Winter's Challenging Commute
It’s always a proud moment whenever this happens. Imagine yourself leaving for work on a dark and cold winter morning. Snow is all that you can see, covering every inch of your drive and every neighboring street, turning them into sly, deep and cold deathtraps for any 2-wheel drive car. As you embark on your heroic journey to work in your superior high riding all-wheel drive wagon, it doesn’t take long for you to meet the first victims: your next door neighbor in his Toyota Camry, stuck in a deep snowdrift, carelessly spinning the front wheels, not knowing what else to do. A little further down the road, another familiar sight: a BMW tries to claw its way out into the street without much success. Being a dependent neighborhood member, you help them both by plucking them out with your tow lead, but then you face a new challenge. You’re at the front of this spontaneous road column now, with the saved cars behind you, tucking their tails, and no sight of a clear street. Just early morning darkness and windswept snow.
The children are strapped in on the back seat and now it is up to you to trust Mr. Haldex, who gets a surge of torque the very second you press the accelerator. You speed up, gain momentum, and push forward with minor steering corrections. The snowdrifts get thicker and more unexpected with every few meters you drive. The front bumper is knocking over long tongues of snow. Grip will disappear for brief moments as you drive over patches of ice, making the engine scream and remind you how many cylinders it’s got. After a few nerve-racking moments, you emerge from the snowy hell, followed by the embarrassed Toyota and BMW. There’s not much else you can do but sit there with a smug smile on your face, knowing you are the hero of the morning.
There’s no surprise if that has happened to you or any other driver with an off-road oriented vehicle, because that kind of comfortable, raised suspension, go almost anywhere station wagon has been a thing for a few decades now.
A Brief Look Back: The AMC Eagle Revolution
The very first four-wheel-drive station wagon was the AMC Eagle, a niche family car with 5 different body styles, all finished in typical 70s color schemes both inside and out, but its recipe today is far from niche. American Motor Corporation was a very unique car manufacturer in the 20th century, with a wide range of innovative models, that also struggled to stay above the threshold of relevance, especially as the Japanese and Germans began to make inroads in North America. AMC did not have the resources to create an attractive competitor to the Dodge Omni or Honda Civic, and the unconventional Pacer and Gremlin, which were the companies best sellers, were already writing their testaments. AMC was somewhat reminiscent of SAAB – not everyone's favorite or widely understood, but innovative and colorful.
Unable to enter any attractive automotive sector, AMC created one for themselves by taking the four-door Concorde, fitting a genuine 4 wheel drive system and lifting the body. Transmission was dealt by Ferguson Formula, i.e. the people responsible for the all-wheel-drive design of the Jensen Interceptor FF. AMC’s joint venture with Renault in 1979 provided the monetary inspiration and so the AMC Eagle was able to kick around and show what it’s got in the 1980s. AMC forward thinking and brainstorming with the Eagle was of the highest order, as today's crossovers like the Subaru Crosstrek or safari-style Porsche builds were born out of the same practical need and aesthetic. Cash-strapped Americans though didn't look at the Eagle very favorably. In the late 80s and early 90s, the SUV craze was starting, and North Americans were much more fond of Chevrolet Suburbans and Ford Explorers.
Europe Embraces the All-Wheel Drive
In Europe, however, it was a different story. The breakthrough in all-wheel-drive systems in the 1980s led to the emergence of familiar cars such as the Audi 100 quattro, Volkswagen Passat Syncro, or the 4MATIC equipped Mercedes-Benz 124 chassis cars, launched in 1987. Underneath them, there were 2 transfer boxes, a rear and a central one. The latter had 2 dual clutches, regulated by hydraulic fluid and capable of 3 levels of engagement: in 2WD mode, all power went to the rear axle and depending on the level of traction, according to the ABS sensor, there were also 2 AWD modes, with 35/65 and 50/50 power distribution.
The Downside: Reliability Concerns
Unfortunately, because of the complicated electronics and multiplate clutches, they were not known for their reliability. Even keen W124 enthusiasts suggest bypassing models with 4MATIC, especially the C124 station wagons, as they are already complicated with active rear suspensions, not to mention the worse fuel consumption and the wide turning angle.
BMW's Foray into AWD Family Wagons
BMW’s first shot at a large family wagon with higher driving capabilities was the 525iX in the E34 platform. It took over the all-wheel-drive structure from the smaller E30 3 series, as well as the rack-and-pinion steering system. Power distribution was 37/63 with the higher amount obviously going to the rear wheels. Only about 10,000 525iXs were built, a mere 0.7 % of all E34s. Even though demand was there, but car buyers are often very conservative, therefore the later built E39 5 series did not have an AWD option.
Subaru Outback: Setting a New Standard
Before the Alltrack Passat, Polo Cross and all other real or faux off-roady cars with plastic cladding on their sides, there was the Subaru Outback, or the second true lifted and off-road oriented all-wheel-drive wagon after the AMC Eagle, which successfully showed the attractiveness and real potential of such car. Up until the very popular 1st generation Outback, Subaru didn’t really have anything that could be so versatile and attractive, whether for wine drinking soccer moms or forest workers in Washington State. The 1994 Outback gave Subaru a big boost in sales, as it was hard to resist a product with a 16 centimeter increase in ground clearance, the addition of guarded body cladding, aggressive fog lights and fatter tires, that largely came from experience in international rallying.
Volvo V70 Cross Country: Luxury Meets Versatility
Volvo refreshed Subaru’s approach with refinement and greater comfort by launching the V70 Cross Country in 1997. The exterior execution is similar to that of Subaru, it had 20 centimeters of ground clearance, a different front grille, more aggressive air intakes, plastic guard moldings on its bumpers and arches, as well as standard fog lights and roof rails. There were as many as 15 different colors that Volvo could paint your V70 CC in, and inside the V70 Cross Country you were treated with soft leather, power seats, a sunroof and a Dolby Pro sound system.
The CC's full magic really showed on the road, because it drove comfortably, safely, with great power and a go anywhere attitude. Even the handling was dynamic enough to keep the car's heavy weight in your hands, while the supple suspension behaved beautifully on boggy, potholed or ice-covered roads. Volvo themselves said that in the North American market, the V70 CC "will out-accelerate, out-brake, and out-handle any SUV." The AWD system in the V70 CC is quite a relaxed one, with nearly 100 % of the power going to the front half-shafts until you lose grip – then the same 100 % can be sent to the rear for a while, where the differential can lock up the half-shafts in sticky situations, all while Volvo's low-speed traction system is responsible for front-wheel traction.
The Dawn of AWD in the 21st Century
With the dawn of the 21st century, all-wheel drive in conventional family cars was no longer a novelty, and more and more manufacturers and buyers were eager to tap into the market for a station wagon with lots of potential in the snow and mud. Europeans went fully crazy with this, launching everything from the terribly unreliable Audi A6 Allroad, the pragmatic Skoda Octavia Scout, all the way to the rare SAAB 9-3X. BMW never fully joined the raised wagon game, and Mercedes-Benz only went all in only in 2016 by launching the E-class All-Terrain.