The increasing power of engines, new powertrain technology and ever more powerful black boxes mean all-wheel-drive systems are prevalent in all car types, from hot hatches all the way up to supercars. And where AWD used to be all about traction these days it can even be contrived to provoke ‘controlled instability’ like drift modes, as used to dramatic effect in the previous Focus RS and now de rigueur on super hatches like the new Golf R and Mercedes-AMG A45 S. Here are our favourites of the current crop.
The 10 best AWD cars on sale
Volkswagen Golf R
While a few diehards dismissed the previous Golf R for being a little aloof buyers and hot hatch fans loved it. The combination of practical hatchback body, 300PS (221kW), 0-62mph in less than five seconds and all-weather all-wheel-drive was basically a smart reinvention of classic rally reps like the Imprezas and Evos of a previous age. Just gentrified in more socially acceptable Volkswagen clothing. The new Golf R keeps all the good stuff that made the previous iteration such a hit, including the all-wheel-drive, quad exhausts and understated looks, but increases the power to 320PS (235kW) and can be optioned with expanded driver settings, including a dedicated Nürburgring calibration and even a drift mode. Resistance is futile.
Mercedes-AMG A45 S
The Golf R may have defined the super hatch genre but VW’s German rivals were quick to respond with all-wheel-drive equivalents. Matching the R pretty much point for point on the spec sheet, the 306PS (226kW) Mercedes-AMG A35 is a slick, luxurious and fast all-wheel-drive machine with all the power you need. Or so you’d think, until you swap to its frankly outrageous A45 big brother. Like the A35 but (very) much more so, the A45 somehow squeezes 421PS (310kW) out of a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, nails 0-62mph in 3.9 seconds and features fully variable AMG 4Matic+ all-wheel-drive. Active clutches control the power across the rear axle and, if you’re suitably committed with the Drift mode, the A45 will throw shapes like some sort of hatchback Nissan GT-R.
Porsche 911 Turbo S
From infamous, bewinged widowmaker to the beacon of all-wheel-drive sophistication, it’s been a long journey for the Porsche 911 Turbo. With 650PS (478kW), 800Nm (592lb ft) and capable of 0-62mph in less than three seconds the latest Turbo S proves internal combustion powered cars can still keep electric models honest and deploys its incredible power through a powertrain and chassis of incredible sophistication. Where recent 911 Turbos were devastatingly fast but perhaps just a little inert once you got over the acceleration (OK, you never really got over the acceleration…) this new one combines monumental thrust with just enough feedback to be exciting as well impressive. And it’ll do it all day long, come rain or shine.
In the 14 years it’s now been around the Nissan GT-R has evolved from the embodiment of all-wheel-drive, computerised sophistication to a bastion of old-school, mechanical purity. Yes, the black boxes still do all manner of clever stuff. But drivetrain tech pioneered by the GT-R and its Skyline predecessors is now commonplace in all sorts of cars, and through it all the brutality of its all-wheel-drive system shines through. It’s a typically quirky system, with the rear-mounted transaxle gearbox necessitating a second propshaft to take the power back to the front wheels. But the way it divvies up the traction is never less than thrilling, the point-and-shoot straight-line acceleration matched with surprising throttle adjustability in the corners. And monumental acceleration everywhere.
Tesla Model 3 Performance
Whether as the sole means of power or in partnership with an internal combustion engine, electric motors now offer another route to all-wheel-drive and the potential of completely different power sources driving each axle. In pure EVs the more powerful versions take this idea and run with it, the front and rear wheels powered by their own motors and only ‘connected’ by wiring and clever electronics. In theory this is all about deploying that massive electrified urge as safely and efficiently as possible but it can also be corrupted for more entertaining ends, as demonstrated by the fully adjustable Track Mode in the Performance version of the Tesla Model 3. Select 100 per cent power to the rear wheels, commit to the throttle and it really will hold deft, power oversteered drifts, the tyre squeal near deafening over the silence of the powertrain. Pointless. But fun.
Toyota GR Yaris
Unless you’ve spent the whole of lockdown somehow avoiding social media the excitement surrounding Toyota’s GR Yaris has been impossible to miss. And while there is a lot to get excited about the rally-inspired all-wheel-drive system in a car this small really is a stand-out feature. Opt for the Circuit Pack version (frankly we can’t see any reason you wouldn’t) and you get mechanical Torsen differentials front and back and a variable torque split controlled by a switch on the dash. Normal gives you a ‘safe’ front-biased set-up, Track goes 50:50 for a neutral balance and maximum traction while Sport goes 30:70 rearward. We’ve just spent 1,000 miles driving one along the route of the 1993 RAC Rally in suitably torrential conditions and, even in the latter, the Yaris rails corners like it’s on a dry road while still feeling playful and fun. Believe the hype.
BMW M and Mercedes-AMG stayed true to their rear-wheel drive roots for as long as was practically possible but, with power outputs breaking the 600PS (442kW) barrier, even they had to accept all-wheel-drive was a sensible precaution. Enter the new era of switchable all-wheel-drive systems with sensible pants traction for everyday driving, safely rear-biased balance to keep the fans happy (and on the road) and – here on the latest M5 – a cheat mode where you can switch out the front power take-off and put all that power to the long-suffering rear tyres. Two tonnes plus of hard-charging BMW M5 is a lot of metal to be flinging round like a drift car. And when the turbos spool you need to be on top of your game. But it’s one hell of a party piece. A version of the same tech will soon be coming to the new M3 and M4, too.
Bentley Continental GT Speed
Modern Bentleys have used all-wheel-drive to their advantage, superlative traction perfectly matched to the huge turbocharged power of the brand’s V8 and W12 engines. Generally tuned for discreet progress rather than showboating, the new 659PS (486kW) Continental GT Speed has, however, dropped the sensible and shows a wilder side thanks to new features like rear-wheel steering and a new active rear diff. Familiar tech in other top-end performance cars, but new for Bentley and unleashing a playful side not seen in a Continental before. This is still a big, heavy lump of a car. But one that now has uncanny agility thanks to the faster steering and – if you’re feeling brave – the ability to light up its tyres and four-wheel drift its way through the corners. Which is as uncouth as it is addictive.
Perhaps the most interesting model yet spun off the latest VW Golf platform, the Cupra Formentor follows the established performance crossover template to a tee but somehow still looks fresh and new. If perhaps not quite as dynamic to drive as the new Golf R, it does much of what the previous über-Golf did but in more stylish clothes, the 310PS (229kW) model using a version of the Golf’s all-wheel powertrain in understated but effective fashion for rapid progress in all weathers. Slick to drive, it feels just a little more fun than VW products based on the same hardware, the 390PS (236kW) of the forthcoming, Audi-engined VZ5 version throwing more power and a five-cylinder warble into the mix in an intriguing sounding combination. A strong opening gambit from Seat’s new performance offshoot, the Formentor in all its forms is a very likeable product indeed.
Among mainstream manufacturers Audi has perhaps done more than any other in marketing all-wheel-drive as a desirable as well as a practical feature. The ‘Quattro’ badge has been adapted to apply to various configurations of all-wheel-drive tech over the years but the ‘proper’ layout of a longitudinal engine, central Torsen diff and – now – an active rear Sport Differential at the rear is the best to drive, especially in the RS4. After flirting with high-revving V8s this has now returned to a boosty, turbocharged V6 and feels the better for it, the millimetre perfect styling enhancements treading the fine line between discretion and aggression with perfection. It’s great to drive, too, and arguably a more convincing all-round package than the bigger and more aggressive looking RS6.
Which is the best AWD weapon?
Join our motorsport community
Get closer to motorsport at Goodwood! Join the GRRC Fellowship to be first in the queue for event tickets, to attend the GRRC-only Members' Meeting and to enjoy year-round, exclusive benefits.
Sign up for Motorsport news
Stay in the know with our newsletters that contain all the latest news, stories and event information.