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
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. 

Our Verdict

Volkswagen Golf R 2019 road test review - hero front

Billed the 'Ultimate Golf' and given more power, but can this facelifted Volkswagen Golf R knock the imperious Ford Focus RS from its perch?

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

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. 

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. 

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.

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

Get the latest car news, reviews and galleries from Autocar direct to your inbox every week. Enter your email address below:

22 October 2014
Seeing as this test is so depentent on the QUALITY and FRESHNESS of the rubber surely now’s not a good time to leave “ …it to the discretion of those who supplied the cars as to which OEM tyres their cars arrived wearing.” The Toyota was around a year old whereas most of the other cars were on 64 plates.

22 October 2014
I do several track days at Brands Hatch every year, in my 205 gti, and am usually out-gunned, except when it is wet.

The last wet track day I did, the 3 911s gave up after about an hour, and I ran rings round the M3s, GT86s, myriad MX5s. The only cars faster than me were an Evo8, A45 and Tom Chilton in his insane GT-R.

This on ageing Michelin Pilot Exaltos, in a 26 year old car and an overweight ageing driver!

22 October 2014
I'd have liked to have seen a couple more equivalents in there - eg a 2WD 911 for comparison, and it's a bit of a shame some turned up on winters rather than the correct OEM rubber, it seems a little like gaming the test. The Golf R seems to be winning everything at the moment, (including it seems every discussion on every UK motoring forum anywhere and this article wont help!) which makes it all the stranger that VW is practically giving them away on finance currently!

22 October 2014
So your representative for RWD was a GT-86: as you accurately put it "a sideways car in the dry". You've compared 5 4WD cars with a token car for each of the other 2 categories. That would be fine if you were trying to find the best 4WD car in the wet but this article is masquerading as a comparison of different drive-train architectures. All of the cars have different power outputs, all have different weights and, to top it all off, they aren't even on comparable brand/age tyres. The science involved in this test is so flawed that it hurts my head.

22 October 2014
they could give a toss about any of it. they simply take whatever the makers give them and no more. they have false pride in their authority, their work ethic, and their position. Again very poor journalism here like so often. j

22 October 2014
A comparative test without surprise, a RWD sport car is always tricky on the wet without the good tires (the GT86 has stocks Prius tires), and a FWD car get a lot of under-steering at the entry of a corner and cannot put full power at the exit.
I read an old comparative test performed on dry and wet track (Magny-Cours F1 track) between the Ferrari 328GTS (270hp), Porsche 911 Carrera 3.2L (230hp) and the Alpine GTA V6Turbo (200hp): on the dry, the Ferrari was the fastest by far (much more power and fast track) with the 911 and the GTA and the same tenth of second (GTA lighter and with better aerodynamic than the 911 despite a lower power), but was un-drivable on the wet because of much dry focused tires. On the Wet, the 911 was first because of its excellent traction, the GTA in second at 2 seconds because of a tricky gearbox command and the 328GTS at more than 20sec…
Without control, power is nothing.

22 October 2014
What a ridiculous "test". Did you have a day free and the diary and just took whatever press cars you could get and concocted some excuse for a test? I also bet that you didn't ask BMW for a car OR they refused to supply you a RWD non xDrive version as they also already knew they'd come last...

REAL comparison would be with the same car with FWD, RWD and AWD on the SAME tyres. Perhaps next time take three Mercedes Vito vans out with the configurations above. This "test" proves nothing a sane person could not have worked out for themselves anyway.

22 October 2014
The one with the greatest passenger safety. Because no matter how well your car performs in the wet or how safe you drive. You are ultimately vulnerable to the idiots who still want to do 90mph on the motorways in heavy rain. The same ones who also forget to put their lights on!

22 October 2014
As several commentators have pointed out, the car selections have rather muddied the thinking in this test. As noted in the piece, drive train trickery (rather than the architecture) has basically gifted crucial extra advantages to the 4WD cars so why not include a more basic 4WD car or retest with it all switched off? And the outright lap time test is completely pointless given the massive power discrepancy. You'd get a similar order in almost any driving conditions, surely? In fact, you probably should have been able to place all the vehicles just based on the tyres fitted; perhaps you didn't actually need to get them wet? I'm sure it was great fun though!

22 October 2014
Instead of including so many Volkswagen group cars, the Autocar could have made things way more impartial and interesting by including a BMW (any) X-Drive and a Mercedes A45 AMG and the RR Sport SVR. I bet the results would have been remarkably different! But then may be Autocar already knows that!


Add your comment

Log in or register to post comments

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week