VIDEO: How all-wheel-drive science is now powering family and performance cars
Technology in focus...
Grip and grunt - that's probably the best way to sum up my experience at Ford's proving ground at Lommel in Belgium.
The grip was the main focus, showing how All-Wheel-Drive (AWD) and 4WD can make such a difference to a car's behaviour. The grunt was from the super-performing Focus RS.
I also got to drive, or be driven in, a couple of interesting new arrivals. Starting with the revised EcoSport compact SUV. Ford has taken that awful spare wheel off the tailgate and spruced up the Fiesta-based inside but after two long drives, I'm still not convinced.
The tailgate still swings right to left meaning you need two car lengths if you're going to open it fully. The seats are quite poor too; narrow and unsupportive despite plenty of adjustment. And they have this grey, plasticky slot as part of the back bumper look that just doesn't work. The 1-litre EcoBoost petrol (140PS) was the bright spot, however.
More people are buying cars like this than ever before. Indeed Matthias Tonn, chief engineer/Large Cars told us crossovers/SUVs will account for 27pc of all passenger cars bought by 2020 (a 70pc growth rate in small SUVs is forecast).
Demand for AWD and 4WD isn't going to be as dramatic but we are still looking at sizeable increases across all car segments.
Most people don't need AWD but it makes them feel safer and more secure under the odd bit of difficult road or weather conditions.
Among the Ford models with AWD are the Mondeo, Galaxy, SMAX, Kuga and Edge as well as the Transit van. I drove the first three at the track but honestly, with no ordinary cars to compare against, it was impossible to sense or quantify the improvement in traction and grip. It would have been better to let us loose on a skiddy, wet surface and drive the cars with and without AWD.
The new Ranger Pickup, by contrast, has selectable 4x4: 2WD (rear-wheels) for ordinary on-road, 4WD High for towing or poor underfoot conditions and 4x4 Low for the gruelling stuff off-road or in snow and ice. You can shift between 2WD and 4x4High at speeds of up to 120kmh. I drove it briefly over a benign off-road track. No problems. It gets here in the second quarter of 2016. As does the large SUV, the Edge, in which we were driven around the off-road course.
The engineers will tell you that AWD is as much about the software as it is the mechanicals. The increase of 'intelligent' AWD means the distribution of power is seamless between front and back. They have torque vectoring control (TVC), for example, on the Mondeo, Galaxy, SMAX and Edge which applies the brakes to the inner wheels and can help a lot when cornering.
But the Focus RS takes it all a step further with its 'dynamic' version. It's the first time this has been used in a performance car. It means there is no understeer. Key is the ability to shift as much as 70pc of the power to the rear wheels. And it can then shift 100pc of that 70pc to either wheel. Remarkable.
You can drive it in Normal, Sport, Track and Drift. It should be some experience. The third-generation RS is due in May/June costing from €51,600.
I had the privilege to ride shotgun while an expert driver took the wheel. It was breathtaking to sit, helmeted, clenching the grab handle, and see what a real driver can do and what a car of this calibre can deliver. Thrilling.
I couldn't imagine ever pushing a car so hard, braking so late while being in such total control. The AWD was on call full time, I'm certain.
And they are experimenting with software that will make AWD even more 'intelligent' - sensing road conditions, outside temperature, if the wipers are on etc. That's so the system is prepared to switch power to all four wheels instantly. This will be particularly applicable if and when they get to 'disconnect' the rear axle when it is not required.
Of course there is a trade-off between AWD/4x4 and fuel consumption but people are prepared to sacrifice that for the security. It costs more too; in Germany, for example AWD is €2,000 more on a Mondeo.
This time of year, with its slippery roads and poor conditions, tends to focus the mind on AWD. But more Irish people are opting for it as a driving/handling aid all year round. Like air con back the years, it isn't just for certain conditions; it can be a driving aid all the time.