Expert Reviews

Winter Test: Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep AWD Products

Mirabel, Quebec – Everybody’s doing it (all-wheel driving, that is). No longer is an all-wheel-drive (AWD) vehicle a special order item. For most manufacturers, in fact, it’s odd not to find an AWD version of the car, truck, CUV or SUV you’d like. If customers aren’t fully committed to the brand or model, they may just switch alliances based on the lack of an AWD option.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) probably has you covered, though. Seventeen of 26 available vehicles come with AWD or 4WD and the option is offered on the base models of nine nameplates. Additionally, FCA manufactures 22 different systems ranging from the Chrysler 200’s full-time AWD with its disconnectable rear axle to the Wrangler’s rugged off-road system featuring live axles and electronic lockers.

If customers aren’t fully committed to the brand or model, they may just switch alliances based on the lack of an AWD option.

As you may know, vehicle sales historically tend to decline during the winter months, but FCA Canada reports sales of all-wheel-drive vehicles increase in the cold weather. Having more vehicles available with all-wheel drive, therefore, is a good way to put life into a slow sales season.

We drove a representative sample of available FCA AWD and 4WD vehicles at Mirabel’s iCar performance driving centre in weather that began auspiciously but soon deteriorated. The circuit consisted of a power circle to test understeer and oversteer, a conventional slalom and a track with straightaways, chicanes and a mixture of constant and decreasing radius corners. We also had access to an off-road course for the Jeeps and Rams.

There was a virtual smorgasbord of vehicles from which to choose. The new Jeep Renegade, Wrangler Unlimited, Patriot, Cherokee and Grand Cherokee, Dodge Durango, Journey and Charger (in street and Enforcer Police Package trim), Chrysler 200 and 300, Ram 1500 and Power Wagon. Basically (after a practice lap with a professional instructor) they just gave us the keys (or fobs) and directed us onto the track.

While FCA Canada may offer 22 AWD and 4WD systems for off-road, commercial and everyday driving, most consumers are likely unaware of and uninterested in the engineering that makes them work. With that premise in mind, my practice was to simply get in a vehicle, select “Drive” and go. I left electronic stability control and traction control on, noted that we typically were riding on Michelin or Bridgestone non-studded winter tires, and tried to get a sense of what the average consumer would experience in these conditions.

The track was mostly snow covering grooved ice, with patches of bare ice in the corners; the temperature was -11 degrees Celsius.

My first vehicle was the Chrysler 300 AWD with a “segment exclusive” active transfer case and front-axle disconnect technology. The 300 is built on a rear-wheel-drive platform and the AWD system consequently features a rear-wheel-drive bias. You feel this right away, the propulsion mostly present behind you. Not that the car’s hard to handle, as the stability control system will quickly intervene to counter oversteer (a rear-wheel skid) if you push too hard. Once you get the measure of the car and the system, the 300 AWD was surprisingly easy to steer around the slippery surface, the tires bringing it to a sure stop and the AWD system giving good traction from standstill.

I got in a 200 next, Chrysler’s latest midsize sedan. It’s built on a front-wheel-drive platform and uses a system that disconnects the rear axle when highway cruising. This car tends to feel a little heavier going into corners, but it’s easily managed by controlling speed and throttle. I’ve driven the 200C AWD in Ottawa on some snowy, slippery surfaces, and found it very capable. Very nice interior in this car!

A surprise was the Jeep Patriot. It’s fitted with the Freedom Drive 1 active 4x4 system with lock mode, designed for daily use and low-traction conditions.

The Jeep Freedom Drive 1 lockable rear pinion-mounted coupling gives drivers the ability to put the Jeep Compass or Jeep Patriot in four-wheel-drive lock mode to handle deep snow, sand and other low-traction surfaces. The Freedom Drive II off-road package includes a second-generation continuously variable transaxle with low range (CVT2) that engages when the off-road mode is activated, and a one-inch raised ride height for more severe off-road duty.

I found the Patriot refreshingly tossable and very surefooted. Whether it was the compact size, the mass, the 4x4 technology, the balance, the tires or a combination of some or all of these, the Patriot exceeded expectations. It went where you pointed it!

As did the little Renegade. Too fun! This thing just scooted around the track, maintaining poise throughout. Its Active Drive 4x4 system is fully automatic requiring no driver intervention. A fully variable wet clutch housed in the rear drive module utilizes the Jeep brand’s proprietary controls to provide the proper amount of torque for any driving condition, according to Jeep, including low-traction surfaces, aggressive starts and dynamic driving. An Active Drive Low option features 20:1 crawl ratio for 4x4 Trail Rated capability.

Really, I thought it was a hoot. We took it on the off-road circuit and it clambered right up and over a major pile of boulders covered with snow and ice. Off-roaders are going to enjoy this vehicle.

The new Cherokee was very capable, too, but this vehicle is largely targeted at mainstream “on-roaders,” competing with the likes of the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape. That said, it does come with a choice of three 4x4 systems, from the seamless Active Drive 1 to the seriously off-road Active Drive II with lockable rear differential (the latter is standard on the Trailhawk version). And it’s available with a gutsy V6 that really moves the Cherokee.

This was only my second time behind the wheel of the new Cherokee (the first was driving it at the Automobile Journalist Association of Canada’s (AJAC) Canadian Car of the Year testing program. Just a short drive on smooth roads and a rather benign off-road experience, but that was enough for journalists to vote it 2014 Best New SUV/CUV under $35,000. It went on to win 2014 Canadian Utility Vehicle of the Year. The exterior design is a bit, umm, different. No trouble distinguishing it from the competition, though.

The Dodge Durango SUV and Ram pickup both acquitted themselves well on the twisty track, as did the Grand Cherokee with its sophisticated Quadra-Trac and Quadra-Drive systems. As the weather worsened and the snow blew, the benefits of all-wheel drive (and winter tires…) was brought further and further into relief. Granted, in some parts of Canada you don’t see much snow and ice, but for those areas where conditions are severe, I’ll take all the aids I can. If all-wheel drive is available, I’d get it.

I mentioned the off-road circuit and this was quite a challenge. The iCar facility has built a bona fide severe off-road experience that would be impressive in the dry, let alone in sub-zero temperatures covered in ice and snow. We ran the Rams and Jeeps through the course, and even the Power Wagon (although for the journalists it skipped the big hill due to its long wheelbase). But FCA knows its vehicles, which clambered up, down, over and through whatever obstacle was encountered. I guess they made their point. These vehicles aren’t just about image.

And the other point, of course, is that if they have the know-how to build vehicles that can shrug off conditions like this, then that know-how should transfer mainstream AWD cars and CUVs. Point made.

Pricing (includes Freight/PDI):

Dodge Charger AWD $37,190
Dodge Journey AWD $35,890
Dodge Durango AWD $42,290

Jeep Patriot 4WD $19,940
Jeep Compass 4WD 423,190
Jeep Renegade 4WD $27,790
Jeep Cherokee 4WD $28,190
Jeep Wrangler Unlimited 4WD $29,695
Jeep Grand Cherokee 4WD $42,290

Chrysler 200 AWD $30,990
Chrysler 300 AWD $41,890

Ram 1500 4WD $30,790
Ram Power Wagon 4WD $53,790