With the popularization of all-wheel-drive (AWD) across every car segment from compact hatchbacks to unobtanium-spec hypercars, we have seen a vast increase not only in the amount of models available with AWD, but of the various AWD systems themselves. Used to be you’d pull a lever, lock the differential in your 4 x 4 and Bob’s your uncle. Now, however, with the immense processing power on-board most every vehicle today, what your AWD system can do for you has vastly changed.
To see some of this in practice, we were deployed to Big Sky, Montana to put Infiniti’s entire line of AWD vehicles through their paces on everything from an iced-over skidpad to a high-speed circuit on compact snow.
Infiniti QX50 and QX55
Yes, technically these are two different models – one a compact crossover, the other a compact crossover-coupe – but they employ the exact same running gear and powertrain. That’s a four-cylinder turbo with variable-compression tech to help provide the performance of a zippy turbocharged engine and efficiency closer to something diesel-powered. It’s interesting tech but unfortunately, it’s expensive and complex and hasn’t made it past these two models in the line-up. Indeed, with the popularization of electrification, what VC-Turbo can do can be done with far less complexity.
In its current form, however, the VC does work as advertised and provides some fantastic pop when you hit the throttle, even if it is cut into a little by the continuously-variable automatic transmission, a transmission type that is good for smoothness, if not all that much driver involvement.
These two employ a front-biased AWD system, meaning that in normal low-load circumstances – such as when on the highway – full power is sent to the front wheels for efficiency’s sake. Then, if rear slip is detected, up to 50 per cent of power can be delivered to the rear and shuffled to whichever wheel has the most purchase. Power is sent rearwards via a multi-clutch system, and you can feel the difference…
…as long as the AWD system lets you. I say that because the first line of defence here are the traction and stability control systems (“VDC” in Infiniti speak, short for “Vehicle Dynamics Control”) that will step in even before power is shuffled about. That you can really feel in either of these two because if it senses slip, you can floor it and you’ll get very little in return. After all; no point in providing power if you can put it down properly, right?
The thing is, Infiniti is kind enough to let you deactivate VDC (as well as providing numerous drive modes – including “snow” and “sport” – that affect how power is metered out), although how you do so depends on the car; here, it’s done via the lower of the two central displays. Personally, I’d prefer an easy press of a hard button, but there you have it.
Do that and the vehicle loosens up; on the larger track, it immediately gets a little more tail-happy as the AWD system – and your throttle — begin to do more of the heavy lifting when it comes to keeping you on the straight and narrow. You won’t be pulling any lairy drifts round the corners as the systems are never fully deactivated, but the difference is immediately palpable. If you want a little more control – on slick surfaces, off-road, etc. – then this is the setting for you.
Trouble is that in these circumstances, I never felt fully comfortable at the wheel. Oh, sure; you can toddle around just fine at city speeds and for most, that’s OK. When it comes to higher speeds, however – on a snowy highway say – I just wouldn’t feel quite at home here as it’s either just a little squirrely, or the systems are too invasive.
Infiniti QX60 (cover photo)
This three-row SUV is the newest vehicle in the Infiniti line-up and as a result, has the latest AWD system. The big mechanical change is that the multi-clutch system is no longer, replaced here by a more responsive single clutch . That means you get a more rear-biased drive and even with the systems on you’re allowed just that much more slip for a more sporting drive. It also does away with the VC-Turbo in favour of a naturally-aspirated V6.
Not only that, but I found it also returns a more confidence-inspiring drive as it’s more predictive overall. It’s to the point that even with VDC on, you can actually carry off what’s known as a “Scandinavian Flick”. This requires you to turn briefly in the opposite direction you want to travel and then swing it back the other way. This allows you to use the weight of the vehicle to “flick” you through a turn. It’s called such because off-road rally-racing drivers from Finland and Sweden popularized it to win rallies back in the ’60s and ‘70s.
Speaking of weight; since there’s more of it here than there is in the other two there’s more to throw around to get you through corners. It’s all rather fun – especially if you switch off the VDC, done once again not by a single button press but this time by scrolling through the trip computer.
That’s all great for fun and games but what it means is that in addition to being bigger and with a third row of seating, the QX60 is more adaptable to adverse terrain and conditions. Nice having a little attitude when the going gets cleaner, though, and the QX60 is more than happy to oblige. This is a fantastic powertrain, paired perfectly with a smart chassis and AWD system.
From unibody crossovers (and before the main event, at least it is for this writer anyway) we make our way to a body-on-frame truck-based SUV, and the only model in the line-up with a two-speed transfer case. This is more traditional 4 x 4 as it doesn’t rely fully on computers and VDC to control power dispersal. Instead you go ahead and set those diffs – 2H, 4H and 4L – and the power is sent to where you ask it. In 2H mode, the QX80 operates in rear-wheel-drive. Which can be quite fun on a snow-covered course, if you have the stones for it.
Those settings, however, are more about hard-core off-roading and towing. We kept it in 4H for almost the duration of our testing and made use of the snow mode – activated by a single button press, as is VDC – and put the QX80 through its paces.
Of course, this is a big SUV with a lot of weight to throw around and since power dispersal isn’t quite as active here as it is in the others it takes a little more to finesse this big brute through the snow track and icy skidpad. The steering, however, is direct and once you learn to accept that and let the big 5.6-litre V8 do its thing, the drive is a surprisingly involved one. It’s also a barrel of laughs as you let speeds increase because no truck this honkin’ big should be allowed to slip and side its way over a snowy track like this.
Of course, that weight will get away from you – especially on the slalom course we also tried – and when it does the systems are on-hand to pull you out. Just don’t forget to allow the power to do its thing. Don’t just stand on the brakes and steer, because out here, that won’t work as you’ll just understeer your way to the snowbank. You need to use that power to get your through the turns just as much as you do to pass a semi on the highway. I will say, though, that even as the QX80’s big rump begins to out-pace its massive hood, seeing said hood point the way you want it to when you drop that throttle is quite the sight.
Infiniti Q50 Red Sport 400
With that, we turn to our last car – yes, car – and the only one Infiniti makes now that the Q60 coupe is no longer.
This isn’t just any Q50, though; this one is the powerful one with a twin-turbo V6 good for 400 horsepower slung out ahead of you. There’s also AWD, of course, but what that means here is somewhat nebulous.
I say that because we’re also at the other end of the spectrum from where we started; where the QX50 and 55 are front-biased, the Q50 sends power only to the rear wheels unless otherwise asked. That means that when you set it to Sport – or, if you’re feeling frisky, Sport+ — the term “lairy” doesn’t even begin to describe the tail-out hijinx this sedan is capable of in these conditions. Flick one way, turn-in the other, give it some welly and watch as the front wheels toss snow drifts across the windscreen as if Frosty himself was blowing it there from the palm of his hand. A beauty that belies the violence going on below.
The Q50 is transformative, though. Even with two extra doors over the Q60 it drives in just as committed a manner and in these conditions is absolutely befitting of a performance sedan. I will grant that the steering could provide a little more feel on smoother roads – it uses a clutch-activated steer-by-wire set-up – but you don’t miss that quite as much when plying your craft on snow drifts in sport mode with VDC off. That’s because in these conditions, it’s the throttle that you need response from; steering is almost a bonus. Balance the Q50 on throttle, though, and you’re well on your way.
So there we have it; four flavours of AWD, the differences of which are actually quite easy to differentiate when tested back-to-back. Of course, the kind of driving we were doing on a closed circuit is not something you want to try on an open road, but the lessons earned – how to salvage a slide, how your AWD works and how to best use the various systems on-hand to your advantage — can be applied to any situation. These are lessons that every driver – especially every Canadian driver – would do well to learn.