1. Failing to tailor your driving technique
This is particularly common for drivers who have switched to a new four-wheel drive machine after years of driving a rear-wheel drive performance car. In RWD cars you can use the throttle to help you turn, using the power to rotate the car mid-corner. So you can release the brake early, carry high corner speed to the apex and if the car starts to push, you can use the power to bring the car back to a neutral stance.
This technique doesn’t work in the majority of AWD vehicles. The reason for this is quite simple: when you get on the throttle mid-corner, the weight moves aft, causing the rear of the car to squat. This makes the front-end lighter, and because power is being sent to the front wheels, the tyres become overwhelmed - inducing understeer.
In recent years, better chassis set-ups, clever transmissions and advanced electronics have given us AWD cars that will happily oversteer at the limit (think Ford Focus RS, Audi R8 V10 Plus, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X). However, for most AWD cars - R35 GT-R included - the best way to drive them on track is to brake deep, turn in early, trail brake to the apex, get the car turned and then straighten the wheel as quickly as possible on the exit. This way you minimise time-sapping front-end push, and you can utilise the car’s four-wheel drive traction on the way out.
2. Hard launches
Hard launches take their toll on all transmissions, but all-wheel drive cars fare the worst. This is because AWD cars often have more grip than power. For example, it’s possible to perform full-throttle launches in the current WRX STI with minimal wheel-spin. So unlike a RWD BRZ or M3, the tyres aren’t the weakest link. This leaves the transmission to bare the brunt of a hard launch.
As a result, we don’t recommend full-throttle launches in manual AWD vehicles, but if you’re determined to give one a go, here are some quick tips to minimise the damage to your car. The first thing you should do is make sure that everything is up to temperature (coolant temperature, transmission fluid temp, transfer case temp etc). You should then depress the clutch, bring the revs up to 5000 to 6000rpm (will vary from car to car), slip the clutch, creep forward at around 1mph and then release the clutch quickly and smoothly. By slipping the clutch, first gear is almost engaged, taking slack out of the driveline. So when you release the clutch, the jolt sent through the transmission is lessened.
Granted, this technique will take a toll on your clutch, but think of it this way: you’re sacrificing the clutch to save the drivetrain. And we all know which one costs more to replace.
3. Handbrake turns
This one might come across as commonsensical, but I’ve seen plenty of people yanking their handbrakes at autocross events, ignoring the damage that they’re causing to their transmissions. The reason this is a bad idea is the simple fact that pulling the handbrake causes the rear wheels to slow suddenly, putting a lot of stress on the transfer case, which is a drivetrain component not designed to deal with a sudden and prolonged change in speed between the front and rear wheels. (Also one of the reasons you should only transport your AWD vehicle on a flat-bed.)
The engine will also be under heavy load trying to fight the handbrake to turn the wheels. You probably won’t break anything if you use the handbrake occasionally, but it’s not good for your car. Ultimately, if you want to slide an AWD vehicle, use trail-braking or a Scandinavian flick instead.
4. Don’t assume you have endless levels of grip
‘Go-anywhere ability’, ‘sure-footed handling’ and ‘all-weather grip’ are just some of the terms used by marketing executives to describe AWD vehicles. But in most cases, these claims are completely disingenuous. It doesn’t matter if you’re driving a G63 with an old-school locking diff, or a new Ford Kuga with an ‘intelligent’ torque-vectoring system - if you don’t have the right rubber fitted when going off-road, you’re not going anywhere quickly.
Ultimately, tyres are the only thing between your car and the road; something the majority of drivers overlook. The general public buys a large amount of SUVs in the UK, based on a false notion of infallibility; conquer every mountain ford every stream etc. But these same people would never purchase winter tyres because they’re ‘too expensive’. A deeply flawed logic.
There’s also a solid group of internet experts who maintain that the cars like the Nissan R35 GT-R and Audi RS6 ‘drive themselves’. Granted, complex four-wheel drive systems allow huge amounts of horsepower to be deployed at will, but it still takes skill to drive these cars on the limit. When I recently drove a GT-R Track Edition engineered by Nismo at a wet and windy Silverstone I was amazed at the rear-wheel drive bias of the car. The rear-axle constantly wanted to play, which was a solid reminder that these cars certainly don’t do the driving for you.