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Why Every AWD Performance Car Needs Drift Mode

Road & Track logo Road & Track 12/4/2020 Mack Hogan
a close up of a green car: Safety when you need it, tail-out wildness when you want it. © DW Burnett Safety when you need it, tail-out wildness when you want it.

The limiting factor in automotive speed isn't power, weight, or torque. It's grip. From subcompacts to supercars, nearly everything on the market can overpower its mechanical grip with enough rough handling. With the horsepower wars unrelenting, more and more automakers are resorting to all-wheel drive to turn tire smoke into thrust. That's fine, so long as they build in Drift Mode.

I'm using "Drift Mode" here as a catch-all term, encompassing any setting in an all-wheel-drive performance car that allows for more rear-drive dynamics. Usually, this means sending a majority of engine output to the rear axle (even when the rear tires lose grip), along with limited intervention from stability and traction control. In my mind, the ideal version of Drift Mode directs 100 percent of torque to the rear axle, with stability control intervention in only the most harrowing moments. That may sound like the worst of both worlds—all-wheel-drive weight and complexity without the benefit of grip, good for on-camera slides and nothing else. But during our 2021 Performance Car of the Year testing, Drift Mode entirely won me over.

a small blue car: bentley continental gt drift © DW Burnett bentley continental gt drift

It started with the rain. Blackout clouds and soaked pavement put a halt to our lapping sessions at Lime Rock Park. Here we were, with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of today's best new performance cars, an empty track, and not much to do. Never willing to let good cars go undriven, the staff decamped to Lime Rock's paved infield autocross course to practice our slides.

We quickly sussed out which cars were best suited to this. The Bentley Continental GT was a touch too nose heavy; the GT500 too powerful and traction-limited. The Jaguar F Type R was finicky, untamable. After every outing in a different car, all I wanted to do was get back into one of two cars: the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 or the BMW M8 Competition. They were the easiest to hold in a controlled slide, the most predictable, and the most approachable. They were also the only two vehicles here with Drift Mode.

a close up of a car: cla45 amg drift © DW Burnett cla45 amg drift

Part of the glory of these systems is in how they let you learn about the car. Modern performance cars are often so complicated and smart, it can be hard to sense what behavior is coming from the chassis itself, and what's been filtered, translated, distorted or glossed over by a computerized system. Since these interactions are meant to be seamless, they can catch you off-guard. You try to correct a slide by adjusting the throttle, but the all-wheel-drive system has already shifted power to the front axle. So you get a snap back as the car overcorrects, its attempt to smooth things over making everything more jagged.

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Drift Mode allows you to dodge some of that obfuscation. With Drift Mode enabled and stability control fully off, the M8 Competition becomes far more lively and interesting than when it's digitally chained. It doesn't transform the car—it is still a heavy, numb rocket with incredible performance but uninvolving delivery—but it helps you learn to live without the crutch. Perhaps more importantly, you can actually explore the limits of traction and have some fun, slidey action without having to risk a high-speed off-track excursion.

a car parked on the side of a road: 2021 jaguar f type r drift © DW Burnett 2021 jaguar f type r drift

The best argument for Drift Mode, though, was the car that didn't have it. The Jaguar F-Type R is a muscular V-8 sports car, naturally prone to oversteer—but, infuriatingly, tuned to never really allow it. Its all-wheel-drive system is aggressive in its mission to maximize grip, and unlike the BMW (but like nearly all AWD cars), you can't turn it off. So you lock the car in second gear, put everything in Sport, turn off traction control, disable stability control, flick it into a corner, bury the throttle, and still you won't get the big slide you expect. You get a natural rotation and a brief slide, followed by an abrupt, impossible-to-anticipate jerk from the car that throws everything off. Sensing the wheel slip, the drivetrain sends heaps of power to the front wheels to claw you out. But you don't have any way of knowing when it's about to happen, so you keep your foot in it until you suddenly lurch forward, the back end whip-sawing around as the car recovers from the slide.

That behavior is not fun, not quick, and not particularly confidence-inspiring. More to the point, it represents the car's brain fighting with you. It already knows you want stability control and traction control off. You have to hold the button, wait for a beep, and stare at a big warning light telling you that, effectively, Jaguar is following your wishes but takes no responsibility for what you're about to do. And yet even with that rigamarole, there's still a layer you cannot see, control, or overpower that prevents the car from working with you. Great performance cars are not just communicative, they're always predictable and cooperative. They work with you, not against you.

a green car parked on the side of a road: bmw m8 competition © Mack Hogan bmw m8 competition

That's not what most people want out of a car, to be sure. It's nice to be able to drift, but most would agree that a Camry should intervene when a high-schooler tries to give it full throttle on an icy bend. All-wheel-drive systems that work to get you out of trouble, and safety systems that cut in before a car hurtles out of control, are great innovations that have saved countless lives.

My desire to slide a Jaguar on a closed course doesn't outweigh any of that. Offer me every safety feature on Earth. Just give them an off switch. I don't care if I have to dive through buried menus or hold the button for 10 seconds while playing Guitar Hero with the pedals. Make it idiot-proof, make it intentional, but make it doable. Give me a Drift Mode that disables every guardian angel, sends all of the car's power to the rear, and flashes enough warnings that the lawyers can stomach the liability. So when every supercar on sale is all-wheel drive, you won't need a computer science degree to have some fun with one.

a car driving on a track with smoke coming out of it: bmw m8 competition © Mack Hogan bmw m8 competition

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