Four-wheel drive performance cars are some of the fastest, and most accessible, ever produced. Here are ten of the greatest and most influential
Upon hearing the term 4x4, most people generally form a mental image of mud plugging SUVs, hunting dogs and off road excursions into the forest. While the traditional four-wheel drive off roader is still very much with us, providing power to all four wheels is quickly becoming the default option for performance car manufacturers to tame their most powerful road cars.
Since their inception into common use, made popular by rallying in the 1980s, 4x4 performance cars offered a new level of all-round usability, traction and surefootedness in cold and wet weather. Over the years, the extra weight, complexity and handling challenges of this configuration have largely overcome, to the point that the best four-wheel drive performance cars today offer the kind of driving enjoyment that was once the sole preserve of rear-wheel drive.
With high torque electric hybrids and turbocharging becoming commonplace, four-wheel drive systems are being widely adopted to take advantage of the additional power on offer. Here are some of the best, and most influential cars to make use of the layout.
The original four-wheel drive Audi quattro A1 rally car first arrived on the gravel stages in 1980, and it proved to be such a devastating weapon against its rear-wheel drive opposition that the WRC would never quite look the same again. The road car was just as effective, featuring an advanced drivetrain and almost foolproof high-performance handling. It was the first in a long line of powerful Audis that have continued using four-wheel drive to provide devastatingly quick cross-country pace, while clothed in understated bodywork.
The Impreza is another road car that rose to fame off the back of some impressive rally performances. A testament to the car’s toughness and popularity means that very few Imprezas remained in standard trim for long. Whether modified to 500bhp, in standard form or one of the many factory built special editions, these are a great example of how four-wheel drive can provide driving thrills, regardless of the road conditions. Early Imprezas with bonnet scoops, bright blue paintwork and gold wheels are still the most fun, but the newer cars provide additional power while still retaining the charm of the originals.> Take a look at the Subaru Impreza Turbo buying guide, and browse the classifieds here
Lancia Delta HF Integrale
Audi and Subaru may have enjoyed success in rallying but none dominated the sport in quite the fashion that Lancia did. With ten WRC wins, it reigns supreme and six of those are thanks to our third entrant, the Lancia Delta HF Integrale. In road going form this boxy little hatchback was a revelation, in run-out Evo 2 guise it could accelerate to 60 in 5.5 seconds. An advanced 4x4 system with three differentials put every one of its 215bhp to good use and gave it supercar trouncing cross country pace.
Take a Mitsubishi Evo of any age, point it at some lumpy British B Roads, and prepare to be amazed. While the Impreza was a huge success in the UK from the outset, the lesser-spotted Lancer Evolution was much more of a cult option. This was mostly thanks to the fact that UK sales of the Evo didn’t officially start until the sixth-generation model was introduced in 1999, shortly followed by the hugely desirable Tommi Makinen special edition. The Evo was very similar in concept to the Impreza, but it was always the slightly more harcore option. Active Yaw Control in later Evos was particularly special, giving it seemingly physics-defying agility and grip approaching, on, and well over the limit.
> Read the buying guide and browse the Mitsubishi Evo classifieds here
Nissan Skyline GT-R R32
When Nissan set out to built an all-conquering Group A touring car to wear the hallowed GT-R badge, it re-wrote the rulebook. Nissan’s clever engineers built the car with track driving in mind from the outset, taking inspiration from the Porsche 959 – at the time the most advanced 4WD car in the world. The system, called ATTESA E-TS (which stands for Advanced Total Traction Engineering System for All-Terrain Electronic Torque Split), was different, in that it actually kept the Skyline rear-wheel drive most of the time for agility – sending power to the front only when it was needed to correct a slide, or when traction was particularly limited. The car demolished the competition at the time, earning its nickname ‘Godzilla’.
Ford needed a cool new rally car for the 1990s, and basing it on the Mk4 Escort was an obvious choice. Actually developing the front-wheel drive Escort into something capable of winning championships would have brought numerous challenges, and in the end the best option was to use existing 4x4 Sierra Sapphire Cosworth underpinnings with pumped-up Escort bodywork. And a huge rear wing.
Yet another four-wheel drive performance car, from Japan, that was destined for the world rally stages was the Toyota Celica GT-Four. Seeing one on the road today immediately conjures up images of those iconic Sega Rally arcade machines, and for some, the ingenious cheating device that got TTE banned from the WRC for two years. The road cars are all interesting, but the final ST205 generation cars are the most developed and fastest of the road cars. And you also get that ridiculously huge rear wing.
The company that did so much to bring all-wheel traction to the performance car sector deserves a second entry in our list. Where the UR quattro was designed to be an all-conquering rally weapon, the R8 was designed from the outset as a road-going supercar. Borrowing its V8 engine from another modern four-wheel drive classic, the B7 RS4, Audi’s R8 provided supercar performance with the driving manners of a family hatchback. Balanced handling thanks to the sophisticated four-wheel drive system meant that this performance was genuinely accessible too. Now in its second generation, and with V10 power, the R8 continues to punch well above its price tag.
It may be surprising to learn that the first performance four-wheel drive car was not German or American made, but in fact British. The Jensen FF (which stood for Ferguson Formula) released in 1966 was based on the Interceptor grand tourer, and included advanced features like ABS braking. A massive 6.2-litre V8 made short work of the added weight over the standard car, however all this complexity added significantly to the price tag and due to design restrictions, no left hand drive models were built, further limiting its appeal. With only around 320 FFs built they are extremely rare today.
Nissan GT-R – The ultimate?
The Nissan GT-R has had almost as much internet space dedicated to it as Kim Kardashian’s bum, although in the GT-R’s case it is wholly warranted. Its giant-slaying ability is thanks in no small measure to the advanced four-wheel drive system, which regularly sees the GT-R come out on top in real world comparisons. Continuous development since its 2007 launch means that it’s still one of the best bang-for-buck supercar out there, and the bomb proof mechanicals have see tuners realise upwards of 700bhp with no problem. The GT-R’s launch from standstill is also one of the quickest in the business. With the current R35 is reaching the end of its life, we can’t wait to find out what Nissan has in store for its replacement.
Bugatti Veyron SS – Pushing boundaries
Okay, we know that putting this car in makes our list 11, but the Veyron deserves a mention as the fastest production car on the planet. The Chiron may be on horizon but the Bugatti Veyron, especially in SS form remains one of the most extreme four-wheel drive supercars produced. The massive weight may cost it a few tenths off the line, but once past the quarter mile marker and especially at higher velocities the Veyron still reigns supreme. This sort of power in a rear wheel drive car would be impossible to put down but the Veyron manages it with almost contemptuous ease. If ever there was an endorsement for the four-wheel drive supercar, then this must be it.