An all-wheel-drive car or AWD is a car with a powertrain capable of providing power to all four of the wheels. Mercedes and BMW offer plenty of AWD cars in their line-ups.
The Mercedes all-wheel-drive system is mostly set-up for effortless driving. On the other hand, BMW offers a sportier, rear-wheel biased AWD system, which is set to work favorably with drivers wanting a more dynamic experience. So, if you want a sporty AWD system, choose a BMW. If you want a cruiser-like experience with increased safety, go for the Mercedes.
Mercedes all-wheel-drive system
Mercedes first introduced an AWD system way back in the mid 80s. The first system was electronically controlled with an automatically engaging AWD which mostly powered the rear wheels until you locked the differentials, and the AWD system became engaged.
The first full-time AWD system by Mercedes was introduced in 1998 with three opened differentials at the rear, the center, and the front. A system similar to this one was featured on the first Mercedes ML SUV.
Since 2008, the third-gen 4MATIC system has been offered as a permanent AWD system and is effective at any speed. The modern AWD system is named 4MATIC, or 4MATIC+ for some AMG variants.
The fourth generation of the 4MATIC system was introduced in 2016 for the E63 AMG S. This system is able to send a maximum of 100% of the power to the front or the rear, depending on the conditions and the way you set up the system.
This system is sophisticated enough to turn a 2+ ton Mercedes sedan into a drift machine with a press of a button. The characteristic of the original Mercedes AWD systems was mostly about cruising and effortless driving with a torque split of 45:55 front to rear. The 4MATIC+ system, however, is tailored for sporty driving. Be aware that it is only offered on certain models.
BMW all-wheel-drive system
First BMW AWD
The first BMW AWD system dates back to 1985 and the E30 325iX which offered two differentials and a torque split of 37:63 in favor of the rear axle.
This AWD system was discontinued when the E36 and E39 models were released, but the system was later reintroduced for the 2001 X5 SUV and the E46 3 series variants. This system was a rather advanced system that used DSC (Electronic stability control) which applied the brakes on a wheel that was slipping in favor of better power transfer.
BMWs AWD system today is called xDrive and has been in production since 2003. This system uses an electronically actuated clutch pack differential to optimally distribute the torque between the two axels.
Modern-day BMW xDrive systems offer a torque split of 40:60, in favor of the rear wheels and are capable of sending 100% of the power to the rear given the circumstances. This means that the BMW system is mostly tailored for sporty driving to keep up with the BMW rear-wheel drive tradition.
In 2017, BMW introduced a system similar to the 4MATIC+ dubbed M xDrive which also offered the ability to decouple the front axle in an effort of making a pure rear-wheel driven BMW M5. Overall, BMWs AWD system is more tailored to sporty driving, and Mercedes is more about the effortlessness of traveling.
It would not be a showdown of German AWD systems without mentioning the pioneer of the technology. The first AWD system offered by Audi was introduced in 1980 for the rally and road car named Audi Quattro that dominated the Rally car Championship.
Audi also offered this powertrain for the road-going Audi Quattro and later this system became one of the main reasons why a customer would choose an Audi over a BMW or a Mercedes. Modern-day Quattro systems are mostly tailored for maximum traction.
These systems offer a 50:50 torque distribution between the two axles and the system is able to send 70% of the torque to the front wheels, or 85 to the rear, depending on the conditions. The system is also fully automated like the BMW and the Mercedes.
The key difference between the three is that Audi is most keen to offer a sure-footed driving experience with traction being the number one priority. At the same time, BMW prioritizes sporty driving, and Mercedes prioritizes a comfortable hassle-free driving experience.
Comparing AWD systems
xDrive, 4Matic, Quattro: Which system offers the best snow driving experience?
For snowy conditions, an AWD system is as important as a good set of tires, and these 3 offer exceptional snow driving capabilities if fitted with the proper tires.
As mentioned previously, the key priority for Audi is traction, and as such Quattro seems like the best option in the snow. However, all three of these vehicles offer great snow-driving conditions.
xDrive, 4Matic, Quattro: Which system offers the best reliability?
All three of these systems offer good reliability if they are maintained correctly, and that’s it basically. All three brands have a long-lasting history in making permanent AWD systems and there are no specifics about any of them causing more problems than the others.
If you take your time to explore the differences in reliability between these three you hardly going to notice any difference worth mentioning. So, it is safe to say that in the reliability segment, they are fairly equal.
Should I choose an AWD system or a front or rear-wheel drive car?
You should choose an AWD system if you want a safer driving experience, better grip, and an all-around more capable car. A rear-wheel-drive system is mostly associated with performance driving, but it is lacking considerably, as far as safety is considered.
That being said, an AWD system that is able to distribute the power in favor of the rear wheel, such as the one offered in BMWs is the best of both worlds.
Currently, front-wheel-drive powertrains are mostly offered by Audi, but Mercedes and BMW are set to expand their front-wheel driving offerings as time goes on. Front-wheel drive cars are not as entertaining to drive as their rear-wheel drive counterparts, but they do offer better traction and better fuel economy.