Currently reading: Comparison: What’s the best car in the wet?
Only one way to find out: get seven very different cars, a wet track and a data logger. We reveal who reigns in the rain
Matt Prior
News
8 mins read
26 October 2014

How entirely fitting it was that the day of this test was that day that always comes each autumn. 

You know the one. It’s Monday morning. You leave the house in darkness. It is pelting with rain. You know that you’ll not return before darkness. There is no question about it: you will need a decent coat, from this very day forward, until the return of spring.

The only question is what car should accompany you from this day forth, too. A car for squalid, wet road conditions during which, when the asphalt isn’t merely covered in rainwater, it’s covered in mud, frost, wet leaves, snow, ice or gritted slush.

Conventional wisdom and shrewd advertising suggest that you want four-wheel drive. However, do you need it and, if so, how large a vehicle do you want with it? A full-blown 4x4? A rapid estate? A sports car, supercar or conventional hatchback? Is either front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive completely out of its depth?

To answer all of these questions and more, we gathered together the cars that you see here. Five are four-wheel-drive, and each a different kind of vehicle: our SUV is a Range Rover Sport with a supercharged engine; the sporting GT car is a Porsche 911 Carrera 4S; the hatchback is a fast one, a Volkswagen Golf R; the family estate another fast one, an Audi RS4; the archetypal all-weather supercar is Nissan’s GT-R

In the front-driven corner, we have a fairly regular hatchback in the shape of a Mini Cooper, and representing rear-wheel drive cars is a Toyota GT86. Both are light and wear sensible rubber.

We’ve left it to the discretion of those who supplied the cars as to which OEM tyres their cars arrived wearing. 

At 13deg ambient temperature, theoretically it was too warm for winter tyres to enter their optimum zone, but some winter tyres can disperse more water than their ‘summer’ counterparts.

As it is, the Range Rover’s Continental Crosscontacts are winter-proof anyway, and all of the other cars came on conventional rubber bar the 911, which arrived wearing Pirelli Sottozero winters.

To complete the equation, we enlisted MIRA proving ground’s wet handling circuit and wet straights, on which we ran five different tests. Our Vbox supplied the data. Our spreadsheet did the mathematics. By the end, we will know in a fairly scientific fashion which car is, beyond doubt, the best in the wet.

Test 1: 70-0mph

Fairly straightforward test, this. You’re travelling on a motorway at the legal limit when somebody swings into a lane in front of you and loses control. You have to stop. Now.

Here, four-wheel drive is, of course, no use whatsoever, because none of the wheels is driving. What helps are good tyres, little weight and sound weight distribution. Which is why the Mini Cooper steals a very early advantage, stopping in just 55.2m.

It’s a good result that is almost matched by most of the other cars here. Toyota’s GT86 is one exception. Despite being light and on generous rubber (215/45 R17) it needs 60.1m. 

The other exception is the Nissan GT-R, whose 255/40 ZR20 front and 285/35 ZR20 Dunlop Sport Maxx tyres simply won’t bite initially. There’s also its notable 1740kg kerb weight. So even though it slows from lower speed with lots of conviction, it takes a long time to get going. Ditto the Range Rover Sport, whose tyres do what they can but cannot alter the fact that it weighs over two tonnes. 

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Results: 1) Mini Cooper 2) Audi RS4 3) Volkswagen Golf R 4) Porsche 911 Carrera 4S 5) Range Rover Sport 6) Toyota GT86 7) Nissan GT-R

Read the full Porsche 911 Carrera 4S review

Test 2: 0-30mph on a mixed surface

MIRA’s wet straights aim to replicate some of the less predictable elements of wintery driving. So the left wheels of our test cars are parked on low-grip basalt tiles – think ice. The right pair are on regular asphalt. Stability control systems are left in place. We then accelerate as fast as possible, to 30mph.

As tests of traction go, it is a good one. It’s perhaps no surprise that, because acceleration tests push weight on to the rear tyres, the rear-engined 911 is king here. And how. Its traction and stability systems are deftly judged to minimise slip and ask for just a quarter turn of opposite lock as it reaches 30mph in 2.98sec. 

Nothing else gets close. The Range Rover, which has significant weight transfer and runs on knobbly tyres, is next best, at 3.74sec. Audi’s RS4 is the only other car to beat 4.0sec. Worst is the GT86, but it is light, which is no help here, and its stability and traction control systems feel clumsy. 

Results: 1) Porsche 911 Carrera 4S 2) Range Rover Sport 3) Audi RS4 4) Volkswagen Golf R 5) Nissan GT-R 6) Mini Cooper 7) Toyota GT86

Read the full Volkswagen Golf R review

Test 3: 30-0mph on a mixed surface

This split braking test is like the acceleration one, only you stop rather than go. Simples.

Tyres and brake sizes and weight affect the result here, but because speeds are low, it’s just as much about the cleverness of the electronics. Anti-lock, electronic brake-force distribution and stability control all play a part. The driver might have to wind on a little lock here and there, but largely he’s a passenger.

Pleasingly, the results are all satisfactory. The quickest stopping time is 3.28sec, for the 911 again, presumably because of the water dissipation allowed by its winter tyres, and the slowest time is the Range Rover’s, presumably on account of its mass, at 3.93sec. The gap between second (impressive Golf R) and sixth (GT86) is only 0.17sec. The Mini needs the most steering correction. 

Results: 1) Porsche 911 Carrera 4S 2) Volkswagen Golf R 3) Nissan GT-R 4) Mini Cooper 5) Audi RS4 6) Toyota GT86 7) Range Rover Sport

Read the full Audi RS4 Avant review

Test 4: Lateral g

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: four-wheel drive gives you traction, not grip. At least, I thought I knew that. 

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Yet the two cars that displayed the least lateral grip around our wet circular track were the Mini and GT86. Two-wheel-drive. I think it’s because when they push wide, more power only makes things worse. That and the GT86’s slow stability control system. 

However, with the other cars, great stability is garnered by their four-wheel drive systems. When one axle lets go, they apportion power intelligently to the opposite end and then grip is regained. 

For the most part, they’re accompanied by excellent electronics so that none of them is a stranger to the high side of 0.6g. However, here the Golf R – hitherto merely a near front-runner – comes to the fore. That it can maintain a lateral g figure of 0.665g is unsurpassed here. The next best is Nissan’s GT-R, whose powertrain finally reveals its impressive shuffling capabilities.  

The rest of the 4wd cars are at the 0.62sec-something mark, but that’s way ahead of the 0.5sec-something of the 2wd cars. Although tyres give you grip and 4wd gives you traction, without traction, you can’t exploit the fullest extent of the lateral grip.

Results: 1) Volkswagen Golf R 2) Nissan GT-R 3) Audi RS4 4) Range Rover Sport 5) Porsche 911 Carrera 4S 6) Mini Cooper 7) Toyota GT86 

Read the full Nissan GT-R review

Test 5: Lap time

The final test is the only one for which the stability control systems are switched off. We’ve tested them enough already and, come on, seriously, what did you expect when slides are in order? Besides, all of these cars go faster with the stability control switched off (we tried it), and this is, it’s true, as much a test of amusement as it is outright ability.

Scoring high on both fronts are the Golf R and 911 C4S. The 911 feels like it would make a terrific rally car. It’s easy to use its weight distribution on turn-in to keep the nose tucked in, and then drive it out on the power with a little corrective lock applied.You can do similar in the Golf, to an extent, only without the advantage of an engine hanging over the rear. However, the Haldex 4wd system’s ability to apportion power to the rear before the fronts have even relinquished grip is a boon. The RS4 has similar traits, too.

The Range Rover Sport’s fourth-best lap time is impressive, as is its willingness to apportion power rearwards. When it starts to slide foursquare, it takes a lot of space, but if we were in any doubt as to whether we’d picked the right SUV for the job, this lap won us over.

The GT-R’s tyres did it no favours under braking but it comes in ahead of the 2wd cars. The Mini – nimble, entertaining – hangs gamely on to the coat-tails of the rest. The Toyota does not even try to stay with them; this a sideways car in the dry. In the wet it’s hilarious, so it doesn’t matter that it finishes 7.5sec adrift of the Mini and 14.85sec behind the 911 and Golf.

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Results: 1) Porsche 911 Carrera 4S, Volkswagen Golf R 3) Audi RS4 4) Range Rover Sport 5) Nissan GT-R 6) Mini Cooper 7) Toyota GT86

Read the full Range Rover Sport review

The verdict

What’s best in the wet? Not a Toyota GT86, unless your idea of ‘best’ is simply spinning up a pair of rear wheels and giggling. That is far from without its appeal but, in this test, the Toyota fares no better than last by a distance – even if it is the car that all of our testers would choose first to re-run all of the tests.

That the Mini finishes sixth, albeit closer to the pack, justifies the decision to include five four-wheel-drive cars here. I thought that they would be better, and they are.

The fact that a Nissan GT-R can gather no clear air over a Range Rover Sport, though, says quite a lot about both: the pair finish equal fourth. The GT-R has fabulous tyres in the dry, but its lower weight, better body control and terrific power can’t open up a gap over the Range Rover, which is a mighty performance SUV.

The Range Rover still doesn’t make the podium, which is rounded out by Audi’s RS4. We suspect that it, too, would have fared better on rubber more suited to wet conditions than its 30-profile Bridgestone Potenzas, but it was a small distance behind the front two.  

The 911 finished first in so many tests that it could have won, such is its traction and the water displacement properties of its tyres. In lateral grip tests, however, that was less of an issue and its inherent rear-biased weight distribution unsettled it to the extent that the Golf R nips ahead of it. Strong everywhere – under acceleration, braking and laterally – the Golf R is the ideal way to make a car for wet conditions. It goes, stops and grips like no other. 

Read Autocar's previous comparison test - new Vauxhall Corsa versus Ford Fiesta and VW Polo

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Add a comment…
audiolab 26 October 2014

The first thing...

The first thing I always do when it starts to rain is reach down and switch off the the ESP !
Madasafish 23 October 2014

Wot no BMW?

BMWs in the UK are commonplace. More 3 series sold than Mondeos.

The most common RWD cars in the UK.

And none is tested?

Really shows how worthless the test is..

(I wonder why no BMWs were in the test?. It surely cannot be the writer KNOWS they will be pants and spoil their consistent theme that BMWs are great.. No surely not :-)

Jonathan Lingham 23 October 2014

Best car in the wet...?

Anything with a tin roof to keep the rain out, and good a/c to keep the windows clear of mist, I'd have thought...

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