowledge that front-wheel drive was for soulless minivans and AWD was best reserved for farming and off-roading. The advent of the performance all-wheel-drive system quickly sent traditionalists packing. Suddenly there were upstart sports cars that could out drag and out corner the very best muscle cars, especially when the roads became slippery.

The benefits of the additional traction did come with some dynamic shortcomings though, and we have had these two layouts trading blows since the early ‘80s in a bid for supremacy. The balance has slowly been swinging towards the AWD camp in recent years, cars like the Nissan GT-R have shown that driving excitement and precision are not limited to RWD offerings alone. We now have traditionally RWD-only cars adopting this layout so we decided that it was high time to see what the future held for the performance car. First, we need to take a quick look back over the origins of the AWD performance machine.

The Impreza STI is one of the first batch of performance AWD cars that is still in production today, albeit now in its fifth-generation. The symmetrical AWD system allied with a characterful flat-four motor introduced a whole generation of motoring enthusiasts to the benefit of all wheel traction back in the early ‘90s as Subaru scored some convincing wins on rallying events around the globe. Audi built its reputation on AWD performance cars; the original Quattro was the dominant rally-winning machine even before the days of the Subaru and from that base spawned dozens of fast Audis with the Quattro system at their core. Cars like the RS4 and RS6 have long been the default choice for those seeking understated all-weather performance.

Not all Quattro Audis were praised for their dynamic abilities though. Many were seen as ballistic straight-line machines with understeery handling and an unengaging driving feel. Technological improvements and decades of fettling have made the latest generation of Quattro performance machines far more involving while still being able to stick to the road in slippery conditions. The R8 is one example that was right from the start, it offers all the benefits of all wheel traction while still being quite capable of sliding around corners in the way rear-wheel-drive enthusiasts enjoy.

The 640-hp Lamborghini Huracan Performante is a prime example of a superbly balanced AWD sports car. It is not quite fair to call it an R8 on steroids but the two do share a fair amount of architectural components although all aspects of performance are cranked up to eleven on the Lambo. BMW has always prided itself on offering performance cars that excel at doing exactly that. Turbocharging, automatic transmissions and all-wheel-drive simply didn’t feature. Yet the latest M5 offers all of those technologies and thanks to a rear-biased xDrive system it is still a tire smoking sideways machine when required.

What the addition of the all-wheel-drive system has done is reduce its 0-60 mph time by almost an entire second from the old car, that despite the power output remaining largely unchanged. The additional grip when powering out of corners is also much improved and few enthusiasts will claim that the new M5 is anything but a thoroughbred M-car. Mercedes-Benz already offers this kind of setup in its E63 S AMG models. The 4MATIC system is a similar rear-biased system to the M5, switching to RWD when smoky burnouts are required. Proof of the benefits of all-wheel traction are readily apparent further up the range, the AWD V8 E63 is actually quicker than the top V12 E65 model that comes exclusively with rear-wheel-drive.

So, back at BMW, the xDrive system is now available on a large range of its offerings, right from a 2-Series Coupe up to the 5 and 7-series luxury sedans. The consumption penalty is not much and the heavier front-end does little to negatively impact the driving experience. In almost all cases acceleration times are better too. When it comes to the technologically advanced i8 sports car, it too features all-wheel-drive thanks to the gas/electric hybrid setup it uses. The tiny turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine is complemented by the electric motor to produce 362 hp. This is common on many hybrids as the electric motors tend to be placed at opposing ends to the gas engine and will power those wheels.

The 573-hp Acura NSX is another good example of this setup, it has no less than three electric motors supplementing the internal combustion gas motor and provides near hypercar levels of performance thanks to its ability to seamlessly juggle and channel the various power sources to all four wheels. The 887-hp 918 Spyder hypercar offered a similar hybrid all-wheel-drive layout to the NSX back in 2013 albeit for a slightly higher price tag. About five times higher. It could out-accelerate the rear-wheel-drive LaFerrari and McLaren P1 off the line and was also generally the quickest of the three on track.

Is there still hope for RWD performance cars? Well, they still hold the upper hand when it comes to the last word in precision and driving feel. Cars like the latest Porsche GT3 and GT2RS can also clearly match and often eclipse more powerful AWD competitors on the track as long as the conditions are dry and the tar is grippy. The GT2 RS is currently the quickest production car to have lapped the Nurburgring, eclipsing the Lamborghini Huracan Performante, Porsche 918 Spyder and Lamborghini Aventador LP 750-4 SV, all AWD rivals. There are still manufacturers like Aston Martin, McLaren and Ferrari (save for the GTC4 Lusso) who have resolutely stuck to their RWD guns and continue to produce world-beating performance cars.

Then there is the crazy and single-minded Dodge Challenger SRT Demon. It may not be able to negotiate a corner at much above idling speed but absolutely nothing will touch it in a straight line. Would it be as awesome if it were AWD? Unlikely, until they develop an AWD car that can pop a wheelie, the rear-wheel-drive layout’s future is secure.

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