Product shift means added models and profits
By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News
2005 Mercury Montego
Later this year, Ford will deliver a pair of new mid-size cars on which all-wheel drive will be an option -- the Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego.
BIRMINGHAM — When the weather forecast calls for snow, Tim Mandeville doesn’t fret about the prospect of slippery driving conditions.
The 46-year-old Commerce Township resident safely navigated Metro Detroit’s slick roads in a recent snowstorm even as he passed three drivers behind the wheel of Mercedes-Benz models struggling to climb a hill.
“And then there was a BMW 7-Series trying to get up his subdivision street,” Mandeville said. “He couldn’t go anywhere. I was like a tank.”
But Mandeville doesn’t drive an Abrams. Or even a sport utility vehicle. He pilots a 2003 A4 sedan from Volkswagen’s upscale Audi unit that’s equipped with the brand’s Quattro all-wheel-drive system.
Seduced by the go-anywhere, do-anything capabilities associated with SUVs, consumers have developed an affinity for intrepidness.
Automakers are poised to satisfy the shift in preference by selling more cars that transfer engine power to all four corners — commonly called all-wheel drive.
By 2006, car buyers seeking all-wheel drive will have their choice of 42 models, according to WardsAuto.com — a 62 percent increase over the 2004 model year. By 2008, the number of all-wheel-drive cars on the road will double by today’s count, according to Visteon Corp., a supplier of all-wheel-drive technology.
Four-wheel drive distributes power to all four wheels equally regardless of wheel slippage.
All-wheel drive detects wheel slippage and channels power to the wheels that are getting traction. Because all-wheel-drive systems are lighter than four-wheel-drive units, they allow for better fuel efficiency but provide less ruggedness for hard-core off-roading.
For automakers, the rising demand for all-wheel-drive cars means greater profit potential. All-wheel-drive systems now cost up to $1,500 as optional equipment.
The growing interest in all-wheel drive comes as automakers are rolling out a parade of new cars that bring back rear-wheel drive — the preferred technology of automotive enthusiasts because it offers smoother handling and better cornering.
Automakers face a marketing challenge with rear-drive cars after spending years convincing consumers that front-wheel drive is better on bad roads. All-wheel drive essentially offers the best of both worlds.
“The all-wheel-drive car is physically planted at all four corners,” said Phil Martens, Ford Motor Co.’s group vice president of North America product creation. This aids handling in all conditions, not just bad weather.
Randy Sanders, global director of chassis products at Visteon, which makes the component that gives extra grip to Jaguar’s all-wheel-drive X-Type, demonstrated the technology’s effectiveness while teaching his daughter to drive.
She wanted a rear-wheel-drive Mustang, so Sanders took her out in his rear-wheel-drive truck after a snowstorm. They got stuck.
“We weren’t going anywhere,” Sanders said. “She goes, ‘OK, well now what do we do?’ I said, ‘Well, if you’re in a Mustang GT, you get your butt out and start walking.’ ”
Mating cars with all-wheel drive isn’t new. Subaru pioneered and helped commercialize the feature in North America nearly 30 years ago.
But the desire to own cars with the feature is getting new attention.
Magna Steyr, a subsidiary of Aurora, Ontario-based Magna International Inc. and a supplier of all-wheel-drive systems, released a “desire” index last year that showed Americans have a higher regard for all-wheel drive than motorists in Germany, France and even safety-obsessed, snow-covered Sweden.
Just over 50 percent of American women and 55 percent of their male counterparts said they aspired to own vehicles equipped with all-wheel drive.
The reasons were emotional and rational, the study said. The “feeling of freedom” was cited, along with the obvious attraction — better traction.
While Audi and Subaru lead in all-wheel-drive offerings in the United States — Subaru made it standard equipment across its product lineup in 1997 — Ford is among the automakers taking the technology to the next level.
Later this year, Ford will deliver a pair of new mid-size cars on which all-wheel drive will be an option — the Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego.
By the 2006 model year, the Dearborn automaker will have as many as five models available with all-wheel drive, including the Ford Futura midsize sedan and its Lincoln and Mercury derivatives.
“There is definitely a market, a growing market, for all-wheel drive,” said Steve Lyons, Ford division president. “And frankly I think it evolved because of SUVs. They made people comfortable with it.”
The growth has already begun where most new technologies take root — among luxury and premium brands. The new Cadillac STS sedan will offer all-wheel-drive, as will the new Chrysler 300 — both of which debut later this year.
Mercedes-Benz and BMW are expanding their all-wheel drive offerings while Nissan Motor Co.’s Infiniti division has just started selling a version of the G35 sedan with the road-hugging technology. Lexus is slated to enter the all-wheel game with the 2006 GS sports sedan.
In 1999, 2.3 percent of all cars sold in the United States came equipped with all-wheel drive, according to WardsAuto.com. The figure rose to 4.3 percent in 2003.
The proliferation of all-wheel drive threatens Audi which, ironically, is facing pressure even from within. Volkswagen AG’s Phaeton luxury sedan, which shares the same underpinnings as Audi’s A8, features a version of the Quattro system.
“We are, obviously, very much concerned because we did have customers coming to us in the past specifically because we offer an all-wheel-drive system,” said Michael Lembke, marketing director of Audi North America Inc.
Ali Haji-Sheikh, general manager of Fred Lavery Audi in Birmingham, said he’s only sold about six cars in eight years that did not have Quattro.
“The Audi customer’s pretty well-educated,” said Haji-Sheikh, a former placekicker in the National Football League. “For the most part, people coming in, they want Quattro. It’s a way of life.”
So Audi continues to refine its system, reducing its bulk by about 20 pounds. A conventional all-wheel-drive system weighs about 150 pounds and reduces fuel economy by about 2 percent.
Subaru isn’t intimidated, even though the technology — as with most innovations — will trickle down from luxury cars to higher volume vehicle segments. Mazda is already eyeing a system for its Mazda6 sports sedan.
Subaru is even sharing its technology with Saab — both automakers are affiliated with GM — which is introducing the all-wheel-drive 9-2x sport wagon this year.
“By other manufacturers coming in,” said Subaru spokesman Mike Whelan, “it has certainly legitimized what Subaru has been doing all along.”