MONTE CARLO — Rounding the curve on the middle corniche, we see the narrow winding streets of the fabled city spread out before us, clinging to its vertical perch within the Pre-Alps mountain range.

Descending steeply toward an unbelievably blue Mediterranean at the foot of the famous gambling casino for the haute monde, and the site of Europe's premier grand prix, reminds us that this truly is the Cote d'Azur.

We have driven our Volkswagen Passats down from the chilly high country of the Swiss Alps to Provence, a sun-blessed southeastern corner of France, in order to experience the car's new full-time all-wheel-drive system, called 4Motion.

If control and agility are the focus of the German brand's sedan and wagon, then a day's drive along mountain roads, highways and scenic villages confirms VW's goal for this option has been met.

But if gripping cliffs' edge on the Napoleon Trail along the spine of the Alps is the true test, we're out of luck as three feet of fresh snow makes that drive too formidable.

U.S. buyers can find out for themselves. Beginning this spring, 4Motion is available in the U.S. as a US$1,600 option (US$2,750 in Canada) exclusively on 2.8L V-6-equipped Passats with 5-speed automatic transmission plus Tiptronic, a feature that allows clutch-free shifting.

This is the first time VW has offered an all-wheel-drive (awd) passenger car or wagon in more than a decade. The Audi brand's quattro version, on which 4Motion is based, was introduced 20 years ago. Beyond that, the Quantum '88 wagon was the last VW brand passenger vehicle to offer 4-wheel-drive (4wd).

The 4Motion system goes beyond 4wd to offer a traction enhancing system that continuously distributes power to all four wheels all the time at all speeds. An automatic-locking Torsen center differential distributes engine torque to the front and rear axles.

In normal driving, the drive ratio is 50% to the front and 50% to the rear. On low-grip surfaces, the wheels with the higher level of adhesion receive more of the power — up to a front-rear ratio of 67%-33% and vice versa.

Additionally, 4Motion distributes power side to side using an Electronic Differential Locking (EDL) system. This feature detects and limits individual wheel spin, and redistributes torque to the side that needs it most.

The lateral capabilities combined with front-to-rear power distribution make it possible for one wheel of traction to propel the vehicle.

VW officials admit that 4Motion is technically the same as the quattro system in the Audi A4 and A6 models, which also use the Torsen central differential. The Audi TT Coupe, A8, VW Golf and Jetta in Europe use a different differential.

Giving Passat awd is validation that VW is moving its brand upscale in the U.S., and why not? The German automaker is on a roll in North America, selling more than 315,000 cars overall last year, up 44% and besting its last 25 years.

VW in Canada broke an all-time record with 42,000 sales, up 11%. For 2000, Volkswagen again is looking for double-digit growth with sales of 350,000-plus in the U.S. Canada, too, is expecting a new record.

Passat is off to good start, with sales through February at 11,838, up 58.8% over like-period 1999. Canada saw 527 sales, up 25.8%. VW for the year is looking to sell 80,000 Passats in the U.S. and 4,600 in Canada.

There is reason for such optimism. Top VW officials say the Passat's success is pivotal for them, the product upon which all plans are hinged.

“We were counting on the Passat for some critical targets,” says Dave Huyett, marketing director of Volkswagen of America (VWoA).

“To finally establish a successful Volkswagen midsize; to lead the brand upscale and to set the momentum for a successful and positive launch of the New Beetle and soon-thereafter the new Jetta, Golf and Cabrio. Fortunately, Passat exceeded even our very high expectations.”

The 4Motion Passat version represents even more, he says, serving as the brand's technological flagship; pulling the VW badge to an even higher product level and strengthening its position in the midsize segment.

The target for the Passat will continue to be college-educated professionals, aged 30 to 50 years, mostly married with young children and incomes of around US$80,000. “Most importantly,” Huyett says, “they are people with a real passion for cars.”

Whether 4Motion can help Passat hit another important target — besting the popular Subaru awd brand — remains to be seen, but officials say it presents a “serious challenge.”

VWoA expects about 33% of Passats to be sold with 4Motion, with wagons the popular choice.

GLS 4Motion sedans in the U.S. are priced at US$26,525 (US$36,730-Canada); wagons are US$27,325 (US$37,905-Canada). GLX trim is US$30,380 (US$41,900-Canada) for sedans; US$31,180 (US$43,075-Canada) for the wagons.