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Shock and AWD: 2020 Toyota Camry and 2021 Avalon AWD First Drive Review

Who needs an SUV when Toyota sedans spin all four wheels?

Aaron GoldWriterManufacturerPhotographer

PARK CITY, Utah—We've all but resigned ourselves to the onslaught of the SUV, but maybe we shouldn't bid farewell to the family sedan just yet. We were invited to ski country to sample several Toyota all-wheel-drive cars, chief among them the company's two newest such examples: The 2020 Camry and 2021 Avalon sedans. Take that, SUVs!

This is the first time Toyota has offered an all-wheel-drive Camry since the 1988-91 Camry All-Trac, and a first-ever for the Avalon. If you're expecting hyper-sophisticated technology out of these Toyota all-wheel-drive cars, we must disappoint you: Both models use a fairly simple system ("tried and true," as a Toyota staffer described it) called Dynamic Torque Control AWD. It uses an electromechanical coupler that engages drive to the rear wheels when it detects slip, or in conditions when the electronics determine that slip may be possible by considering what the driver is doing in terms of parameters such as steering-wheel and throttle position. The driveshaft to the coupler always spins, and the system delivers power equally to both rear wheels through an open differential. The traction-control system uses the rear brakes to arrest slipping wheels. Toyota will offer this setup in the Camry LE, SE, XLE and XSE models, as well as the Avalon XLE and Limited.

The system isn't ground-breaking, but it works. We drove a Camry XSE (that's the lux-and-sport model) shod with stock all-season-tires on both a snow-covered "snowcross" track as well as (mostly) dry roads between Park City, Midway, and Sundance. If you haven't driven a late-model Camry, you'll probably be surprised by how well it gets around the corners, though Toyota's traction and stability control systems are easy to trigger.

On quick switchbacks, the all-wheel-drive system aided the Camry's behavior: Accelerating out of uphill corners, we expected the usually heavy-handed electronic nannies to jump on our fun, but it didn't. We can only surmise that some power was getting shifted to the rear as needed, thus reducing the possibility of front-inside-tire wheelspin. Or maybe we just weren't driving fast enough.

Both Camry and Avalon offer all-wheel drive exclusively with the Camry's base engine, a 2.5 liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder that wheezed in the high altitude. Toyota considered producing an all-wheel-drive car with a V-6, but the smaller engine has a 94-percent take rate on Camry, and the company felt the package worked well enough.

The consequence is that the AWD Avalon gets this engine as well, a first for this generation of Avalon, which is available with a V-6 or four-cylinder hybrid drivetrain. The AWD Avalon uses the 205-horsepower/185 lb-ft version from the Camry XSE, as opposed to 202/182 in lesser Camrys. And as the Avalon weighs only 100 pounds or so more than the Camry XSE, the engine should be up to the task—at least at sea level.

Out on the snow course, both the Camry and Avalon behaved exactly as expected. Where a front-driver would have done a sit-and-spin, the all-wheel-drive cars dug in and accelerated rapidly on the straights. We had good fun sliding sideways around the corners, which had more to do with the slippery snow surface than the car. The sedans' AWD system has a maximum front-to-rear power split of 50/50, so we couldn't exactly unleash our inner Keiichi Tsuchiya, but once we got the car pointed in the right direction it would more-or-less claw its way to the next turn, at least when the stability-control system wasn't busy putting the kibosh on our fun. Toyotas have a switch to turn traction control off, but like the Fast and Furious franchise, it never entirely goes away.

We also sampled some of Toyota's other all-wheel-drive cars, which range in sophistication and effectiveness. The RAV4 Hybrid uses Toyota's eAWD system, which has no physical connection to the driveline up front—instead it uses a motor-generator to drive the rear wheels. The rear driveline helps the car accelerate from a stop to 15 mph regardless of conditions, and can be engaged to provide extra traction at all speeds. The RAV4 Hybrid got itself around the snowcross well enough, though we did notice that it seemed to slide off the track more than any other car, once to the point of needing to be towed out of the slightly deeper snow. We put the RAV4 Hybrid's front wheels off the track on that same turn, but were able to reverse onto the track with some gentle rocking.

The Prius eAWD gets a simpler system, with a motor (not a motor-generator) out back that engages at up to 6 mph and doesn't operate at more than 43 mph. We weren't moving that fast on our snowcross so it helped the Prius get around the slick stuff just fine, though the ABS system's constant action (the brakes are used to quell wheelspin) sounded like a pair of 1980s-era daisy wheel printers hammering away in the wheel wells.

Higher-end non-hybrid Highlanders and RAV4s get Toyota's most sophisticated system, which uses a torque-vectoring rear axle and has the ability to disconnect the driveline to improve fuel economy. The Highlander Platinum we drove stayed pretty well planted and navigated its way around the snow course with little drama—not much fun for us, but exactly what we'd want on a slippery road with other cars around. We also drove a RAV4 Adventure with the same system, this time selecting the "Mud and Sand" program in the hopes it would allow a little more wheelslip and, by extension, a little more idiocy. It did, but every few corners the ESC would step in to say "Enough is enough!" (Some electronic computer brans just don't know how to have a good time, do they?)

Lower-trim RAV4s and Highlanders get a system similar to that of the Camry and Avalon, with the addition of a driveshaft disconnect to save fuel. We didn't get to try this variation—too few of them on hand, too many journalists, and the snow track had to be closed down early due to deteriorating conditions—but we imagine it will work much like the Camry and Avalon.

Back to the sedans: Toyota says the all-wheel drive adds about 165 pounds to the weight of the Camry and Avalon, and while pricing remains to be finalized, the anticipated price premium is around $1,500. We questioned the need for all-wheel drive on a sedan like the Camry; after all, a front-driver with snow tires is pretty damn competent. Toyota thinks the need is there, based on how well Nissan is doing with the all-wheel-drive Altima. And its dealers do, as well: Of Toyota's 12 nationwide sales regions, half are ordering at least 30 percent of their 2020 Camrys with all-wheel-drive; in some snowy districts, orders are as high as 60 percent.

We do wish that if Toyota were going to do this, it would do it whole-hog and fit the torque-vectoring system from the Highlander and RAV4. Mazda went for a much more sophisticated system with the Mazda3 AWD, and it reaps great benefits on dry roads as well as in the cold-and-wet. We can only imagine what a torque-vectoring rear end would do for the surprisingly competent Camry TRD. But Toyota isn't looking to wow us; it wants to give buyers a Toyota-branded alternative to the AWD Altima and Subaru Legacy, and by gosh, it's done it. The AWD Camry and Avalon are also one more appealing alternative to an SUV, and that's good enough for us.

2020 Toyota Camry AWD XSE
ON SALE Spring 2020
PRICE $32,500 (base) (est)
ENGINE 2.5L DOHC 16-valve I-4/205 hp @ 6,600 rpm, 185 lb-ft @ 4,600 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE 25/34 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 192.7 x 72.4 x 57.1 in
WHEELBASE 111.2 in
WEIGHT 3,575 lb
0-60 MPH 8.0 sec (est)
TOP SPEED N/A
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