AWD Performance

Aug 10, 2010

If you’re looking for a new market to showcase your skills, all-wheel drive might get your wheels turning.

First things first: AWD is very different from four-wheel drive, and you’ll want to know the differences before talking to either enthusiast.

For simplicity’s sake, we’re talking about a market that has two directions. Many think of Subaru and Mitsubishi as the two biggest players in the AWD arena, so for this article we are speaking primarily to that market.

As with any type of performance car or truck, those deeply into AWD are a hardy bunch with an earned underdog attitude. After all, what they do is very different. But they are out there and they do buy the ever-increasing list of parts that are offered to them.

To find out more, we talked to sources within the industry about this unique market to get the lowdown on AWD.

AWD All the Time

Our first question was how this market is defined and what kind of vehicles and drivers participate.

Racingbrake.com’s Mike Lin gives us a good breakdown: “For road and track racing, AWD cars compete with front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive vehicles. The most popular AWD vehicles that we see in our business are the Mitsubishi Evolution, the Subaru WRX and STI. Some drivers of these vehicles don’t race their cars, and just like to drive a sporty car around town, but there are some drivers (who) take their cars out to the race track as often as they can.”

Innovate Motorsports’ Sean Crawford tells us, “On the performance side, AWD vehicles include the Subaru WRX, Mitsubishi Evo, Porsche 911 turbo, Lamborghini Gallardo, Bentley Continental GT, Audi R8, Audi RS4, and many others.”

KW Suspension’s George Ciordas narrows it down. “The market is made up (mainly) of two manufacturers-”Mitsubishi and Subaru. The vehicle types are Mitsubishi Evos and Subaru WRX and STIs. Most drivers are interested in road racing, time attack or performance street handling.”

GReddy Performance Products’ Mike Chung says, “For GReddy, the main AWD vehicles are the Mitsubishi Evolution, Eclipse GSX, Subaru WRX and STI, and Nissan GTR.”

And Turbonetics’ Reggie Wynn adds, “For us, this market is defined as the next generation of tuner cars. With the increased popularity of this platform, we expect to see more aftermarket part manufacturers produce more parts for these cars. The most popular cars that we see in the genre are the Subaru WRX and STI and the Mitsubishi Evolution. The types of drivers that drive these cars are the guys who in the past had a fixed-up front-wheel or rear-wheel drive car who don’t want to sacrifice traction.”

Where to Find Them

Next we asked what types of events and races are popular to this market.

Chung from GReddy begins: “The main benefit of AWD is the added traction. This is ideal for many classes of racing. Rally (dirt trial), track (circuit and time attack) and tighter stuff like autocross and gymkhana. It also seems like the AWD market is full of dedicated auto enthusiasts, so within each car model there are a lot of big groupings of owners’ clubs online, like Evo M and NASIOC.”

Wynn from Turbonetics tells us, “Time attack, gymkhana, and canyon driving. For years we have seen these cars participate in WRC rally driving.”

Lin from Racingbrake.com says, “Many of these drivers will compete in road and track racing, but where AWD is most advantageous is in rally racing, where drivers navigate (on) a variety of surfaces including asphalt, gravel, ice and dirt.”

Ciordas from KW Suspension notes, “The Redline Time Attack and Super Lap Battle events tend to lead this market in terms of interest. Maybe in the near future we’ll see gymkhana make inroads to these demographics.”

And Crawford from Innovate adds, “AWD vehicles are very common at time attack events-mostly Subaru and Mitsubishi vehicles. They also have a very long heritage in rally racing for obvious reasons. There’s no doubt that AWD technology is here to stay in rally racing. There’s also drag racing and hill climb. The fastest cars competing in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb utilize AWD systems. This includes Rhys Millen’s new Hyundai PM580 racecar. The turbocharged Hyundai V-6 engine in this car makes nearly 800 hp. Without the AWD system, this car would have a difficult time transferring the power to the ground on dirt roads.”

What to Sell

So with the vehicle breakdown and the types of events that interest these drivers, what are the hot products shops can sell to this exciting market?

Chung tells us, “Since most of these models are also turbocharged, high-flow exhaust, air intake systems, intercoolers, turbo accessories, electronics and ECU tuning are all very popular for the aftermarket.”

Ciordas says, “The KW Suspension Variant 3, Clubsport and two-way Motorsport coilover kits (are popular). All kits offer two-way (independent rebound and compression) adjustability.”

Lin points out, “Brakes are often an overlooked component of vehicle upgrades, as every racer wants to go faster, but not every racer thinks about upgrading their brakes to be able to handle that extra speed. The high speeds and sharp turns required in racing can cause drivers to exceed the heat capacity of their stock brakes. This can lead to ‘brake fade,’ a dangerous condition that the driver experiences when he pushes harder and harder on the brake pedal, but the car doesn’t slow down. The solution is to use brakes that were designed for racing. Racing brakes run cooler to prevent brake fade, are also lighter in weight and offer better vehicle handling, leading to faster race times.”

Crawford notes, “Since many high-performance AWD vehicles are turbocharged, products related to ECU tuning and the turbo system are very popular. Often, a good tune can provide the best ‘bang for the buck’ in turbocharged vehicles. We find that many of our air/fuel ratio gauge customers specialize in AWD performance vehicles.”

And Winn notes: “Upgraded turbos, intercoolers, blow-off valves, brakes, suspension, tires, cold air intakes, wheels and performance tuning (are all popular).”

Bright Future

With this stream of highly technical products, what do installers need to know specifically relating to AWD work?

Crawford says, “Clutch replacement is common due to accelerated wear, so be prepared to stock and install clutches on a regular basis. Since AWD systems allow for very little tire spin, most of the load during acceleration is transferred directly to the drive train. The clutch is usually the weakest link.”

Chung points out a big factor: “Power- and tuning-wise, the main requirement is an AWD dynamometer. Drive train modification is also important.”

And Wynn agrees.

“I don’t feel that it is necessary for installers to know anything specific for AWD work. But, if the installer or performance shop will do any tuning, an AWD dyno is a must,” he says.

So, does that mean there’s a strong outlook for the future of the AWD market?

“As long as the manufacturers are building performance-oriented AWD vehicles, they will maintain interest from the enthusiasts or future enthusiasts to continue purchasing these vehicles,” says Ciordas. “Their recipe of offering AWD, turbocharged performance and excellent platforms for modification and handling has been proven over the years.”

Chung says, “It seems that more and more OEM and car enthusiasts are seeing the real performance benefits of AWD. But for the ease in beginner drivers and advanced drivers, the grip levels are well increased. Plus, with modern breakthroughs by the OEMs in counteracting the under-steering problems of the old days, the AWD platform is more and more desirable.”

Technological advancements also play a big part, he notes.

“For example, with the advancements in electronically controlled AWD systems in the STI, Evo and GTR, the ECU can control how much the front and rear gets power. In some cases like the Evo, it can even send more power to the outside wheels.”

But Crawford says that doesn’t mean they’ll be taking over completely.

“AWD vehicles will always have their place in the market, but I doubt they will completely replace existing 2WD vehicles,” he says. “Future vehicles will continue to push the boundaries of fuel efficiency and the frictional losses. And weight increase associated with AWD systems may cause this technology to be left out on many models. Only in cases where the need for increased traction and performance exceeds the importance of maximum mpg will AWD vehicles prevail.”

Lin points out, “The Evo, WRX and STI are among the most popular cars on the track and we have recently been seeing a lot of interest from owners of the new Evo X looking to upgrade their vehicles. We anticipate that many drivers will see the value in AWD vehicles and expect growth in this market.”

And Wynn sums it up with, “I believe the future is bright for AWD cars in the U.S. These platforms have been popular in Europe and Japan for years. We are finally jumping on the bandwagon and playing catch-up.”

And if you are catching up to the AWD market, what better way than with four wheels digging in?