New Car Review
2013 Dodge Charger AWD and Chrysler 300 AWD: First Drive
If you grew up where it snows, you're probably familiar with this rule of thumb: Front-wheel drive is good in the snow. Rear-wheel drive is bad in the snow.
The same goes for all-wheel-drive vehicles, which are generally more desirable to snow-belt drivers if they're based on front-drive platforms.
Based on a large rear-wheel-drive platform, the Charger and 300C are already at what seems to be a disadvantage. And the details of their available AWD system only confirm this initial impression.
Thanks to an exclusive active front transfer case, the AWD Charger and 300C are actually RWD vehicles by default, as the front axle remains disconnected above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Although that axle automatically connects itself below 40 degrees for AWD functionality, maximum torque to the front wheels is just 38 percent of the total, whereas FWD-based competitors generally send no less than 50 percent to the front wheels, and up to 100 percent as circumstances dictate.
In other words, these AWD Chrysler siblings should be tail-sliding, tire-spinning nightmares in the white stuff -- useful for Hollywood movies, maybe, but not for real people dealing with real weather.
But as we discovered on a trip to the Chrysler winter proving grounds in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, this rear-biased AWD system might be the best thing to happen to winter driving since the snow tire, and here's why.
RWD cars have an inherent car-control advantage in that they allow you to "steer with the throttle," in a way. It's just simple physics. If you're going around a corner, the front wheels are turned, but the rear wheels are always pointed straight ahead. In a FWD car, pressing the accelerator in this situation sends the extra power to those turned front wheels, which means you'll hold your line at best, and most likely push wide of your intended target ("understeer"). But, in a RWD car, the extra power goes to the rear wheels. Combine that with the turned front wheels and you've got the opposite of understeer -- "oversteer" -- which means the car will resist pushing and even tighten its line through the corner.
Think about how handy this could be in a snow-covered corner in January. If you feel a RWD car start to push wide mid-corner, you can give it some more gas to bring it back on course. But in a FWD car, the throttle is effectively useless; all you can do is lift off, stab the brakes perhaps, and hope for the best.
Ah, but there's a dark side to RWD, and that's too much oversteer. If you've noticed how the bad guys in movies tend to slide around corners sideways, you know what we mean. For highly skilled drivers, excessive oversteer translates to a "powerslide"; that is, a controlled slide that pumps out tire smoke and pleases crowds. But for real-world drivers trying to navigate a treacherous road, excessive oversteer usually means losing control and helicoptering off into a ditch, or worse.
The genius of Chrysler's RWD-based AWD system is its ability to straddle these extremes, giving those real-world drivers access to the kind of car control that's typically only available to Hollywood stunt men.
As we discovered while driving the 2013 Dodge Charger AWD and Chrysler 300 AWD around a 600-foot-diameter snow track, it is virtually impossible to spin these cars out. Thanks to the combination of extra front-end traction and a brilliant stability-control system that seamlessly cuts power to the rear wheels if the rear end slides too much, these cars stubbornly held their lines, no matter how hard we tried to get them out of sorts.
But whenever we felt the car start to push wide, like in one of those snow-covered January corners, a little prod of the accelerator was all it took to restore order. That's the benefit of sending most of the power to the rear wheels, letting the front wheels focus primarily on steering.
You simply can't do that in a FWD-based AWD car.
As we left the proving grounds, it occurred to us that Chrysler hasn't merely come up with a viable RWD-based alternative to FWD-based AWD cars, such as in Subaru's lineup. Instead, the company has in fact optimized all-wheel drive, providing the best car control in all traction scenarios.
Color us impressed. And consider that old FWD rule of thumb in serious need of revision.