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2020 Toyota Camry and Avalon AWD first drive review: Drifting in a winter wonderland

We head to snowy Utah to test Toyota's new all-wheel drive sedans on a slippery winter handling course.

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The Camry is better poised to tackle this than ever before.

Toyota

The new Toyota Camry learns an old trick with the addition of an all-wheel drive option for 2020. It bears mentioning that it's been nearly 30 years since Toyota offered the 1991 Camry All-Trac -- the last Camry model with all-wheel drive -- but with more and more buyers gravitating toward SUVs for their increased all-weather capability, the best-selling sedan in the US has to adapt to remain relevant.

The new Camry is not alone. The 2021 model year Avalon sedan will also be offered with AWD on certain trim levels. To gauge how well these more surefooted models perform, I headed to wintry Utah and hopped behind the wheels of both models on a slippery, snowy handling course.

Dynamic Torque Control AWD

Mechanically similar to one another, the all-wheel drive Camry and Avalon sedans are powered by the automaker's 2.5-liter Dynamic Force four-cylinder engine, making 202 horsepower and 182 pound-feet of torque for most trims, or 205 hp and 185 lb-ft in the XSE models. The Dynamic Torque Control AWD system -- inherited from Toyota's RAV4 -- features a single-speed front transfer case that can send power to the rear axle via a driveshaft. A coupler just before the rear differential can be disconnected, allowing the back axle to spin freely under most conditions (such as dry pavement or at highway speeds) when front-wheel drive is sufficient.

Upon launch or in slippery conditions, like the snow course before me, the coupler engages to send up to 50% of the engine's available torque to the rear axle where it is, ideally, split equally between the wheels via the open differential. To help control slip, Toyota can alter lateral torque distribution via brake-biasing (e.g., braking the right wheel to send more power to the left), but this isn't a true limited-slip or torque-vectoring differential.

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For now, AWD is only available with the four-banger, which is a bummer for those interested in Toyota's V6.

Toyota

Because the all-wheel drive coupler is located just before the rear differential, the center driveshaft continues to spin with the engine even during front-driven operation. This keeps the hardware relatively simple (and, presumably, helps to keep costs down), but adds a small amount of constant parasitic drag. For the Camry, this means a dip to 29 combined miles per gallon for LE and SE models, a loss of about 3 mpg either way. Fuel economy numbers for the Avalon AWD haven't yet been announced.

All-wheel drive Camrys and Avalons also feature an additional 5mm of ground clearance -- a little less than a quarter-inch -- which won't help much for off-roading or clearing really deep snow, but does make room for the extra hardware.

Drifting a Camry

I lined up at the entrance to the snow course first in the 2020 Toyota Camry XSE AWD, outfitted with the standard equipment all-season tires it normally wears -- no winter tires here to give it a leg up. The course entrance has a slight uphill straight, which the Camry handles just fine, accelerating gently from 0 to about 45 mph without drama or noticeable wheel spin. Then it was up and over a slight hill and into the bendy bits of the course.

Taken at a reasonable pace, I'm pleased by how neutrally the sedan tackles the corners. The combination of transparent stability control and even-handed all-wheel drive makes for predictable steering and decent grip as I weave from left-hander to right, averaging around 35 to 40 mph around the course. Even when I tuck into a snowy corner a hair too quickly, causing the Camry to understeer, I'm able to keep calm and let the stability control system catch the slide.

If you're careful and don't drive like a total knob in the snow, the all-wheel drive Camry feels almost as safe and predictable as the front-drive variants do on the road. Satisfied, I decided to push a skosh harder...

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Slide, slide, slippity slide.

Toyota

Now carrying more speed into the snowy bends, I respond to the understeer by lifting and tapping the brakes, causing that understeer to turn into oversteer and, if I'm not careful, a spin. I could have let the stability control save me again, but by quickly countersteering and applying throttle, I'm able to catch the slide with the rear-wheel torque and with feathering the gas and steering angle, drift the Camry around the bend.

Sure, it was a weaksauce 25 mph, maybe-5-to-10-degree slip angle controlled slide, but a drift is a drift and I'm counting it. Experimenting with subsequent turns, I'm able to replicate my humble drift and even transition between corners while maintaining the slide.

The more stable Avalon

My snowy laps in the 2021 Avalon AWD are nearly identical to those in the Camry XSE, but slight differences in dimensions and curb weight have a small effect on performance around the slippery course.

A longer wheelbase (113 inches versus the Camry's 111.2) help keep things stable when accelerating up the front straight and also make the larger sedan feel more planted around bends. When pushed around the snowy corners, the Avalon holds onto its neutral nature for a tad longer, being a touch more resistant to understeer and oversteer than the Camry.

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The larger Avalon proved slightly more stable (and less eager to drift) than the Camry, which is what you want in this segment.

Toyota

That said, once induced into sliding, the heavier Avalon requires just a hair more involvement to catch. I also notice its stability control working harder to keep things in check near the limit, with more pulsing from the antilock braking system to control slip on the front and rear axles. The difference, however, is a subtle one, and I don't think that most drivers would notice without a back-to-back comparison, or that most Toyota buyers would be actually trying to drift an Avalon down their snowy driveway.

More to the point

Of course, I'm getting beside the point. Both sedans -- the 2020 Toyota Camry AWD and 2021 Avalon AWD -- prove to be remarkably stable at the sort of speeds I think a reasonable driver would attempt given the mildly challenging course and snowy conditions.

That I was able to push beyond "reasonable" and even pull off some lightweight drifting doesn't mean the Camry AWD is suddenly some sort of ice rallying machine -- again, not really the point -- but it does demonstrate the decent amount of control available to Toyota drivers should they be caught off-guard by a slide, and the generous safety net offered in slippery conditions.

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Whether the Camry AWD drifts or not is beyond the point, but I was pleased with the sedan's stability and control given the slippery conditions.

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The North America-only AWD models will be assembled at Toyota's plant in Georgetown, Kentucky. With many buyers migrating to SUVs specifically for the extra all-wheel drive capability, it's interesting to see Toyota's dedication to the sedan space. Then again, it couldn't just let the Nissan Altima AWD and Subaru Legacy go uncontested.

The 2020 Toyota Camry AWD should start arriving in dealerships in the spring with the 2021 model-year Avalon AWD going on sale this fall. AWD is a $1,400 upcharge on the Camry and is available on the LE, SE, XLE, XSE, and Nightshade trim levels. That means the cheapest way to get an AWD Camry is the LE, which will be $27,325 including destination, while the XSE is the most expensive at $32,360. Pricing for the Avalon AWD hasn't been announced yet.


Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.