8-Bit All Wheel Drive

As driving enthusiasts, we crave purity. Our ideal car is transparent and communicative about what it’s doing and has a naturalness about how it reacts to our inputs. We want to know exactly what the front wheels are doing, and we want an instantaneous, linear response when we so much as brush the throttle. If you go back far enough in automotive history, these features were present in most every car, whether the driver wanted them or not. 

As we sit at the apparent threshold of the end of the naturally-aspirated rear-wheel-drive performance car, this purity has become increasingly rare. As more and more of the performance car gold standards switch to turbocharging (Aston Martin, Porsche 911/Boxster/Cayman, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, BMW M, Mercedes AMG), all-wheel-drive, or both, journalists and car nuts alike are wringing their hands about what it means for the driving pleasure we all seek every time we get behind the wheel. We worry these technologies make cars too fast, too easy, too insular, too boring.

As the 1980s drew to a close, however, the prevailing sentiment was very different. The arrival of the Audi Quattro car for the 1981 rally season changed the sport forever. Although Lancia clawed its way to a World Rally Championship with the 037 in 1983, it was the last time a rear-wheel-drive car would ever win. Meanwhile Audi’s shocking underdog 1988 Trans Am Championship victory against Camaros and Corvettes with a large sedan powered by a 2.2 liter turbocharged inline-5 showed the promise of the technology on pavement as well. 

In road cars then, these technologies were exciting glimpses into a better future for enthusiasts. Turbocharging and all wheel drive were cutting-edge concepts that promised more: more performance from the same displacement, more traction, and cars that incorporated them were instantly cooler. 

These three cars–the Lancia Delta Integrale, Nissan Skyline GT-R, and Porsche Carrera 4–represented the philosophy that innovation and cleverness could move the performance goal posts just as much as brute force and raw power. We assembled them on a summer evening in and around San Francisco to see what the next great thing circa 1989, all wheel drive, means for driving pleasure today.

These three cars are united by their all-wheel drive power delivery but diverge considerably in their execution. Before even discussing how they put power down, the differences are stark. Their form factors could not be more different: the Integrale is pure box-flared rally car hot hatch, the GT-R is a conventional three-box form with flares, and the 964 is the familiar but objectively unconventional 911 shape. 

As you draw closer to the cars and step inside, the differences between them are reinforced further: the Lancia has a hilariously square plastic dashboard that is basically devoid of aesthetic character until your eye reaches the marvelous yellow instruments, which are as comprehensive as they should be in a sporting car. The clockwise rotating tachometer starts at the 3 o’clock position for some reason, while Alcantara seat, door panel, and headliner upholstery add some sporting character to what is otherwise a pretty basic interior whose economy car roots are clear. The GT-R interior is quintessentially Japanese for the period: aero-styled, plastic, and a bit plain aside from a strange collection of buttons and controls arranged around the edge of the instrument binnacle. The Porsche interior, on the other hand, is thoroughly strange: the architecture dates back to the 1960s and predates the arrival of many of the accessories the car is equipped with: power mirrors, power locks, air conditioning, intermittent wipers, and electric clock, for example. Consequently, controls for these functions are strewn around the interior in a thoroughly un-ergonomic fashion, often cryptically marked or altogether unmarked. The quality of the materials, however is exemplary, conveying a sense of durability and permanence which extends to the driving experience as well.

The driving experience of the 964 Carrera 4 is quintessentially air-cooled 911, but rendered in a more contemporary way than the earlier torsion bar suspended cars, thanks to the modern brakes and tires, as well as the McPherson strut suspension. The steering is relatively heavy, despite this being the first 911 ever with power steering. It is exactly as feelsome as you would expect given the 911’s stellar reputation as a driver’s car. The shifter, and in fact most of the mechanical interfaces with the car, have a hefty precistion feel that exudes quality in the typically German fashion. Brakes are superbly judged, being extremely competent and infinitely easy to modulate. The engine has a classic naturally-aspirated sports car feel, albeit one with some displacement: torque is available at all engine engine speeds, giving the engine a docile, tractable nature, yet the motor is also enthusiastic to rev out and does so with an exciting sense of occasion.

And what of the four wheel drive system? In most circumstances, the car feels more or less the same as the rear-wheel-drive Carrera 2: it has a marvelous communicative chassis that makes the driver grin. There is a natural, harmonious character to the way the car moves: enough motion to involve, entertain, and reward the driver, but with a level of competence and precision that inspires confidence. There are a couple notable differences compared to the Carrera 2: the default power split is 69% rear 31% front and under light to moderate power in corners, it’s possible to feel the car pull you through the corner, which is reassuring and safer than leaving the road backwards due to power oversteer. In the tighter corners that define the roads in the hills of Marin County, the idiosyncrasies of the AWD system start to appear. Under heavier throttle however, ABS sensors signal a clutch to engage which sends more torque to the front axle. The result is that the car understeers disconcertingly and frustratingly, a set of circumstances that can be replicated under closed throttle as well, a decidedly un-911 like behavior which can be mitigated somewhat with trail-braking.

If the all wheel drive system of the of the Porsche is disconcerting at the limit, the Lancia’s is very much the opposite. Our subject car, riding on sticky Bridgestone RE-71s and a healthy amount of negative camber, has an agility and grip level that induce full belly laughter at times. The suspension, which seems absurdly firm initially, becomes a godsend at speed. The traction, both for cornering and putting down power, is phenomenal and the car is indecently fast point-to-point considering its power output. It is a hugely rewarding driver’s car which instantly makes the quality of its interior and the initial driving impressions forgivable. 

The initial driving impressions are somewhat underwhelming. The noise from the engine is fairly unremarkable inline-4 with a layer of whirring mechanical sounds that sound like a flying car from the Jetsons. The clutch is a bit vague and too light, as though it isn’t up to handling the torque (it subsequently proves that it is), and the gearchange is long and ropey, with an uncertainty that conveys neither quality nor durability. The suspension is very firm, and while quieter than most Integrales, the interior squeaks and rattles. The motor is responsive and reasonably strong off boost, and downright fast once boost builds. It’s a car that begs to be driven fast and is at its best when doing so.

This leaves the Skyline. Operating by default in rear wheel drive and electronically sensing the car’s movements via both ABS sensors and a G-Sensor, the system can ramp up torque to the front axle to up to 50%. The result is a car that behaves dynamically more like a rear wheel drive car (the system is in fact biased slightly toward oversteer) but can use the front wheels to correct undesirable dynamic scenarios. It has tenacious grip and superb balance, consistently delivering more as the driver increases the pace. It never feels heavy or clumsy, and the front-engined rear wheel drive DNA gives it an E36 M3-like character most of the time, but with superior traction. Power delivery is not dissimilar to the Lancia, only faster: the boost hits in an explosive fashion that is addictive and very much of a different era. These are not the modern turbo engines whose torque peak is flat from 1800 RPM to 5000 RPM. These are “hang on tight” joyrides that give a richness and excitement to the experience that could not be more evocative of the high tech 80s.

The decision to equip these three cars with all wheel drive was a functional one that drew directly from motorsport. The Integrale was sold to the public to complete the Group A homologation for the car to rally, and even today, no other car has won more rally championships than the Delta Integrale. The GT-R is also a homologation car, built so it could race on circuit in Group A, where its dominance led to the “Godzilla” moniker. The Carrera 4’s system descended from that used in the Carrera that won Paris-Dakar and incorporated lessons from the 959.

It is no surprise then, that these are gratifying driver-oriented cars. As street cars, their personalities vary dramatically, but they share a character and texture that isn’t present in modern cars. The Lancia and Nissan are simply put, awesome to drive. The Porsche is as well, up until the limit when the understeer starts to detract from an otherwise effervescent personality. All have the hallmarks of iconic driver’s cars; they leave the driver engaged, involved, and looking for more twisty roads to wring them out. Their limits are accessible at sensible road-legal speeds and exploring those limits is thrilling, demonstrating that  all wheel drive cars need not be boring. This is a particularly fitting realization as we arrive at a time when the term “vintage AWD sports car” transitions from a humorously implausible phrase to an actual genre for enthusiasts looking to revisit the era when all wheel drive was the exciting wave of the future that would make every sports car better.

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