Which Carmakers Have the Best AWD Systems?

All-wheel drive (AWD) is a general umbrella term for a car configuration that allows power delivery to all four wheels. Each carmaker has its own way of implementing AWD. Based on their design, some AWD systems are better than others. Some sedans adjust to AWD better than others as well. A chassis built specifically for AWD might have better response to simultaneous handling and power inputs than a rear or front-wheel-drive chassis. It just depends on the manufacturer. Here are some of the best AWD systems on the market and how they rank.

Audi: OG of German AWD

Audi Quattro rally racing
Audi Quattro rally racing | National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images

The first German company to use AWD in luxury vehicles was Audi, in its Quattro hatchback. “Quattro” denotes that the car is AWD, and not necessarily by Audi’s proprietary AWD system. Audis use either the existing Quattro system or another system called Haldex. The difference between the two systems is massive. Quattro is 100-percent mechanical, while Haldex is computer-controlled. Only transverse-mounted Audis like the TT and A3 use the Haldex. Quattro has the advantage of being robust and capable while also being reliable, and Haldex is not exclusive to Audi. Volvo uses it, as does Volkswagen. 

Mercedes-Benz 4MATIC: second time’s the charm

Mika Hakkinen drives a Mercedes-AMG A 45 4MATIC in Stuttgart
Mika Hakkinen drives a Mercedes-AMG A 45 4MATIC in Stuttgart | Deniz Calagan/picture alliance via Getty Images

Mercedes-Benz’s 4MATIC AWD system stormed onto the scene in 1987 as a computer-controlled system, with a hydraulic center differential. It was complicated and unreliable and departed until the late 1990s when it came back with the W210 E Class. Upon its return Mercedes-Benz turned its 4MATIC system into a close relative of Audi’s Quattro. It has a rear torque bias dictated by a center differential and uses ABS to manage traction. 

Acura Super Handling: beautifully complex

Acura TLX-GT racing in Utah
Acura TLX-GT racing in Utah | Brian Cleary/Getty Images

One of the most impressive AWD systems comes from Acura. Using a computer, the Super Handling AWD will anticipate what a car is going to do in a corner. It has the ability to send a maximum of 70-percent of the power to either the front or rear axle and assigns torque for each individual wheel. Super Handling measures weight distribution, available traction, and driver input to make its decisions. It’s constantly thinking and measuring each circumstance. 

Subaru: tried and true simplicity

Subaru WRX racing in Spain
Subaru WRX racing in Spain | Joan Cros Garcia – Corbis/Getty Images

Say what you want about Subaru engines, but its AWD is one of, if not the best, systems in the auto industry. For Subaru, it comes down to simplicity. Instead of waiting for wheel spin or anticipating what is about to happen, Subaru’s “Symmetric AWD” constantly monitors and distributes power all of the time. It’s one of the most consistent systems and favors an uncomplicated design with its transaxle, viscous differential, and gearbox all in one unit. 

Deciding which AWD system is the best

Audi Quattro rally car at Goodwood
Audi Quattro rally car at Goodwood | Matthew Baker/PA Images via Getty Images

When considering an AWD car, it’s important to consider how reliable its drivetrain is. A computer-controlled system will be more complicated, thus possibly more expensive to fix. Because it’s complicated, it might end up breaking more often. From this perspective, it appears Audi’s Quattro might be one of the best AWD systems. It’s completely mechanical and harbors outstanding reliability as a result. Audi’s are also tremendous fun to drive, so that’s a plus.

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