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John LeBlanc's all-time top all-wheel-drive vehicles

Wheels writer John LeBlanc picks the top 10 all-wheel-drive vehicles of all time. And they aren't all SUVs.
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Not many years ago, the only drivers who had all-wheel drive at their disposal were farmers or forest workers.

These days, many Canadian drivers take traction at all four wheels for granted as a way to get through the worst winter driving

PHOTOS: John LeBlanc’s top all-wheel-drive cars

And the same technology that allows you to plow through knee-high snowdrifts also gives driving enthusiasts better grip on a twisty back road or race track. In fact, almost every automaker has at least one AWD vehicle in its lineup.

Here are some of the most significant all-wheel-drive vehicles through the years:

1945-81 Dodge Power Wagon

If it was good enough for GI Joe, it would be great for Joe Public.

That seemed to be Dodge’s idea with its first postwar Power Wagon.

The granddaddy of all 4x4s, the original Power Wagons were directly based on the chassis of Dodge’s 3/4-ton U.S. Army truck, but with a more civilized cab and an 8-foot cargo box.

The late 1950s saw the arrival of the first light-duty Power Wagons based on a conventional pickup chassis.

The name died in the early 1980s, but Dodge resurrected the Power Wagon badge in a 1999 Detroit auto show concept.

Six years later, the Power Wagon returned as a special off-road version of the production Ram 2500 pickup.

1963-91 Jeep Wagoneer

Vehicles don’t get any more influential than the 1963 Wagoneer.

The Wagoneer – when compared to contemporary workmanlike offerings from International Harvester and Land Rover – was the first true luxury 4×4, predating the British Range Rover by almost a decade.

At a time when AWD in a truck was considered a crude, necessary evil suitable only for those who worked off-road, the introduction of Jeep’s more sophisticated Wagoneer pioneered the luxury SUV craze that is only now slowing down.

This granddaddy of modern American luxury SUVs was a full-size, body-on-frame vehicle, sharing a platform with the Jeep Gladiator pickup truck – but its power steering and an automatic transmission brought SUVs out of the woods and into the suburbs.

1966-71 Jensen FF

Long before the first Audi Quattro (see below), there was the British-made Jensen FF – one of the world’s first high-performance all-wheel drive sports cars.

The FF lettering stood for Ferguson Formula, the outside company that developed the AWD system for Jensen, and it was built off the existing rear-wheel drive Interceptor.

It looked impeccably modern for its time but the FF’s high price (one-third more than an Interceptor) and Jensen’s challenges getting cars to market in a timely fashion made it a commercial flop.

However, Jensen had planted the seed of combining high performance and traction to all four wheels, technology that other automakers would soon harvest.

1980-88 AMC Eagle

You’re American Motors Corporation. It’s 1979. The second oil crisis in a decade is decimating sales of your once-profitable Jeep lineup and your aging car offerings aren’t moving in showrooms either.

What do you do?

Why not stick a Jeep all-wheel-drive system under your aging Concord (née Hornet) coupe, sedan and wagon?

Et voilà ! You now have the AMC Eagle, the first mass-produced AWD American passenger car.

To set the Eagle apart, AMC raised the Concord’s body for extra ground clearance and slathered on plastic wheel arch flares and rocker extensions.

This formula contained the DNA for future Audi Allroads, Subaru Outbacks and Volvo XC70s – 20 years ahead of time.

1983-1991 Audi Quattro

Today, if I say “Audi,” you think “Quattro.”

And for that bit of brand awareness, you can thank this car: the original Quattro – Italian for “four” – the German automaker’s first car with AWD.

The Quattro was the first car to take advantage of new rules which allowed the use of four-wheel-drive in what we call today the World Rally Championship, eventually winning multiple races and overall crowns.

Now a collector’s car, the first Quattro is one of the most influential cars in the past three decades.

The Audi not only made AWD legitimate in rallying, it made the combination of performance and AWD legitimate on the street as well, influencing most of the remaining cars on this list.

1986-89 Porsche 959

Two decades after the Jensen, Porsche debuted its own high-speed AWD land missile: the 959.

Born as a Group B rally car and put into production to meet FIA homologation regulations, rumours at the time suggested that Porsche lost the same amount of money on every 959 sale as its original price tag: around $255,000.

But among contemporary rivals, only Ferrari’s F40 could match the revolutionary 911-based Porsche’s performance.

As one of the most technologically advanced supercars ever built, the 959 formed the basis for Porsche’s first all-wheel drive Carrera 4 model – although it was never officially imported to Canada.

Eventually, AWD would become standard on every 911 Turbo.

1988-94 Toyota Celica All-Trac

Like the Quattro and 959, the All-Trac (or GT-Four) was primarily a production car built to satisfy an automaker’s desire for professional rallying.

It has become common to see brands like Mitsubishi or Subaru on rally podiums worldwide, but Toyota was the first Japanese automaker to enter the World Rally Championship, a series previously dominated by European brands. It did so with the AWD Celica.

Toyota’s most successful rally car, it won the WRC driver’s and manufacturer’s championships.

And, as a production car spanning more than two generations of Celicas, the All-Trac became known as the “Ultimate Celica.”

1993 to present Subaru Impreza

If you’re enjoying the benefits of AWD in your compact Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe or Suzuki SX4, thank Subaru for introducing affordable AWD to the masses.

Replacing the less sophisticated Loyale as Subaru’s compact car, the Impreza initially came in either front- or all-wheel-drive.

But AWD and Subaru became so ingrained with customers, the Japanese automaker decided to make it standard on every Impreza from 1997 onwards.

Eventually, the WRX versions inspired by the rally car would arrive and grab the spotlight. For those on a budget, the Impreza continues to be one of the best AWD buys on the market.

1995 to present Subaru Outback

As a reinterpretation of AMC’s Eagle, the Outback sparked a trend at a time when truck-based SUV sales were hotter than the Subaru’s Australian desert region namesake.

Originally featured as a trim package on the existing Legacy station wagon, the Outback gained its signature SUV-mimicking white-letter tires, raised body height, two-tone fender flares, and fog lights after a year on the market.

Sales success ensued.

The Outback became so popular, Subaru ended up expanding the Outback DNA to other models in its lineup: the Legacy sedan (known as the Outback SUS, or Sport Utility Sedan) and the smaller Impreza Outback Sport wagon, for example.

Other automakers trying to cash in on the 1990s SUV-craze soon followed.

Volvo’s XC70 and Audi’s Allroad are just a couple examples of wagons that have been “Outbacked.”

1997 to present Honda CR-V

Honda, like Subaru, didn’t have a true SUV in its lineup in the mid-1990s. Its solution: the Civic wagon-based CR-V.

Introduced in Japan first, Honda exported the CR-V to North America as a low-volume niche vehicle, prompted by Toyota’s success with its Celica-based two-door RAV4. The Honda soon started to outsell the smaller Toyota.

The CR-V has gone on to become the gold standard of the compact SUV class, otherwise known as “cute-utes.”

It’s formula – take one compact car, raise the roof, add part-time all-wheel-drive – has been copied to the point where almost every automaker from Audi to Volvo now has some sort of CR-V type vehicle in their lineups.

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