March 7, 2012 at 7:34 AM ET
Americans flock to SUVs for their "just in case" four-wheel-drive capability. Just in case it snows, or just in case you end up driving mud-slick backroads like the ads depict, an SUV can make it through.
Gas prices are pushing many drivers back to cars, but that doesn't mean they've shed their worry about "just in case."
The good news is that they are increasingly able to opt for all-wheel drive in buying a car. While brands such as Subaru and Audi have established their reputations with their all-wheel-drive models, Mercedes also has a history of all-wheel drive, which dates back to its Dernburg Wagen of 1907.
To demonstrate the snow driving capability of its popular 4Matic all-wheel-drive sedans and coupes, Mercedes recently presented an array of its cars in Jackson Hole, Wyo., for a snow-driving test.
Because of increasing customer demand, Mercedes now offers all-wheel drive on 21 models in the U.S., effectively everything it sells that isn't a two-seat sports car. The company has sold a million 4Matic cars in the U.S. since introducing the technology in 1989 and now sees more than half of some models so equipped.
The popularity is, unsurprisingly, regional, with the 4Matic option on 80 percent of some models sold in the Northeast, said Christian Bokich, a company spokesman.
Snowstorms are always provide a good reason to hedge bets with all-wheel-drive traction. This can be appealing if the cost and fuel economy penalties for the added hardware is minimal, as it is in Mercedes' case (aside from the brands' high-end prices).
The company says that its 4Matic system is the industry's lightest compared to its two-wheel-drive models. The system adds about 132 pounds to its cars (it is a little less for some models) while Audi's trademark quattro system adds 176 pounds to that company's all-wheel-drive models.
Less hardware means less cost and less impact on fuel economy. The 4Matic option adds between $2,000 and $3,000 to the car's price, depending on the model. And the fuel economy penalty, as measured by the EPA's test, is non-existent in Mercedes' popular V6 C-Class compact and E-Class mid-size models.
The big V8 S-Class sedans and CL-Class luxury coupes suffer the loss of just one mile per gallon in the EPA's combined city and highway fuel economy rating. So the system asks little of buyers in exchange for the cars' foul-weather security.
But are all-wheel-drive cars really suitable replacements for the SUVs to which American drivers have become accustomed? If they are driving on snow-covered roads that have been plowed, yes. On packed snow or ice, a 4Matic Mercedes fitted with snow tires -- a necessity, of course -- drives with confidence-inspiring grip. In deeper, unplowed snow, a car's lower ground clearance is going to cause problems, but then, not many would chose to drive in such conditions.
Better to stay where you are in such conditions or to rely on something like a Jeep (or a Mercedes-Benz G550) for extreme conditions. But driving on the kind of packed snow that can be a part of everyday life in higher latitudes and altitudes during the winter, the Mercedes 4Matic shows that an SUV is overkill.
The Mercedes hardware that puts the power to the road, or to the snow, is complemented by software that helps keep the car pointed the right direction. On dry roads the electronic stability control system helps prevent crashes by using brake and throttle control to correct for skids.
Such systems can overreact when faced with slippery conditions such as snow, making it difficult to drive, but the Mercedes system lets the car do a bit of the kind of incidental slipping and sliding that is part of driving on snow without clamping down and bringing the car to a near-halt. When the Mercedes stability control system does act, it is barely perceptible unless you've gotten yourself into a mess that requires overt correction.
However, even with all the electronic gadgets, all-wheel drive and snow tires, the cars don't stop particularly well. Their ability to accelerate and turn can convey a deceptive confidence that driving conditions are nearer to normal than the really are. An attempt at a hard stop quickly reveals the limitations of driving on snow even with various traction aids.
So when navigating slick highways, keep your speed down and your eyes ahead to reduce the odds of having to make an emergency maneuver. And driving an all-wheel-drive car such as a Mercedes 4Matic-equipped model can carry you safely through.