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Beau

AWD cars that are actually fun

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I'm researching cars with AWD for my next purchase. I'm looking for one that is actually fun in the winter, and hoping you guys can chime in with some personal experience.

The biggest issue I find with car reviews is that they’re mostly done in the summer on dry pavement, and they don’t really test the AWD system well. Typical comments about AWD is usually just “it works” or "there is no tire spin under hard acceleration" (duh), or they focus on the weight and mileage penalty vs the same car in RWD form and basically imply it's inferior, but safer for soccer moms. Not very helpful.

To me, an AWD car can be super fun for 4-6 months, as we all know hooning around in the snow is a blast, and even small slip 'n sliding during an otherwise boring commute to be entertaining. I strongly prefer a rear bias so that the car can be oversteered with throttle, not need to chuck it sideways into a corner. AFAIK anything that’s FWD biased and only transfers power to rear only after slip occurs is pretty terrible, as it won't be fun, it will just get you unstuck ... not what I'm looking for. Maybe it’s not so black and white? That's where personal experience will help.

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Posted (edited)

Some of the cars on my list. Any comments on specific models is appreciated.

  • Lexus IS (2nd or 3rd gen) ... I’m specifically looking for an IS350 AWD, as I’ve heard the 250 is pretty anemic. Is the AWD system any different? What about the F-sport pkg, does that change anything?
  • G37x vs xS – does the sport package change anything about the sedan? I believe it changes a bunch of stuff on the RWD coupe only. Only difference I can tell on the sedan is paddle shifters and appearance stuff.
  • Audi A3/A4/S3/S4 - I hear the A3&A4 are mostly boring and tend to understeer a lot - can this be easily fixed e.g. with rear bar or alignment settings? It appears the A3 is “on demand” AWD whereas the A4 is a proper AWD system? S3/S4 comments are welcomed. Do they use a different AWD system?
  • Golf R – So many reviews claim this to be a fun car, I was really looking forward to driving one, then I recently found some owners talking about how it's a FWD based system that only sends power to the rear after slip occurs ... that may have ruined it for me. Confirm/deny? Are there any other sporty & AWD VW models?
  • BWM 3 series w/xdrive -  I have no clue about these. Most reviews focus on the RWD models. I’m sure there is some AWD review out there, but there are so many models … any experience with these from you guys? The few 3-series owners I know have RWD cars.
  • Acura TL/TLX – I’m assuming the TLX is FWD based … but the old TL was a torque vectoring rear based system I think?
Edited by Beau

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47 minutes ago, Beau said:

 

  • Lexus IS (2nd or 3rd gen) ... I’m specifically looking for an IS350 AWD, as I’ve heard the 250 is pretty anemic. Is the AWD system any different? What about the F-sport pkg, does that change anything? 250 is super anemic, 350 has a great engine and sounds really nice too. AWD with (I think) a 70/30 rear/front bias which is nice, retains the rwd feel. Car I drove had the Fsport package that had the fancy sliding gauge cluster from the LFA which was cool and a few other items like nice bucket seats. Definitely the sportiest of the AWD luxury type sedans I've driven.
  • G37x vs xS – does the sport package change anything about the sedan? I believe it changes a bunch of stuff on the RWD coupe only. Only difference I can tell on the sedan is paddle shifters and appearance stuff. Larger and less on the sporty side, more of a decently quick luxury car. Drove a Q50 which I believe has the same/similar AWD system. Was okay, but didn't do much for me.
  • Golf R – So many reviews claim this to be a fun car, I was really looking forward to driving one, then I recently found some owners talking about how it's a FWD based system that only sends power to the rear after slip occurs ... that may have ruined it for me. Confirm/deny? Are there any other sporty & AWD VW models? Confirm it's a FWD based Haldex system, will only react in cases of slip IIRC.
  • Acura TL/TLX – I’m assuming the TLX is FWD based … but the old TL was a torque vectoring rear based system I think? Newer TLX's with the SH-AWD are pretty impressive, the torque split/vectoring works well but it's not as sporty overall as the IS350. Bigger heavier car with a decent but not super exciting engine. I'd say this is one of the better AWD systems but not the most exciting to drive.

Haven't tried everything on the list but here's my input

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My vote is for the IS350 F-Sport 

It has great driving experience and rear bias to the point where you can step it out when you want to.

 

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Posted (edited)

I have a 2013 Infiniti G37x sedan . It's a fantastic car for daily duties, but it will disappoint anyone who tries to make it a 'driver's car'. It's super reliable, decently quiet and has all the features you need in a car, but guzzles gas and isn't really fun. It's RWD until the tires slip, but the AWD intervenes to make it understeer if you start slipping. With proper winter tires, it's an absolute tank in the winter. I couldn't come close to getting mine stuck, which is very convenient for snowed-over parking spots that people avoid. The G37xS sedan is the exact same car performance-wise; the Sport kit on the AWD sedans is just a front bumper, seats with more bolster, different wheels, paddle shifters and some minor details. The G37xS coupe at least gets the Akebono brakes and some minor tweaks. The RWD G37S gets the good stuff - quicker rack, LSD, etc. 

Truth be told, I've been shopping the B8/B8.5 Audi S4 and now the 8V Audi S3 because I'm bored of the Infiniti. The Audi S4 has either DCT or manual (no boring torque converters), and is available with the Dynamic setup - i.e. a tuneable rear diff that makes it very interesting to drive. They respond extremely well to modifications - tune and pulley, especially. The Audi S3 and Golf R are very unassuming, too. The Haldex AWD makes it front-biased until wheel sip occurs, kind of the opposite of the G37. They are lighter, sportier, and also respond very well to minor mods - tune and downpipe, in this case.

I have no experience with the 335xi, Acura or Lexus. I'd expect the same characteristics from the Acura & Lexus as the front-biased S3.

You left out one car, the Audi RS4. Granted, it's a gas guzzling, wallet emptying muscle car, but it would actually do the stuff you want it to do. Rear-biased AWD, 8000+ RPM V8, 6 speeds, nasty exhaust sounds. The brakes, carbon cleaning and a whole bunch of other problems make them prohibitively expensive, though.

You're probably allergic to STi's at this point, but the EvoX might make a compelling case.

Edited by Canadian_CD9A

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I noticed that you didn't include the Focus RS on your list.  I've driven mine two  years and can confirm it was built for a driver that loves hooning.  I think it would be a good fit for your driving style.

 

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Cough cough Subaru!!!! If you dont mind changing headgaskets every year...

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RS4 based on regular maintenance would be a deal killer for me (I actually passed on the opportunity to buy one and opted for my S4 instead).

Gold R is a reactive system although in mine I did get the Competition Haldex controller that helped it a bit but at the end of the day at full lock the Haldex system is 50/50 split. Ignore all marketing material that says otherwise, as the only way they can claim more power goes to the back is that the fronts and on a near frictionless surface and therefore no actual work is being done by the front tires. 

My S4 with the Sport Differential is nice. Yes the car is nose heavy but under throttle you can get the backend moving however maybe not as much as you would like. It is not a steer by throttle kind of car. Too bad you didn't bring this topic up when there was still snow on the ground and you could have taken the car for a spin.

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From a parts perspective i'd stay far away from any XI BMW - 3 or 5 series, especially with spirited driving. (8+ years in auto parts and I've seen people cry over repairs).

Subaru's are an option, but only if you keep up with ALL of the maintenance.

80,000+ kms. 5 trips to Banff, 2 trips to Vancouver and surrounding area + the full length of #1, #3, and #5 through BC/alberta with heaps of fun in between. (97 WRX)

  

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Posted (edited)

I got to try both the Golf R 2016 and 2018 version plus the TL and TLX SH-AWD recently, only the TLX in winter and Golf R in the summer though

Golf R
here has been report stating the traction control cannot be fully switched off on the 2016 model but the 2018 fixed that, however I cannot confirm or reject that claim since they both behaved much like a front wheel drive and understeer when I put the power down midway through a corner, the front pushes and it drive much like a front bias car to me, reminds me a lot of my old subaru outback in winter.

TLX & TL SH-AWD
Drove both only with snow on the ground, preferred the TL SH-AWD with manual transmission, I think they stopped making them in 2014.
the 2016 TLX I test drove is very slow to shift from 1st to 2nd and 2nd to 3rd, sales people said it was a known issue and they fixed that in recent year model, biggest issue I have with the TLX is that it is very unpredictable, giving it power in slippery condition undergoes perfect grip --> understeer --> perfect grip --> oversteer, to get more grip when the front start to push, you have to give it power and that throws most people driving habit off in my opinion.

Although I haven't test it out, I do believe Golf R can do power oversteer at low speed turn from get up and go city commute, that can't be said on the TL and TLX I test drove last winter, they both are somewhat unpredictable, with the TLX being the worse of the two.

Edited by helix

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Is350. 250 is di and has carbon issues. But of the list it’s reliable, fun to drive, and ticks the boxes. At this point the prices should have become more reasonable. I would pay the extra for the F-Sport. 

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For Subarus:

I preferred driving a 2002 WRX over a 2006 STI in snow or on the ice race track. I think it was something about the electronic center diff having a lag, but the WRX felt natural and the STI felt like I was arguing with a Japanese engineer in every corner. Fully locking the STI diff made it more predictable, but that had compromises too. 

I miss my WRX every time it snows. I never miss either when I'm getting gas and/or when my Mazda starts every time without rod knock. :lol: :( 

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Thanks for the input everyone!

I'll add my own experiences here so as to make this thread more about AWD fun cars in general, not just specific to my personal wants and budget.

In general, it seems that AWD variants of many cars are usually paired with auto trans only, which makes them more boring in general. MT + AWD is somewhat hard to find, and it's only getting worse. The Germans appear to be holdouts (for now), as is Subaru. Toyota/Lexus, Honda/Acura, Nissan/Infiniti, and Mazda have all abandoned MT+AWD from what I can tell. It really sucks when a model is offered with either MT or AWD, just not together.

Nhil and Canadian_CD9A I agree with both of you about the G37x. It is a pretty great car all around, with excellent grip in winter, but not exactly a sporty handling car. Very powerful though, so at least that part is fun, and the value for $ on the used market is pretty high IMO. It's the front runner for me right now, just looking for other (more fun) options

Subaru - My 05 STi was an amazingly fun winter car. My experience was a bit different from Corey's ... possibly due to different sensors and stability control in 06 vs 05. Open the centre diff and it drove a lot like RWD, I could literally do donuts. I would say it was more like RWD with FWD "assist". Awesome. I was a bit disappointed in every WRX I drove, it just seemed very front biased and wouldn't allow the rear end to step out easily. If you chuck it sideways it could hold a drift, but would tend to understeer under throttle. Maybe it was just my bias, as I usually ended up driving WRXs right before/after driving my STi. I only ever drove a Legacy GT in summer so I cannot comment on how the AWD system behaved under slip.

Audi is interesting - I don't have any personal experience but from research it appears not all Quattro systems are created equal. Similar to Subaru, different models get different torque split/bias and some get extra diffs, fancy diffs, etc. It appears the S3 is largely the same as Golf R which looks great on paper, but it's a FWD "on demand" based platform. :( What really intrigues me is the DCT combined with a good AWD system, as that should be a great fit for what I'm looking for.

BMW - there are so many stories about high maintenance & repair costs. I guess this doesn't get any better when adding a complex AWD system eh? Yeah that makes sense. What a shame. :( Still, I'd like to know how they handle and how their AWD system compares to the competition.

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I've driven the 430xi (M) and an E46 325xi (turd) a bunch. Both manual transmission.

In my opinion, I find that the BMW AWD gives the sensation of being heavier in the front to drive than some other cars that are truly RWD bias. Audi feels like this too but i think it's because they are actually heavier up front.

Even with TCS in "off", it seemed the TCS was never truly off. The "M1 Sport" mode didn't seem to offer the experiences found in the M5 AWD that has further reductions in nannys.

And to be honest, the E46 was so weak it could barely do anything except wheeze. 

Both cars had to be chucked into a corner to get it to oversteer which was quickly thwarted by the TCS. Steering angle sensors only let the rear step out so much.

The E46 is a serious money pit!

However, I do prefer the BMW AWD system over the Audi haldex from a drivers standpoint. Some Aydi systems will unlock the rear under hard braking and do other weird things. Servicing them can be a nightmare too...at least on the Audi vehicles I have been forced to work on!

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Modern gen V haldex systems are not reactive and do not require slip to activate.

This is the AWD system in the A3/S3/RS3/Golf R/TTRS, plus Volvos, Saabs and a few more.

Throttle induced oversteer in winter is no issue. 

Power is transferred proactively depending on driver inputs. If you give a healthy amount of throttle engagement of the rear wheels is instantaneous.

The 2018 Audi TT RS just won the one lap of America with 2nd and 3rd being Porsche 911s so I guess Haldex isn't that bad.

 

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I think you could just about say that anything with a transverse mounted powerplant is not going to fit into the "fun" category as described in the original post. Of course there will be a few exceptions to this (the Focus RS being the obvious one) that will compensate with the ability to provide significant rear bias in certain situations.

BMW xDrive is a great (generally rear biased) system in all of their longitudinally mounted platforms. A family member of mine owned an E90 328i xDrive for 130,000 km and did not have a single drivetrain related issue. However, as noted above if issues do occur they will not be inexpensive to resolve.

When considering a European car in general (Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Porsche) you need to be comfortable with the fact that general maintenance and repair work is going to be expensive. If buying expensive parts and specialty tools or paying for repairs isn't your thing, a European car is not for you. You've gotta pay to play. 

Having said all that, another two cars that could be added to the list are the Mercedes C Class 4matic and the Cadillac ATS4. The C Class is probably on the less than sporty side but I haven't driven one in a while. The ATS has reportedly replaced the 3 series as the best sport sedan chassis based on several reviews I've read over the last few years. Based on your list though I'm not sure if a Cadillac would be in the running. I probably wouldn't buy one personally but I would be curious to drive one. 

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I talked to a former WSCC member & racer (Mike), who owns a Golf R and loves it. He says it is more of a FWD handling car, but able to hold a drift quite predictably (lift-off oversteer then power down). Sounds like it might be fun. I assume the S3 is exact same drivetrain and dymanically similar. Might have to test a few of these.

RE: transverse powerplant - yes in general, but there are some exceptions (evo, and Focus RS come to mind). I was seriously hoping someone would chime in about something I hadn't considered or isn't well known for being sporty but can be ... like one of the Acura sedans. But alas it doesn't seem to be the case. :(

Anyway thanks for all the input so far. Anyone else with experience please add to this thread!

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If you go the Audi/VW route (which i absolutely endorse) get the ECU and TCU flashed, and life becomes so much better. The fwd bias of the haldex system gets forgotten once the smiles and giggles start, and it makes you feel like a hero in Winter, because more throttle always solves your problem, with very little issue of having the back end snap around on you. You can hold drifts on asphalt, snow, gravel with ease, and you never feel the system kick in. This weekend i circle tracked a golf 4-motion with dsg, and had no problem pitching in and holding a nice power-on drift through the .5mile asphalt oval. The road course STI's couldn't get past me as it was so easy to watch the mirrors and place the car exactly where you want. RS3 or S3 would be my suggestion. 

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