Going exclusively all-wheel drive could have profound changes across the segment

It used to be that if you wanted to make a performance car, no matter the body style, it absolutely had to be rear-wheel drive. Nothing else would do. Now, all-wheel drive is becoming more and more popular, especially among the high-powered luxury sleds of Europe, and in response, AMG is looking to ditch rear-wheel drive outright in favor of all-wheel drive exclusively. It’s a bold move, and it will undoubtedly affect rivals like BMW’s division, as well as the segment as a whole.

AMG Goes AWD Only

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 Unveiled with 300 HP and Four-Door Coupe Luxury Exterior
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The latest is that Mercedes-AMG is in the process of moving its entire lineup towards all-wheel drive. The news comes to us courtesy of AMG head Tobias Moers, who spoke with our friends at Autocar about the growing popularity of all-wheel drive among the performance division’s lineup of premium sports models.

According to Moers, all future AMG models will have all-wheel drive as standard.

“Customers have given us the answer, and most want four-wheel drive,” Moers said in an interview with Autocar. “Back in the days when we had an AMG E-Class as rear-wheel drive and with four-wheel drive as an option, over 90 percent chose 4WD. In the new E 63 with drift mode, you have a real rear-wheel-drive car but with four-wheel drive also.”

2019 Mercedes-Benz AMG E63 S - Driven
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As Moers points out, all-wheel drive systems are becoming more and more sophisticated, with variable torque split that’s totally configurable by the user through simple-to-use electronic systems. That means you can have the torque sent exclusively to the rear axle at the touch of a button, enabling all the ass-out shenanigans associated with rear-wheel drive.

When you’re done with the burnouts and sliding about (or maybe when your tires are finally down to the cords), you can switch back to all-wheel grip as desired.

Of course, these systems still add a good amount of weight, and the suspension typically isn’t set-up for optimal rear-wheel drive performance and cornering. However, if it’s just burnouts and oversteer that you’re after, then systems like these really do offer a nice compromise.

The Mercedes-AMG GT Shows Up in L.A. With DNA From the GT 4-Door Coupe Exterior
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Even the top-dog AMG GT coupe, which looks every bit like it should offer the old-school sports car formula of engine in front and power in the rear, will make the move to all-wheel drive. “When I ask customers about the GT, they ask me about all-wheel drive,” Moers revealed. “Regarding our competition, this is the downside of the AMG in terms of usability. People in Munich, for example, always, always ask for four-wheel drive - I think it’s for safety and stability.”

2018 Lamborghini Aventador S
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“Safety and stability” might seem like a bit of a copout for traditionalists, but that’s undeniably where we’re headed in the segment.

Even Lamborghini (which is now under the Volkswagen umbrella) is going with all-wheel drive as standard for models like the Aventador.

Some have criticized the move as “nerfing” the brand, saying that all-wheel drive makes the Aventador “less of a Lamborghini” because it doesn’t scare the pants off you to drive the thing. And that’s a valid point if you’re inclined to the more raw experience of rear-wheel-drive only. But it seems as though folks like that are in the minority, with most buyers preferring the “safety and stability” of routing output to the front axle, as well as the rear.

AMG Plans On Downsizing Its Engine Lineup

2015 Mercedes-AMG C63 High Resolution Exterior
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The 2015 Mercedes C63 AMG has finally landed

Not only will AMG ditch rear-wheel drive outright, but it’s also looking to go small with its engine lineup, opting into low-displacement and extra boost over the traditional fire-breathing V-8s and V-12s of past AMG models.

“We are not going to push the performance output of the V-8 in future,” Moers told Autocar. Currently, models like the AMG S 63 and C 63 S come equipped with a twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 making well over 600 horsepower. Now it sounds like these standards could soon go the way of the dodo.

2019 Mercedes-AMG S65 Final Edition Exterior
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No surprise then that the top-dog AMG V-12 will follow. “We’re still responsible for V-12s - maybe Maybach is going to use them in the next-generation S-Class, but not AMG,” Moers said at the Geneva Motor Show. “Having a high-powered competitive V-12 would be a new engine, and in the new times there is no room to do that.”

So then, without V-12s and V-8s, what will power AMG’s lineup?

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 Unveiled with 300 HP and Four-Door Coupe Luxury Exterior
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Well, additional four- and six-cylinder engines is one obvious answer. Take for example the turbo 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the CLA 35 and A 35 sedan.

With 306 horsepower on tap, this lump has become a standard among AMG’s entry-level models. Or take the 3.0-liter mild-hybrid straight-six on the E 53, which is good for 429 horsepower.

The E 53’s ‘six brings another potential solution to the discussion - hybrid and electrification, both of which can circumvent the problem of high emissions typically associated with high-performance applications.

Mercedes Thinks the 2019 AMG GT Four-Door Coupe is Worth $137,000, But How Does that Stack Up to the Competition
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Moers has backed this assertion in the past, and it’s said that the upcoming AMG GT 4-Door is expected to come with a plug-in hybrid powertrain and enough muscle to run with the 680-horsepower Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid.

BMW’s M Division Will Undoubtedly Follow Suit

2018 BMW M5
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As goes Mercedes, so goes BMW.

At the risk of sounding like a luddite, M cars used to be razor-sharp performance cars with rear-wheel drive as standard. Now, that’s all changing.

For example, the F90-generation M5 brought all-wheel drive to BMW’s line of M sedans for the first time, while the forthcoming G80-generation M3 will most likely offer all-wheel drive as well.

A lot of this is in response to a changing market and moves from rivals like AMG, but it’s also a continuation of what we’ve seen in the performance SUV segment.

2015 BMW X5 M High Resolution Exterior
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All-wheel drive is especially important for a high-powered, tall-bodied vehicles like the the BMW X5 M. With a whopping 567 horsepower and enough tire to smother a small state; the X5 M has the muscle and mechanical grip to run with true-blue sports cars. However, put all that output exclusively through the rear wheels, and things start to go wrong.

Engineers must divide the power front to back and dial in the understeer, so the damn thing doesn’t tip over in a corner or snap on itself.

With that in mind, it makes sense that BMW would carry over these high-performance all-wheel drive systems to other segments as well, especially when you add in all the market pressures.

How Did We Get Here And What’s To Come?

2006 Subaru Impreza WRX STI
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The mass move to all-wheel drive from the Germans reminds me a bit of what went down in the early 2000’s when Subaru brought the WRX to the U.S. and started stealing sales from the Mustang and Camaro. Almost overnight, all-wheel drive became synonymous with performance, grip, and handling.

Beyond this cultural shift, all-wheel drive is becoming more and more important for another reason - physics.

Horsepower is extremely cheap these days, and while output claims are impressive on paper, you still need to put it to the ground efficiently to make it worthwhile.

2020 BMW M3 Exterior
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As such, all-wheel drive is the go-to answer. All-wheels-driven makes a high-powered car easier to operate for novice drivers (actually having the option to go full throttle from time to time is important!), and it’s easier to drive on the street too (poor road quality and weather conditions can hurt grip even more).

As such, luxury European models now need all-wheel drive to entice buyers. What’s more, you gotta consider that most folks “want it all” when it comes to these expensive machines, and all-wheel drive adds a semblance of usability and daily drivability that purely rear-wheel drive alternatives can’t offer.

So what can we expect looking forward?

Mercedes-AMG S 63 And S 65 Updated In Shanghai; Still Silly Fast High Resolution Exterior
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For starters, standard all-wheel drive will makes the segment more expensive as a whole.

These systems aren’t cheap, and the extra weight they add will need to be properly sorted with advanced suspension systems and lightweight materials, not to mention extra power. But of course, you can’t just add cylinders to achieve that latter goal - these days, electrification is the answer, but again that sort of thing is definitely not cheap.

And, as mentioned above, all-wheel drive tends to muddy a car’s handling. Power to the front can make a car feel nose heavy, and the front tires will wash out when you really dig into the throttle, and that’s sure to piss off the purists.

2018 BMW M5 High Resolution Exterior
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Of course, all that is at the edges of adhesion, a place few consumers explore with any regularity. All-wheel drive still helps a car hold onto the road and launch off corners with ferocity. But if it’s slinking through a race course and pure driver engagement that you’re after, rear-wheel drive is still the preferred option.

With that in mind, hardcore performance cars will likely remain rear-wheel drive for some time to come. Think lightweight two-door coupes, rather than heavy luxury machines like those in the AMG and BMW M camps.

What do you think, dear reader? Is this move towards all-wheel drive and electrification a good thing, or just another example of where the industry has gone wrong? Let us know in the comments section below.

Further Reading

Here's What AMG's Shift Into An AWD-Only Brand Means for BMW M Exterior
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Read our full review on the 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35.

2019 Mercedes-Benz AMG E63 S - Driven
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Read our full driven review on the 2019 Mercedes-AMG E 63 S.

2019 Mercedes-AMG S65 Final Edition Exterior
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Read our full review on the 2019 Mercedes-AMG S 65 Final Edition.

2018 BMW M5 High Resolution Exterior
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Read our full review on the 2018 BMW M5.

Source: Autocar

Jonathan Lopez
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