MARQUETTE, MI – “We’re hoping for awful, inclement weather,” Chrysler engineer Steve Williams says at the start of a media drive.

That’s not what people usually desire in the dead of winter in Michigan’s snow-prone Upper Peninsula. But Chrysler wants to show off the steadiness of its all-wheel-drive system in the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger sedans.

Marquette ranks as the third-snowiest city in the contiguous U.S., making it what Chrysler calls “the perfect location” to kick off an AWD driving demonstration.

Alas, the U.P. temperature that day is a relatively balmy and unseasonable 35° F (1.67° C). Public roads are dry and clear for the most part. Luckily, snowy and icy surface conditions prevail at the ultimate destination 101 miles (162 km) away: a winter test track run by Michigan Technological University in Houghton.

AWD-equipped 300s and Chargers keep their cool during aggressive maneuvers on the track’s various courses, ranging from inclines to slaloms.      

Chrysler says its “intelligent” AWD version stands out from the rest because it is an as-needed system.

The auto maker bills it as the industry’s only AWD system that connects and disconnects automatically. Software controls that and determines the best torque split. The system sends as much as 38% of torque up front to provide better traction and stability.

If road conditions are dry and the weather is warm, the AWD system is off. But at the hint of bad driving conditions, the system poises to activate. It totally engages when sensors indicate road conditions indeed are bad.

In gauging whether to kick in, the system measures outside temperature, windshield-wiper actions, wheel spin, unusual steering actions, rough or irregular road surfaces and if the electronic stability program becomes active on a dicey road.

Chrysler explains what happens when the system goes on: “The transfer-case drive coil actuates the clutch to transmit driveline torque. When torque is applied to the front prop-shaft, a signal is sent to the front axle actuator and the AWD is engaged.”

Torque isn’t delivered to all four wheels unless needed, says Williams, chief engineer for the 300 and Charger, fullsize cars that otherwise operate in rear-wheel-drive mode.

Adds Mike Kirk, Chrysler’s engineering director-axle and drivetrain: “Stuff isn’t moving when you don’t need it.”

Better fuel economy is one advantage of the on-off AWD system, a $2,350 option.

For a Charger with a V-6 engine and 8-speed transmission, RWD mileage is 19/31mpg (12.3-7.6 L/100 km) city-highway, according to Environmental Protection Agency ratings. With AWD, that drops to 18/27 mpg (13-8.7 L/100 km).

“Why pay extra for fuel because a vehicle is in AWD, even though you don’t need it on dry roads in the summer?” Kirk says.

The system appeals to 300 and Charger owners who like AWD as a backup but want a RWD-feel for normal driving, he says.

More auto makers, including Volvo, Audi, Infiniti and Mercedes-Benz, are expanding AWD throughout their lineups to meet consumer demand, particularly in snowbelt states. Chrysler is joining that trend.

“We increased AWD production in the back part of last year to keep up with demand from dealers,” says Chad Robertson, head of Dodge brand marketing.

The 300’s AWD take rate is about 25% overall and 50% in the Northeast, says Ed Del Otero, marketing manager-Chrysler brand large cars.

“We cannot do business in northern states with this car unless we offer AWD,” he says. “It is important to us. We’re taking it seriously. Mercedes and Audi do nothing but AWD in the Northeast.”

In the past, AWD has appealed to sensible and cautious drivers. That’s changing a bit. Now some consumers buying a performance-oriented car such as the Charger want their vehicle with both a sports package and AWD.

“There is a niche market for stylish performance vehicles that operate in RWD under normal conditions but have AWD, too,” Williams says.

Until recently, customers wanting fast cars with sports trims as well as AWD were “neglected,” Robertson says.

At the other end of the driver spectrum, Chrysler eventually may offer AWD on minivans “as we develop the technology and get the price down,” Williams says. “AWD makes sense for minivans. It adds to the versatility.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com