Not to be confused with 4WD cars...
What is the best all-wheel-drive Toyota? To many, the answer is quite obvious. If you're on a budget, it's the 4Runner or Tundra. If not, it's the Land Cruiser. But these vehicles aren't AWD. While all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive cars are similar, they're not the same.
CarBuzzexplored this topic in depth, but we'll give you a short version for the purposes of this article. All-wheel-drive can be permanent or part-time, and the torque is distributed between the front and rear axles via differentials and clutch packs. Four-wheel-drive is also full-time or part-time and is more robust than AWD. The torque split is generally locked via a center differential or transfer case, and low range is standard in most cases.
As a general rule, an all-wheel-drive vehicle simply supplies additional traction for folks who live in wet or cold weather states. It can also be used to improve the driving experience in sportier cars. Four-wheel drive is for off-roading in harsh conditions, like sand, mud driving, rock crawling, or an overland adventure. Most 4WD systems are part-time, with the drive going to the back wheels in normal conditions. You then engage 4WD via a switch or lever, and the front axle engages to help the rear wheels out of a sticky situation.
We suppose both are ideal for adventure and adrenaline seekers, depending on your definition of the words.
To some, adventure is simply driving down an agreeable gravel road relying on the AWD system to send power to the opposite axle if the default driven wheels lose traction.
With that in mind, let's look at the available all-wheel-drive systems you'll find at the local dealer.
There are currently five AWD systems, ranging from the most basic to the recently introduced dual-motor setup in the bZ4X. We'll first start with the most basic and work our way up to the most complex system available in the lineup.Dynamic Torque Control All-Wheel-Drive
This is the most common and least complex AWD system found in most Toyota vehicles. It's an on-demand system, meaning power is sent to the front wheels in normal conditions. When sensors detect the front wheels slipping, the ECU will feed power to the rear axle. The rear axle is activated via an electromagnetic control coupler between the driveshaft and rear differential.
This system has the added benefit of an AWD lock mode if you encounter an unexpected obstacle on the road. If you don't want to wait for wheel slip to activate the automatic engagement, it's pretty useful. The lock feature only works up to 25 mph. Any higher than that, and it will revert back to the default mode.
It can only split the power in two ways. You either get 100:0 or 50:50. Another downside is an open differential at the rear. Power always follows the path of least resistance, so if you put a wheel in the air, it will simply spin away uselessly. To get around this, Toyota uses active traction control. If a wheel is spinning, the ECU will apply the brakes to that wheel, hoping to balance the force between the two wheels on said axle. In doing so, the car may take a minor jump forward, hopefully taking care of the problem.
In a 4WD truck like the Tundra, you'd simply wait for the electronically locking differential to kick in. This applies equal power to both wheels, forcing them to rotate at the same speed. Even if you put two wheels in the air, the other wheels will still turn and provide forward progress.
This system is found on more high-end cars with all-wheel-drive. It's the same basic system as above, but it has a few additional tricks up its sleeve.
The first is Driveline Disconnect, which is a dog clutch between the transmission and driveshaft. It can completely decouple the rear wheels for increased efficiency. AWD vehicles equipped with this system will drop the rear axle in eco mode to improve MPG figures.
There's also an additional dog clutch between the driveshaft and the rear differential, and thanks to clutch packs, the rear differential can also split power between the rear wheels. When one wheel loses traction, the clutches activate and send power to the opposite wheel.
It's also a form of active torque vectoring, also improving the on-road performance of the car.
The bZ4X is the only model currently on sale with this system, but we expect it to be standard fitment on most of the electric models heading our way.
It's all-wheel-drive by default because it has a motor bolted to each axle. There is no mechanical coupling between the two, but they do work in tandem to provide additional grip via the Multi-Terrain Select system.
But the dual-motor setup is not for hardcore off-roading, or at least not for the moment. We maintain that electricity is the best solution for off-roading, and Toyota will likely develop this system for upcoming electric trucks.
X-Mode is essentially a variation of crawl control, first seen on the Land Cruiser. It can determine the road surface characteristics and use that information to maintain a steady speed.
Naturally, an electric AWD system comes with a performance benefit. Instant torque and all-wheel-drive are the perfect combination for a brisk sprint from a standing start.
This system is similar to the electric dual-motor setup in that there is no mechanical connection between the front and rear axles. But in this case, the front wheels are powered by an engine or engine/electric motor combination, while the rear axle is powered solely by an electric motor.AWDe
Toyota models equipped with this system tend to be on the cheaper side. It's similar to Electric On-Demand All-Wheel-Drive, but instead of a powerful electric motor, the rear is powered by more affordable induction motors, and they only work at speeds up to 43 mph. Any higher than that, and the motor would spontaneously combust.
It's built specifically for more fuel-efficient models, as the induction motors do the hard work in slow traffic.
Unlike most Toyota all-wheel-drive vehicles, this system was designed purely for fun. Toyota developed it in conjunction with the top-notch engineers at Toyota Gazoo Racing, and it was refined by the factory WRC team's drivers.
It was made to entertain on dirt, rain, snow, or on the track, thanks to three available torque splits between the front and rear wheels. For daily driving, it has a 60:40 setting, while the 30:70 split is for hooligan antics. For track driving and maximum stability, the split is 50:50.
In addition to permanently feeding power to all four wheels, the car can also be equipped with limited-slip differentials front and rear (depending on the trim). This splits the power from left to right between the wheels for ultimate control.
Now that we've explored the various systems available in AWD Toyota cars, let's look at the best all-paw models they've ever produced. Here they are, in no particular order.
The RAV4 will be mentioned twice on this list because we can't not include the OG Recreational Activity Vehicle, which was groundbreaking in many ways. It arguably created the compact SUV segment and was one of the first electric vehicles available to the masses. Toyota is often accused of being late to the EV party, but it got there in 1997.
The reason the XA10 RAV4 makes this list is its off-road ability. Earlier, we stated that all-wheel-drive shouldn't be used for hardcore off-roading, but the first-generation RAV4 is the exception that proves the rule. It was equipped as standard with a full-time all-wheel-drive system. Automatic models had an electronically-controlled multi-plate clutch locking center differential, while manual models had a manually-locking center differential with a button on the center console.
It's a rather rudimentary system without any fancy sport, normal, or snow modes, and no systems monitoring road conditions. But the three-door model was extraordinarily light and had short overhangs.
Like the Suzuki Jimny, we've seen the first-generation RAV4 humble many hardcore (heavy) off-roaders.
It also had enough convenience features to make daily driving a joy. Oh, and the value for money was off the charts.
This particular model is the closest Toyota ever got to reproducing the off-road ability of the original RAV. It's equipped with the Dynamic Torque Vectoring All-Wheel-Drive With Driveline Disconnect and Multi-Terrain Select with Mud & Sand, Rock & Dirt, and Snow modes. It also has TRD-tuned shocks and aggressive all-terrain rubber.
The only downside is the lack of a decent lift kit, but it remains one of the more competent Toyota AWD SUV models available.
The Toyota Highlander doesn't even pretend to be an off-road SUV. Its overhangs are way too long, and it sits too low to the ground. What we have here is a prime example of AWD being used as an additional layer of safety, much like Toyota Safety Sense.
It makes perfect sense, as the Highlander is a family vehicle, first and foremost. It has a large cargo area and caters to the most basic driving needs.
The Highlander Hybrid is equipped with Electric On-Demand AWD, which means it has a 2.5-liter four-pot and electric motor combination at the front, producing 243 horsepower. If you opt for the AWD model, Toyota adds an extra electric motor to the rear axle for when your chosen adventure takes you a bit further than expected.
The Prius Prime should be on this list with its impressive all-electric range, but available all-wheel-drive is not yet on the list of optional features.
You can order the standard Prius with Electric On-Demand AWD, in which case Toyota adds an electric motor to the rear axle. In this configuration, the system output increases to 196 hp.
Like the Highlander, the Prius doesn't pretend to have any off-road ability. The electric motor on the rear axle is there to improve grip in iffy conditions.
For the first time, the Prius is also fun to drive. Thanks to the AWD system and 196 hp, it can reach 60 mph in around seven seconds, quicker than a GR86.
Here's another prime example of a vehicle relying on AWD on Toyota Safety Sense to provide the safest driving experience for an entire family. It's one of the safest cars for snowy climates.
Toyota upset many people when it dropped the V6 as an option, but the Sienna works much better as a hybrid. It's also equipped with an electric on-demand system, with a 2.5-liter four-pot, two electric motors in the front, and a single motor at the rear.
Despite losing the six-cylinder powertrain, the Sienna retains its impressive 3,500-pound towing capacity.
Thanks to the hybrid system, the Sienna hybrid also beats the V6 properly when it comes to average mpg. The V6 consumed 21 mpg on the combined cycle, while this model can achieve 35 mpg - eco mode for the win.
The only Toyota AWD sedan on our list, though many are available. The Crown is arguably more desirable with its crossover-like styling, but the current Camry is a handsome vehicle, and it has the more advanced Dynamic Torque Vectoring All-Wheel-Drive With Driveline Disconnect.
Unfortunately, the system can't be coupled with the NA V6 engine.
The Camry does make up for it by giving you lots of comfort features to enhance the overall experience. We recommend the Camry Nightshade Edition, if only for the looks.
The Corolla Cross is one of the dullest cars ever produced, but it is slightly more interesting if you buy the hybrid. This particular AWD hybrid Toyota is equipped with the cheaper AWDe, which only works at speeds up to 43 mph.
It may be boring, but the Corolla Cross Hybrid does precisely what it says on the box. Most people who buy one of these things want something to get from A to B while using as little as possible gallons per mile. With Apple CarPlay.
If you're an enthusiast, we can't recommend this car or its non-hybrid brother. But if you want a generic crossover that will outlast you, look no further.
The US-spec C-HR was a dumpster fire. It should have worked because it was arguably one of the first non-boring Toyotas. As one of the older models on this list, it uses the basic Dynamic Torque Control All-Wheel-Drive system, but that's not why it's rubbish.
Because America has a thing against small engines, Toyota only sent the 2.0-liter NA four-pot with a CVT transmission across the pond. That's why it failed so badly and why its successor is not coming to America.
Elsewhere, you could get a 1.2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with a manual gearbox and all-wheel-drive. We know from personal experience that this combination totally transforms the car.
Many would say this is the ultimate forbidden fruit. A homologation special was built for a WRC class that ended before it was introduced. Even so, Toyota put it into production and quickly became a modern performance icon.
We're not going to dive too deep into its AWD system because its bigger brother is up next, and you can buy one in the USA.
The GR Corolla and Honda Civic Type R are the stand-out performance hatches of the moment. The CTR represents the best front-wheel-drive, while the GRC carries the flag for AWD.
Even in base spec, you get a 300-hp 1.6-liter turbocharged three-cylinder mated to a six-speed manual, but that's only half the fun.
The AWD system makes it epic fun to drive, whether on tarmac or dirt. As mentioned earlier, you can choose between three torque splits: 60:40, 30:70, and 50:50. Opt for the Circuit Edition, and you get limited-slip differentials front and rear.
This car has proved so popular that Toyota had no choice but to increase production into the new year.