It’s a lot of fun, but for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, all-wheel-drive cars are serious business — especially in places where winter lasts a long time, such as Quebec and much of the northern U.S. In 2014, 32 percent of all Chrysler 300 sedans and 30 percent of all Dodge Chargers were sold with all-wheel drive, for instance. More than half of all Jeep models come with AWD, and a whopping 80 percent of all Ram trucks are sold with four-wheel drive.
Having four driven wheels is a big selling point for drivers in the snowbelt. To find out exactly how much of a difference it makes, we’re driving a handful of new FCA vehicles around a snow- and ice-covered racetrack that, in summer, is used for track days and driver training.
Winter tires are required by law on all cars in Quebec from mid-December until mid-March, and swapping into a Charger and a 200C equipped with all-season tires demonstrates the limits of all-wheel drive. Both the 2015 Dodge Charger and the 2015 Chrysler 200C still pull away from a stop quickly, as the cars’ computers shuffle power fore and aft as the tires slip, but attacking the slalom reveals how little cornering grip the factory rubber offers. The cars alternately under- and oversteer, sliding around wildly at angles that require lots of steering-wheel input to correct.
Most telling of all, when we need to brake for a stop sign, the cars barely slow as the ABS rat-a-tats in an effort to get the tires to grip the slick surface. Here, there’s nothing to hit if it all goes wrong, but getting a car this out of shape on a snowy morning commute could be disastrous. Having AWD might keep you from getting stuck on the way home during a snowstorm, but all-season tires still leave much to be desired.
“Turning and stopping … it’s a joke,” agrees one of ICAR’s driving instructors. We hurry to get back into the vehicles equipped with winter tires: Bridgestone Blizzak DM-V1s for the Charger and Pirelli Sottozeros for the 200C.
The big sedan
In the case of the civilian-spec 2015 Dodge Charger, driving all four wheels means sticking to the 292-hp, 3.6-liter V-6 engine. Only law enforcement can match AWD with the V-8 in the Charger. With either engine, a take-off from the eight-speed automatic transmission sends power forward to the front wheels when needed; it can fully disconnect the front axle when the rear wheels have adequate traction, reducing drag and improving overall fuel economy. The 2015 Dodge Charger is EPA-rated at 18/27 mpg (city/highway) with all-wheel drive, down only slightly from the rear-drive model’s 19/31 mpg ratings.
On the slippery ICAR course, the 2015 Dodge Charger drives almost as if we’re on dry pavement. All four tires dig in to power us away from the line, the winter tires stab at the snow to slow the car for a stop sign, and even when we romp on the throttle midway around a turn, the all-wheel-drive system is so balanced and grippy that the car simply keeps scribing the general arc of the corner without a problem. We had no trouble driving a rear-wheel-drive 2012 Dodge Charger SXT Plus car in snow and slush, but the amount of grip of this AWD version is mighty appealing to those of us who deal with winter for a third of the year.
The midsize sedan
The 2015 Chrysler 200C is one of the few midsize sedans to still offer all-wheel drive, along with the Subaru Legacy and Ford Fusion. AWD versions of the 200S and 200C models come with Chrysler’s 3.6-liter V-6 engine that sends 295 hp through a nine-speed automatic transmission (a four-cylinder engine is available with the front-wheel-drive 200S and C). The 200’s all-wheel-drive system acts primarily as a front-driver, disconnecting the entire rear axle to save fuel. As soon as the front tires slip, up to 60 percent of the engine’s output is shuffled to the rear.
Like the Dodge Charger, the 2015 Chrysler 200C’s all-wheel-drive system powers us around without a hitch. Compared to the Charger’s ultra-planted feel, however, the 200C gives drivers a little more leeway to play, especially when the stability controller is switched into Sport mode. We find we can get the back end to step out a few degrees when we get on the power partway through a corner. It’s entertaining rather than scary and matches up to the more premium driving experience Chrysler claims to have baked into the 200. Playful antics aside, the 200C’s traction control never needs to intervene, as the rear axle engages imperceptibly and quickly once the fronts begin to spin.
The lure of AWD
For shoppers in many parts of the U.S. and Canada, having an all-wheel-drive car is a necessity, whether for traversing snowy roads or gravel ones. While the standard assumption is that finding a car with AWD means heading to a Subaru or Jeep dealer, Chrysler and Dodge can appeal to an even greater audience by offering the systems on their mainstream sedans.