In a remote corner of Saint-Alexis-des-Monts, about 90 miles northeast of Montreal, we found ourselves standing on 30-inch-thick ice floating atop one of the many picturesque lakes that dot the rolling landscape of Quebec. We hadn’t come to take in the sights or participate in a dog-sledding expedition—although we did these things, too—but to put Volkswagen’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system to the test. On hand were examples of the brand’s newest SUVs, the Atlas and the Tiguan, as well as a Golf Alltrack with a manual transmission and a Golf R equipped with Volkswagen’s DSG automatic gearbox.
All four vehicles were equipped with the company’s 4Motion all-wheel drive and shod with unstudded Continental winter tires; winter tires are a requirement in the province of Quebec from December 15 to March 15. Four makeshift courses had been cleared and coned off on the lake, and a pair of instructors stood by to help us hone our car-control techniques on ice and lightly snow-packed surfaces. Being from frigid Michigan, we slid behind the wheel confident that we’d need little of the guidance flowing out of our French Canadian guide’s mouth. But we listened anyway and ultimately learned more than we’d expected, both about Volkswagen’s 4Motion system and about our driving.
The 4Motion system uses an electrohydraulic clutch pack to engage the compact all-wheel-drive coupling, which is situated neatly in the rear differential housing. The 4Motion system drives the front wheels whenever possible to help save fuel, but once the sensors detect wheel slippage, 4Motion can route up to 100 percent of the available torque to the rear axle, where it’s distributed evenly between the two sides. Atlas and Tiguan models offer two off-road modes, one of which can be customized by the driver, but all 4Motion-equipped vehicles come with a Snow mode that allows more wheelspin than normal to help maintain forward motion when the going gets slow. After a few laps on the various courses, we could feel the differences between the modes and how the system works in each of the different vehicles.
The higher center of gravity in the Atlas and Tiguan SUVs made it easier to snap them sideways, but their traction and stability control systems intervened earlier than those in the Alltrack or Golf R. The Alltrack was a willing and playful partner on the ice course, but our favorite car to blast around the frozen lake was the Golf R. With its traction and stability control turned off and its Sport mode engaged, it was an absolute joy to toss around the slalom, leaving massive roostertails of powder in its wake.
Without the fear of ricocheting off another motorist or burying ourselves in a snowy roadside ditch, it was easier to push the cars to their limit and hold them there in graceful, giggle-inducing drifts. And without that heavy, sinking feeling in the pit of our stomach, we were able to learn more about vehicle control. The next time it snows in Ann Arbor, we’re ready for whatever nature throws our way. Now, who’s hogging the keys to our long-term Golf Alltrack?