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by David Zalstein

NOTE: This article was first published on June 1, 2016.


If you’re buying a new car, you’ll face a choice of drivetrain layouts. And while engine position may vary from a front, rear or mid placement, the powered wheels will inevitably be those up front, those out back, or all four.

CarAdvice reader Julie contacted us to ask which way should she lean for her next new-car purchase.

Q: I’m keen to upgrade to a new car but I’m not sure what I should get, a front-wheel-drive, rear-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive model. What’s the difference between them, and which one should I buy?

A: Great question, Julie. To answer it, we headed out to the wide-open Driver Education Centre of Australia (DECA) skidpan in Shepparton, Victoria, to put all three layouts to the test. We also called in Australian World Rally Championship (WRC) driver Chris Atkinson for a little help.

Providing a good spread of purchase price, power output and outright vehicle size, our three test cars for the day were the $29,990 Hyundai Veloster SR Turbo, $54,490 Holden Commodore SS-V Redline, and $38,990 Subaru WRX.

One of the country’s top-selling sports cars under $80k, the front-wheel-drive Hyundai Veloster SR Turbo is powered by a turbocharged 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with 150kW of power at 6000rpm and 265Nm of torque between 1750-4500rpm.

The Holden Commodore has long been Australia’s favourite homegrown rear-wheel-drive hero, and here in VF Series II SS-V Redline guise, it comes with a 6.2-litre LS3 V8 delivering 304kW of power at 6000rpm and 570Nm of torque at 4400rpm.

Lastly, the Subaru WRX. Arguably the world’s most iconic all-wheel-drive car of all time, this latest incarnation employs an all-new turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder ‘boxer’ engine, outputting 197kW of power at 5600rpm and 350Nm of torque between 2400-5200rpm.

For consistency, all cars are equipped with their respective model’s standard six-speed manual transmission.

With Chris Atkinson behind the wheel, each car tackles two tests – a dry, 90-degree corner and a wet, high-speed emergency lane change. The tests are carried out twice – once with all the standard stability and traction control systems on and once with all the systems off.

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Starting with our front-wheel-drive car, Chris jumps into the Hyundai Veloster for its first ‘stability on’ run through the dry, 90-degree corner – a test designed to simulate the sort of common country or suburban bend you’re likely to come across every day.

With stability on, Chris gets the Veloster up to 60km/h, lifts off the throttle just before turning into the left-hander and then jumps heavily back onto the throttle from the middle of the corner until the completion of the test.

The result? Aside from a small amount of initial turn-in understeer, as Chris says, there’s no real reaction.

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“Because we’re already sliding, the car knew what we were doing and it killed the power to the front wheels and we were in control.”

Chris turns off the stability control and we line up for the Hyundai’s second run through the dry, 90-degree corner.

Arriving at the corner at the same 60km/h target speed, Chris turns in and, almost immediately, the 1330kg Veloster understeers its way toward not only our outside-corner cones – representative of a public road’s centre line – but members of the CarAdvice video team.

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“Oh, a lot of understeer,” Chris says.

“So a huge difference there… Just stayed on the road, but you imagine if there’s a tightening corner or something like that and we’d have been in the trees.”

On that positive note, we change cars to the rear-wheel-drive Holden Commodore.

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With more than double the power and torque of the Veloster SR Turbo, and an easy 400kg of extra weight on board, Chris is ‘interested’ to see how the big lump of local lion will go.

With stability control on, Chris gives the SS-V Redline enough beans to have it not only sound good but also easily reach our 60km/h target approach speed.

He lifts off, turns in and flattens the throttle and… nothing much happens.

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“I tried to give it everything she’s got but the traction [control] worked pretty well there,” Chris says.

“It slipped a little bit initially, and then the rear just stepped out, but it caught it after that, and you really had no real drama to get around the corner.”

Moving onto the Commodore’s second run through the dry, 90-degree corner, Chris disengages all the stability systems and plants the foot – noting some initial wheel spin off the line.

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Approaching the corner again at 60km/h, Chris lifts off, turns in and jumps back on the throttle. Immediately, the back end starts to swing around, necessitating some quickly inputted opposite lock to avoid taking out cones and/or camera equipment.

“That was a little bit more exciting,” Chris says.

“So you can see that traction control makes a huge difference in this car, especially when you put that power to the rear wheels, she just wants to step into oversteer straight away.”

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Getting back to his World Rally Championship roots with the Subaru World Rally Team, Chris jumps out of the Commodore and into the middle-weight WRX.

Hitting the dry, 90-degree corner at 60km/h, Chris turns in hard and flattens the throttle. Even more so than in the Commodore, though, it’s a case of nothing much happens.

“[A] bit of understeer, but pretty stable… tending more towards understeer than oversteer, I’d have to say.”

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With stability control off, Chris again lines up for the car’s second run at the dry, 90-degree corner.

Getting off the line briskly and cleanly, the all-wheel-drive Subaru gets up to speed without drama before Chris lifts, turns and plants the throttle. The outcome? Understeer, and plenty of it.

“A fair bit of understeer actually,” Chris says surprised.

“I expected a little bit of oversteer but I would’ve headed off straight towards the camera and cleaned up the boys if I didn’t jump on the brakes.”

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With all three cars completing their two runs of Test One, we move on to our wet, high-speed emergency lane change exercise – designed to simulate a highway situation where a driver is required to change lanes as quickly possible, in order to avoid a hazard ahead.

Starting again with the Hyundai Veloster, Chris increases the approach speed by 20km/h, to 80km/h.

This time, instead of lifting off the throttle before turning in, Chris holds the throttle steady, doing his best to maintain our 80km/h target speed. He leaves the emergency swerve until the very last second, only applying the brakes once through the exercise.

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Rolling in at speed with stability on, Chris aggressively swerves right, then immediately left. Totally unfazed, the front-drive Veloster SR Turbo easily negotiates the course.

“And I didn’t even touch the brakes then,” Chris says.

“That’s pretty impressive. We left that to the last second to swerve and miss the cones, straighten it back up, and the car did the rest of the work for me. I just did the steering and it sorted it out for me.”

Chris disables stability control and we start our approach for Run Two.

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Coming in again at 80km/h, Chris once again swerves right, then left – but this time, the Veloster’s rear end immediately starts to swing around before Chris lifts off the throttle. This causes the car’s momentum to snap around in the opposite direction – often referred to as a ‘tank-slapper’.

“So that was a bit more exciting,” Chris says.

“I let it go a bit more than I probably should have but it showed what can happen and you could easily go into a flat spin in that situation.”

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With our lightest car on test already demonstrating just how big of an impact weight and momentum can have on an emergency situation, we jump into our heaviest car for the day, the rear-drive Holden Commodore.

“This will be interesting for sure,” Chris says. “I’m a little bit nervous.”

Opening up the SS-V Redline’s standard bi-modal exhaust, Chris quickly gets the big Commodore up to 80km/h before snapping it right then quickly left.

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Impressively, with stability control on, the hefty Holden simply shakes off the wet, high-speed emergency lane change without fuss.

“That’s not bad,” Chris says with a smile.

“I threw it in pretty hard, turning right there. And, as I came back across and straightened it up, the car did the rest of the work for me. I barely touched the brake and it straightened up and I was able to slow down pretty easily.”

With stability control disabled, Chris takes off for Run Two in the V8 Commodore.

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Approaching at 80km/h, Chris notes a bit of rear-end squirm putting the power down, then hooks hard into the test’s right-left flick. Unsurprisingly, as soon as he turns the wheel left, the Holden’s back end starts to step out, necessitating some opposite-lock steering correction. That said, the experience is far less eventful than expected.

“That rear does want to go, but, to be fair, it wasn’t as bad to control as I expected,” Chris says.

“There’s a lot of weight there and, if you do get that momentum shift, then it’s going to slide. But the difference when you have traction and stability control on, compared to off, is massive in those conditions.”

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Switching back into the all-wheel-drive Subaru, Chris lines up for the car’s first run through the wet, high-speed emergency lane change.

With stability on, Chris approaches at 80km/h, and slams the 1469kg WRX right, then immediately left. What happens next is exactly what you want to happen if you ever find yourself in an emergency on-road situation: nothing.

No slipping, no sliding, the ‘Rex’ simply canters through the course, changing lanes on the super-slippery surface without drama.

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“Wow,” Chris says.

“That’s pretty good. They’ve all been impressive but there was no overreaction at all. I’m pretty impressed with that.”

Keen to see how big of a contrast having stability off will provide, Chris disables the safety systems and we line up again for Run Two in the WRX.

Up to speed quickly, Chris hits the first right-hand swerve at 80km/h, followed by the immediate left-hander. Blowing away everyone on the scene, the Subaru all but replicates its first run – apart from the minutest shift from the all-wheel-drive car’s rear end – and despite having its stability control systems disengaged.

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“That’s not bad is it,” Chris says smiling.

“Little bit of a fraction of oversteer but, at 80km/h on a wet, slippery road and changing direction and I barely had to do any correction at all.”

With each car completing their two runs of our two tests, it’s time to recap the day’s results with Chris.

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“It’s funny how it’s such a big difference in some cars and in other cars, not as big a difference,” Chris tells us.

“In the Veloster, you’ve got a big difference between having [stability control] on and off. And it really works well in the Veloster.

“Hop into the Holden, and even with [stability control] on, you can slide the car around, it moves around a fair bit. You turn [stability control] off, and it really wants to slide around and move a lot.

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“And the Subaru, especially in the [wet, high-speed] lane change, there’s barely any difference between having stability on – and I guess that’s the all-wheel-drive system working well.

“I was a little bit shocked when we were driving in the 90-degree corner and the car had a lot of understeer. I haven’t experienced so much of that before in the Subaru, so I am a bit surprised by that. But, when you had [stability control] on, it actually worked a bit like a race car in terms of controlling the speed, and not just killing the power like it does, say, in the Holden.”

With the advantage of having a safe, controlled environment and a professional racing driver on hand to soundly put all three cars and drivetrain layouts through their paces, the whole day was a real eye-opener.

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Seeing first-hand the difference between having stability control systems on and having them turned off – almost regardless of how many, or which, wheels power is sent to – modern traction and stability control systems are not only comprehensive but comprehensively impressive. Whether it was the dry, 90-degree corner or the wet, high-speed emergency lane change, overall, the results were pretty clear.

So, Julie, in answer to your question: while different drivetrain layouts absolutely have an impact on a specific vehicle’s dynamics, they only really come into play in extreme situations or in situations where the safety and stability control systems have been disabled.

What our day on the skidpan showed was that, regardless of whether you buy a front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, or all-wheel-drive car, for the majority of day-to-day situations – in a new car – with the systems left on, there’s not really a huge variance between the three.

Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.
Videography by Igor Solomon and Frank Yang.

Remember, if there’s anything specific you’d like to know or like us to check out, you can contact us anytime.

Note: CarAdvice would like to extend a huge thank you to all the crew at DECA for all their assistance and patience and to Chris Atkinson for being our trusty wheel man for the day.

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