Some cool cars and good fun |
Mirabel, Québec – There is a stark contrast between the automobile buying habits of consumers here in Canada and those of our friends south of the border. To put it simply, all-wheel drive rules here. The inclement weather we are famously known for is probably the biggest reason behind the demand we’re seeing nowadays. Luxury brands who have, for decades, steadfastly stuck to rear-drive offerings, have seen the light and now make their products available with all-wheel drive. Everywhere you look, you’ll see xDrive, 4MATIC, and AWD badges. It has gotten to the point where the rear-drive versions of certain cars are now only available via special order. Brands like Subaru who are long-established leaders in all-wheel drive propulsion are reaping the benefits of a market looking for more traction. Not looking to be left behind, Chrysler flew me out to Circuit ICAR, at the old Mirabel airport, just outside of Montreal, so I could check out their new winter-capable lineup.
A lot of people don’t think of the Chrysler group when all-wheel drive is brought up. The Jeep brand, while under the same Fiat-Chrysler umbrella, can basically stand alone with its own unique branding and four-wheel drive heritage. Back to the FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) portfolio, they were keen to point out the all-wheel drive availability with the Chrysler 200 and 300, as well as the Dodge Charger – all considered volume models for the whole family. On the other side of the token, FCA also wanted to show off some of their more serious off-road credentials with their light and medium-duty four-wheel drive trucks. The common denominator here is snow. Chrysler, with the help of ICAR, set up three unique snow & ice covered courses to put their vehicles to the test.
Chrysler is especially proud nowadays of their diverse traction-enhanced lineup. The 200 starts the presentation by offering a unique rear axle setup that can fully disconnect itself from the driveline during steady-state cruising and when all-wheel traction isn’t needed. The most interesting part is that the added drag usually associated with an inactive all-wheel drive system is no longer an issue. The centre driveshaft simply stops spinning if the brains up front call for it. When additional traction is needed once more, the drive shaft and rear axle are ready to receive torque from the engine in less than a second’s notice. In the midsize family segment, this trump card gives the 200 an advantage over the mainstream front-drive competitors from Japan. On the closed course, it was actually pretty fun to feel the power from the 3.6L engine being shuffled around from axle to axle, mid-corner with the throttle applied.
FCA also had the all-wheel drive versions of the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger. Both are similar in engineering and design, but feature a slightly different feel around the driver. Predominantly rear-drive, power is sent back up to the front axle by way of a transfer case attached to the transmission. It’s still easy to feel the rear-drive dynamic, but the added traction from a stop is one of the most obvious benefits of opting into the all-wheel drive versions of FCA’s full-size offerings.
Jeep’s larger products, such as the Grand Cherokee and Durango, also feature a similar feel, but add more capability by way of an available low-range gear and selectable drive modes that reconfigure power delivery, suspension height and damping, and hill-descent control. All this legitimate hardware give the driver a lot of capability, whether they need it or not. The best part is that you’re not giving up your on-road manners just so you can wander off the beaten path.
On hand were some of FCA’s small and medium-sized truck products. The familiar Compass, Cherokee, and Grand Cherokee were available to try, but the most intriguing choice available was the new Jeep Renegade. Technically based on the slightly oddball Fiat 500L, the Renegade ditches the Italian flair and substitutes a heaping of unmistakable Jeep style and functionality. The Renegade certainly features a fresh look, far less polarizing than that of the Cherokee. It is a cool look that will be at home whether in the tight urban centres, or the country trails that lead to more adventures. I quite like the proportions – the Renegade almost looks as long as it is wide. It is packed full of fun little Easter eggs that people will surely smile about. Simply put, the Jeep Renegade oozes character.
Jeep has outfitted the Renegade with an available low-range transfer case attached to the class-exclusive nine-speed automatic transmission. Similar (but built up) to the Chrysler 200’s setup, the power take-off unit in the front axle and rear differential unit work together to disconnect and reconnect the rear axle as needed. I didn’t have a ton of time to evaluate the Renegade in detail (the queue of fellow auto journalists behind me can vouch), but I got a chance to run it through the off-road course built by ICAR – featuring steep ascents and descents, rutted mud, and lots of chances for massive wheel articulation. At some points, the nose of the Renegade was pointed straight up, and we could only see the blue sky as all four wheels clawed for grip in the snow, mud, and ice mix. We look forward to putting the new Jeep Renegade through our usual barrage of real-world tests.
On the other end of the size spectrum, the massive and shouty Ram Power Wagon was also a hoot to drive. Powered by a big 6.4L Hemi V8, the solution to getting through the tight off-road course was simple: more throttle. Adding more power to the equation quickly saw the Power Wagon figure itself out and power through the course. With dedicated front and rear locking axles, upgraded Bilstein dampers, and even an electronically disconnecting front stabilizer bar, the only thing that can really stop the Power Wagon is its sheer size.
The highlight of my day had to be fooling around in the Dodge Charger Pursuit edition. It was outfitted with a full suite of police-grade gear, including a functional (low-profile) light bar, sirens, and adjustable spotlights. There’s simply nothing that compares to getting sideways, from a squad car driver’s seat, with the sirens wailing. I am sure the ICAR staff were tired of all the noise and commotion by the end of the day, but everybody in attendance made sure to take advantage of such a unique opportunity.
One important point to keep in mind is that all the hardware in the world won’t help you if you’re not riding on the correct tires. Each car in this test was shod with proper winter rubber, allowing the brains and mechanical bits to work as intended. Do yourself a favour and be equipped for the conditions. It was a typical February day outside Montreal. Cold, windy, with the brilliant winter sunshine prompting you to reach for your sunglasses. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles North America is right to feel good about their engineering and design advancements of late. All-wheel drive is a big deal for Canadians, and being able to deliver on promised results is not only good for sales, but also pushes the envelope with the competition. It’s a win-win situation.