Toyota Goes All-In on All-Wheel Drive
Granted, days are getting noticeably longer and spring will blossom in the Northern Hemisphere in about a month, but winter is not quite over. Many parts of the U.S. are still experiencing snowy, wet weather — conditions well suited for all-wheel-drive vehicles. Toyota recently hosted a media event in Park City, Utah, where there was plenty of snow to experience the Japanese automaker’s multiple AWD vehicles and their different drive systems, including the latest additions to the company’s all-wheel-drive fleet: the midsize 2020 Camry and full-size 2021 Avalon.
Camry and Avalon AWD
Toyota will be adding all-wheel drive to the Camry lineup for the first time since 1991, when Toyota sold the Camry AllTrac from 1988–91. Toyota developed the 2020 Camry’s new AWD system in the U.S. exclusively for the North American market, and it will be assembled at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky. It will be available on Camry LE, XLE, SE and XSE trim levels when it arrives in showrooms this spring. Toyota’s longtime luxury sedan, the Avalon will be getting AWD for the first time — in the XLE or Limited trims — for the 2021 model year; it goes on sale in fall 2020. Neither the Avalon nor Camry sacrifice any interior space to accommodate the new all-wheel-drive systems.
Multiple AWD Systems
Most consumers purchase an AWD car or crossover without realizing that all-wheel-drive systems are not created equal. In fact, Toyota employs five different systems in its cars and crossovers — independent of its truck-based 4WD systems. Toyota set up an ice- and snow-covered course in Utah to showcase the different AWD systems, and all vehicles tested were fitted with stock all-season tires. Read on to discover how Toyota goes all-in on all-wheel drive: a quick overview of the systems offered, covering their similarities as well as their differences.
Dynamic Torque Control AWD
Perhaps the simplest of all the all-wheel-drive systems the automaker offers, Toyota uses Dynamic Torque Control AWD in the new Camry AWD, Avalon AWD and the lower trims of the RAV4. Toyota has been using the system for many years; it features a single-speed transfer case that drives the front wheels and also sends power down a driveshaft to the rear wheels. When AWD is needed, an electromagnetic coupler integrated into the rear differential engages to provide torque to the rear wheels.
Even Distribution to Rear Wheels
With Dynamic Torque Control AWD, torque gets distributed evenly to both rear wheels and can engage at any speed. If there is wheelslip left or right, the stability and traction control systems operate simultaneously to stop the slipping of a particular wheel. When the AWD system is not in use the coupler is disengaged, so the vehicle normally operates in front-wheel drive; however, the engine continually turns the driveshaft, which affects fuel efficiency since this adds additional drag.
Camry AWD in Snow
On the slippery, snow-covered course at our press event in Utah, the new Camry AWD accelerated up the inclined course entry with no difficulty. Although the Camry’s system does not use torque vectoring, the stability control works surprisingly well with the all-wheel drive system, keeping the car on the intended path as we followed tight turns of the course. The Camry makes a lot of grinding and other mechanical noises as the traction control and ABS work together to keep the car on track, but these sounds are to be expected.
The 2021 Avalon uses the same Dynamic Torque Control AWD system as the 2020 Camry, although we discovered that the larger sedan is a bit smoother and more manageable on slippery surfaces. The AWD Avalon weighs as much as the V6-powered model sans AWD, but with about 100 less horsepower, performance in the AWD Avalon is noticeably weaker. However, for most situations the 4-cylinder engine will provide adequate power.
Four Cylinder Only
The AWD versions of both Camry and Avalon are only available with a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine producing 205 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque (202 and 182, respectively, on Camry LE, SE and XLE), teamed with an 8-speed automatic. While both sedans are available with a more powerful V6 engine, Toyota will not be offering AWD with the larger powerplant.
Traction Control Off
To properly experience operation of the all-wheel-drive system on its own, we drove the same course with the stability control turned off. As expected, more skill was required to keep the vehicles on track since both Camry and Avalon tended to understeer — a common occurrence in slick conditions. Adding power eventually put the vehicles in the desired direction as the front wheels gained traction, but not before sliding to the edge of the course. That said, most owners of these all-wheel-drive vehicles will keep the traction and stability control systems on in snowy conditions.
Performance on Dry Pavement
The Camry AWD weighs about 165 pounds more than the equivalent front-wheel-drive variant; however, most consumers won’t notice the added heft. In fact, when driving the Camry on paved roads around the city and on the highway, there was no discernable difference in performance between the front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive versions. The AWD is available when needed, and it does not hinder the drive in any way when not engaged. That said, fuel economy does take a hit — the AWD Camry LE and SE are rated at 25 mpg city / 34 mpg hwy / 29 mpg combined. This is about 3 mpg less than the FWD equivalent.
Dynamic Torque Vectoring AWD
Toyota’s sophisticated Dynamic Torque Vectoring AWD system can be found on higher-level trims of the new Highlander as well as the RAV4 compact crossover. While this system utilizes the single-speed transfer case at the front, it also features two dog clutches on the driveline to the rear wheels. These connections are either fully locked or fully open. When all-wheel drive is not needed, the driveline is completely disconnected, which is much more efficient than the previously-described system.
With Dynamic Torque Vectoring AWD, two electronically-controlled clutch packs are integrated into the rear differential, which allow power to be delivered to the left or right rear wheel as needed. So instead of applying brakes to the slipping wheel, this system will simply send more power to the wheel with traction, which offers better control and performance.
Dynamic Torque Vectoring AWD is the most advanced system Toyota offers, and as such it quickly became our favorite. Where the previous system has to use braking to make corrections to the vehicle’s course, the torque-vectoring system in the RAV4 and Highlander can add power to the outside rear wheel in a turn, which helps pivot the vehicle to the intended course without cutting power.
In Utah we also drove a RAV4 TRD on the course with the stability and traction control systems turned off to fully experience the torque vectoring system — and have a little fun. The TRD also had all-season tires, although with a more aggressive tread. We were able to enter corners a bit quicker and accelerate out of turns while drifting to the outside edge; staying on the throttle turned the small crossover and pointed us in our intended direction.
Highlander AWD System
The all-new Toyota Highlander has its own AWD system, available on the L, LE and XLE trims. Similar to the Dynamic Torque Vectoring system, the driveline can be completely disconnected when AWD is not in use, which improves overall efficiency.
Power to the Rear Wheels
When the system is engaged, the driveline is connected via a dog clutch, sending power to the rear wheels via an electronic coupler that can vary the amount of power — up to as much as 50 percent. Like the Camry and Avalon, the Highlander AWD system does not provide torque vectoring — power gets evenly distributed to the rear wheels.
Electronic On-Demand AWD
Toyota offers all-wheel drive on both the RAV4 Hybrid and Highlander Hybrid, and unlike the previously described systems, the hybrids do not use a mechanical connection to the rear wheels. When AWD is not needed, these are pure front-wheel-drive vehicles. If the vehicle determines AWD is needed, the rear motor generator gets engaged automatically and sends power to the rear wheels, with equal power distributed left and right.
This on-demand system is similar to the one used by the Prius AWD, but the rear motor has been upgraded for the two crossovers — it is more powerful so the RAV4 Hybrid and Highlander Hybrid are able to handle some light off-roading. We’ve had the opportunity to take the RAV4 Hybrid off-road, and for most conditions it performs on par with mechanical all-wheel-drive systems.
Highlander Hybrid AWD
We inadvertently experienced a bit of off-roading in the new Highlander Hybrid when we entered a corner on the icy course a bit too quickly and slid off the track into deeper snow. Keeping our cool and continuing to apply throttle meant the Highlander Hybrid’s all-wheel-drive system didn’t fail — it brought us back on course and helped avoid a potentially embarrassing situation.
The Toyota Prius is all about efficiency, so when Toyota decided to give this iconic hybrid all-wheel drive, it needed to be the most efficient system possible. A small induction motor located on the rear axle engages at speeds up to 6 mph for better traction under acceleration; it also delivers power to the rear wheels as needed up to 43 mph.
Prius in Snow
While these limitations seem like they would be an issue, we found the AWDe system perfectly sufficient to keep the Prius mobile while driving on the slick, snowy course. This was especially useful when starting from a standstill; with the AWD already engaged there was little slippage as the small hybrid easily got moving.
AWD for Everyone
Answering a call from consumers for the safety and confidence provided by all-wheel drive, Toyota now offers a wide range of vehicles that fit this demand. The all-new Highlander and best-selling RAV4 both offer carlike driving dynamics with the space and utility expected of a crossover. For those who remain loyal to the classic sedan but still want all-weather capability, the 2020 Camry and 2021 Avalon are two strong offerings coming to market. With multiple hybrid all-wheel drive models — including the efficient Prius — consumers can have all-wheel drive as well a significant fuel savings.