Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: December 8, 2020
It's never too late to teach an old dog new tricks, and Toyota would seem to agree. The Camry and Avalon are now available with all-wheel drive, a first for the latter - the Camry actually had an early AWD variant from 1988-1991 called AllTrac. Apparently, many customers were jumping ship from Toyota’s sedans to its crossovers, namely the RAV4 and Highlander, partly due to the need for four-driven wheels. While we’re not a huge proponent for AWD as it adds unnecessary weight and complex parts - FWD with proper winter tires is usually enough for the job - the widened safety net that it provides to consumers, both mentally and physically, is apparently worth Toyota’s time and money.
They’re not the only ones either. Nissan has installed AWD on their Altima sedan. Dodge has done the same with the Charger and Challenger, not to mention the Subaru Legacy which has been in the AWD game longer than most. So when Toyota decided to add AWD to the Camry, they realized they might as well do it for the Avalon too, as they both lie on the same platform and utilize similar mechanicals. Toyota borrowed the engine, transmission, transfer case, and rear differential from the RAV4, as well as a re-tuned multi-link rear suspension adapted for the sedan’s lower ride height. A modified propeller shaft was also taken from the Highlander, making it somewhat of a Frankenstein Toyota. Further modifications include the use of an electronic parking brake, and a redesigned fuel tank.
The Avalon’s AWD system can send up to 50% of torque to the rear axle, but can’t apportion them to the individual wheels. What it can do though is disengage the rear axle when AWD isn’t required, like on long highway stretches, to save fuel. The total weight penalty? About 30 kg. More importantly though, Toyota says that even with the added parts, rear seat floor height and trunk floor height are identical to the FWD variant.
The one drawback to the AWD system is that it's limited to just one engine choice, a naturally aspirated 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine and 8-speed automatic ripped straight from the RAV4. That’s right - no turbochargers. That means it produces a silky smooth 205 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque, which is slightly more than the Camry’s because of the Avalon’s larger dual-exhaust system. While it runs at a 100-hp deficit to the Avalon FWD’s 3.5-litre V6, the four-cylinder is notably more fuel efficient.
Despite the paltry output on paper, the inline-four does a decent job propelling the Avalon forward. There is a decent amount of thrust but if you’re used to the low-end thrust of a V6, or a turbocharged sedan, then you might find this Avalon lacking. Either that or you will spend most of your time with your foot firmly planted to the floor. The engine doesn’t convey a sense of refinement, choking up quickly under heavy demand, and running out of breath when exploring the latter half of the powerband. The coarse, rough, and somewhat unpleasant noise under acceleration is heavily exacerbated when the engine is cold too.
There’s still a sense of eagerness off the line, the additional rear wheels digging in for grip and traction. With a lower center of gravity than the RAV4 and brake-based torque vectoring, the Avalon AWD obeys rotational inputs well without feeling top-heavy, and even with the substantial body roll, it’s comfortable and never unwieldy. Be that as it may, the overall driving experience isn’t too far off from the RAV4, probably because the SUV is a meaningful 38 kg lighter than the Avalon AWD.
Does the Avalon need AWD? Absolutely not. Unless you constantly find yourself buried in knee-deep snow or have a cottage country road you frequent. Proper winter tires will do the trick just fine. But like many things in life, the perceived benefits of added tools and improvements heavily outweigh its actual real-life performance. And that won’t stop owners from paying a little extra for an automotive guardian angel.
The Avalon AWD rides on 18-inch wheels (the V6 models wear 19s), and soaks up bumps exceptionally well, coddling occupants in its cognac semi-aniline leather seats The checkered quilting appears expensive, and is found along both the front and rear seats, as well as the door inserts. Passenger space is worth mentioning, as rear seat leg- and headroom are above average for my six-foot figure, and more impressive than the RAV4’s. This Avalon was made for a full house.
The rest of the interior is essentially the same as the FWD variant, and the extra AWD internals don’t impact cabin space either. The layout isn’t anything revolutionary but is imbued with a rich mix of colours, leathers, and textures. There are some neat details, like how the dashboard slices right into the passenger side air vent, or the sizable storage groove hidden underneath the center stack.
The infotainment screen floats on top of the center stack and isn’t hindered by a messy touchpad like in the upmarket Lexus ES 350 or Acura RLX. While it’s not the most responsive unit, the learning curve is small, and should be easy enough for geriatric populations to modulate without fuss. We don’t like how the touchscreen is positioned a bit out of reach, though. We have to actively get off our seatback to reach up and input touch commands - such is the sacrifice of not having a dedicated rotary dial.
Toyota knows it won’t sell many Avalons as opposed to RAV4s and Highlanders, and has reduced their lineup down to two trims: XSE FWD ($42,690) and Limited AWD ($48,450). We also suspect that most buyers will flock to the smaller and more affordable Camry AWD instead, but the Avalon’s upscale cabin materials and more spacious rear accommodations make it a compelling alternative, even to the FWD-only Lexus ES 350. Toyota’s infotainment system is better too.
You won’t truly feel its AWD benefits until you encounter slippery conditions (or when powering down early after clipping an apex, yes in an Avalon), and even though its smaller four-cylinder engine emits an unflatteringly rough engine note, and runs on a horsepower deficit from the V6, it doesn’t exactly feel penalized by it. The Avalon AWD is more fuel-efficient as a result and who doesn’t appreciate a larger safety net? That should be enough to dissuade a select few from jumping ship into SUVs. Maybe sedans aren’t dead after all.
Model: 2021 Toyota Avalon AWD Limited
Paint Type: Ruby Flare Pearl
Base Price: $48,750
Price as Tested: $49,005
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,975 / 1,850 / 1,440
Curb weight (kg): 1,680
Engine: 2.5-litre inline-four
Horsepower: 205 hp @ 6,600 rpm
Torque: 185 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, AWD
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway / Combined ) L/100km: 9.5 / 7.0 / 8.4
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 9.2