I’m stuck in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The rest of the country might have had a reprieve from winter this year, but not here. The snow is coming down so thick the runway can’t be cleared and I’m debating heading back to the hotel. Despite several inches of accumulation, getting there shouldn’t be hard. After all, the reason I’m here in the first place is for a deep dive into the Mercedes 4MATIC all-wheel drive system.
|1. All Mercedes-Benz passenger car lines bar the SL, SLK and SLS are now available with 4MATIC.
2. On the S-Class, 4MATIC is standard on the S350 BlueTEC and optional on the S550.
3. On the fourth-generation 4MATIC system, ESP, ASR and 4ETS braking assist have been calibrated to engage at the last minute, enabling a maximum amount of engine torque available for maintaining forward momentum.
Although we usually cover single vehicle reviews here at AutoGuide, this time out, we’ve taken a slightly different approach, instead focusing on a system, in this case Mercedes’ fourth generation 4MATIC all-wheel drive. Mercedes is eager to get the word out about its all-wheel drive equipped models and raise awareness of the system’s benefits.
Mercedes-Benz has been offering a system that powers all four wheels in passenger vehicles since 1987 in Europe and 1989 in the US. That first recipient was the W124 mid-size sedan, the forerunner of today’s E-Class. Compared to modern AWD systems, that first 4MATIC was decidedly primitive, being a part-time setup that used electro-hydraulic locking differentials to transmit power to the front tires only when needed.
As technology evolved, 4MATIC moved with it, morphing from a part-time system to a permanent all-wheel drive setup that utilized a mechanical center differential to transmit power from the transmission to both the front and rear tires while front and rear diffs provided traction to the left and right tires on each axle.
Mercedes’ fourth generation 4MATIC system, which debuted on the S350 BlueTEC sedan and CLS550 four-door coupe last summer (it’ll be available on the C350 and E350 coupes by April 2012), features some notable improvements over previous versions. For starters, it’s the first 4MATIC system that’s been designed and developed exclusively in-house. This has enabled engineers to produce a setup that adds minimal weight penalty (99 to 154 lbs) over rear-drive Mercedes-Benz models and one that also offers no compromise when it comes to turning radius.
The 4MATIC system as installed in 2012 Mercedes passenger cars, sports a planetary type center differential that’s integrated with the transmission casing. A multi-plate breakaway clutch, which essentially functions like a limited slip differential allows the front wheels to rotate faster than the rears as the car enters a corner, promoting better turn in to optimize handling. All Mercedes 4MATIC passenger cars incorporate a 45:55 front/rear torque split, though as much as a 30:70 bias toward the back tires is possible, depending on road conditions. The idea is to promote sporty, yet predictable handling under all kinds of road conditions, while allowing the driver to control throttle input to stimulate the vehicle’s directional path in much the same way as a traditional RWD car.
HOW EFFECTIVE IS IT?
Having the opportunity to test the system in four different vehicles of varying size and weight, in essentially similar conditions yielded some rather interesting results. Our first test victim was the $44,370 2012 Mercedes C350 Coupe, which in 4MATIC form will be available through US dealers on April 1. Powered by Mercedes’ 3.5-liter V6 rated at 302 hp and 276 lb-ft of torque, coupled with a seven-speed automatic and weighing in at 3,792 lbs, is, along with the E350, the lightest and most agile of our samplers.
On dry-ish pavement, the car feels much like a rear-wheel drive, V6 powered C-Class; in some vehicles, agility and turning is compromised due to the added weight and complexity of the AWD system, though we simply didn’t notice that here. When the surface becomes slippery, quick stabs of the throttle reveal strong levels of grip. Even at low speed, maintaining momentum on uphill, snow-covered sections isn’t a problem. In most RWD cars, maintaining enough momentum to prevent sliding backward in many respects is a fine art. With the 4MATIC it’s simply a case of just punch and go.
What is interesting, is that although the car has a slight tendency to understeer as you enter a corner on a slippery road, the 4MATIC system noticeably reduces the power to the outside front tire (and quickly), applying traction to the inside wheel. This means, that the car’s tendency to run wide is minimized and the inside wheel does its utmost to get you through and out of the corner as fast and efficiently as possible. Add a bit of throttle mid way through the corner, and you can feel the torque transfer rearward, which allows skilled drivers to essentially throttle steer through the turn, resulting in a car that feels safe and predictable.
From driving the C350 4MATIC it’s evident Mercedes has spent a lot of time developing and refining its AWD system and although it wasn’t primarily conceived for fast lapping, it nevertheless provides a sporty driving experience, doing an admirable job at harnessing the grunt of a torquey engine under virtually all road conditions.
MINIMIZING THE ADDED WEIGHT AND COST
The $53,675 E350 4MATIC coupe, perhaps because of its identical drivetrain and similar weight (3,759 lbs), drives much like it’s slightly smaller C350 brother while on the heavier cars we tested, the $74,675 4.6-liter V8 powered CLS550 four-door coupe (4,268 lbs) and $93,425 3.0-liter clean diesel S350 BlueTEC 4MATIC sedan (4,784 lbs), the added weight makes the system work harder, though the result in each case is a machine that feels far more nimble than its size and girth would suggest.
The CLS and S-Class BlueTEC, despite their much torquier engines (443 and 445 lb-ft respectively); feel far more confident tackling snowy conditions than their 2WD counterparts. Considering that these cars each weigh over 4,200 lbs, this level of surefootedness is greatly appreciated.
While you can’t defy the laws of physics and understeer is still very much present during cornering maneuvers, the combination of the 4MATIC system, steering and suspension tuning, provides the sensation of greater directional control than is usually the case on machines of this size and stature. Normally on big cars, once at the edge on slippery surfaces, it’s very easy for them to become steerless toboggans, simply sliding in a single direction until something halts their progress, such as a ditch, or worse, a tree.
And while the advent of stability and traction control systems has gone a long way to reducing the tendency of the rear coming around too quickly when more aggressive throttle is applied, the harmony achieved between the center and rear differential on Mercedes’s fourth-generation 4MATIC system, ensures that most motorists simply won’t have a problem maintaining the desired direction of travel. And when you’ve got some 440 plus lb-ft at just 1600 rpm under the command of you right foot, that is no mean feat.
Given that in relative terms, the 4MATIC system adds a fairly small amount to the sticker price on three of these cars ($1,125 on the C350, $3,000 on the E350, $2,500 on the CLS550 and standard on the S-Class diesel), along with the increase in weight, is it worth it? That probably depends on where you live and the kind of driving conditions you encounter. If you live in Jackson Hole, then it’s a no brainer.
WHAT ABOUT FUEL ECONOMY?
That said, Mercedes-Benz has gone to great lengths to make the integration of its latest 4MATIC system as seamless as possible. Even in terms of fuel mileage, 4MATIC fuel economy figures are virtually on par to the regular C350 and E350 coupes (19 mpg city, 28 mpg highway). Even the heavier CLS550 4MATIC doesn’t suffer much of a penalty, delivering some 16 mpg city and 25 mpg highway (the RWD version is rated at 17/26). As for the S350 BlueTEC, despite a weigh-in at close to 5,000 lbs, gas mileage is quite respectable, all things considered, this car delivering approximately 20 mpg in town and 31 on the open road.
As of 2012, Mercedes-Benz offers some 21 individual models with 4MATIC in its US lineup. And with sales in some segments approaching 50 percent of total volume, it does seem the appeal of a Mercedes-Benz that’s able to perform optimally under all weather conditions has never been greater, aided be the fact that today, such security comes with minimal penalties in cost and not that much in weight.
Perhaps this winter didn’t generate much of an argument for an all-wheel drive model, but in all likelihood it’ll be back next year with a vengeance. With a focus on continued improvements, a new 4MATIC system makes choosing an all-wheel drive Benz a sure footed driving experience that’s less of a compromise than ever before.