Recently, I participated in a winter drive event staged by Lexus, which underlined the importance of winter tires and the helpfulness of all-wheel drive and electronic aids. It was fun, but it was only the first half of my late-winter driving extravaganza.
About a week later, I made the 3.5-hour trek along Highway 7 to Ottawa for winter drive part two, only this time it involved a group of Toyotas. The venue for my adventure, which included a handful of auto journalist colleagues, is Calabogie Motorsports Park, a sprawling five-kilometre road circuit located about an hour west of Ottawa, near the hamlet of Calabogie.
If I had to summarize the selection of Toyota machinery I sampled, I’d say it was mostly hybrid and all-wheel drive. In case you weren’t aware, the number of Toyotas armed with both capabilities has risen sharply during the past decade.
For 2021, there are a dozen with AWD, nine with some form of electrification, and six that offer both. By contrast, in 2010, the totals in those categories were ten, three and one. More electrified models mean more sales, and while the current share isn’t massive (18.5 percent in 2020), it has more than doubled over the past five years (6.7 percent in 2015), and Toyota expects it to jump to 40 percent by 2025.
Like the Lexus event, Toyota Canada set up three driving exercises designed to highlight the capabilities of the all-wheel drive systems found in many of its most popular models. The snowpack at Calabogie was decent (10-15 centimetres in most driving areas) but mild mid-March weather with 10C temps and sunny skies turned conditions a bit sloppy. Two of the three courses had bare pavement grooves worn into them as a result, which organizers attempted to fix with periodic snow dumping, but it was a losing fight.
But we pressed on and I managed to drive every vehicle on hand, some more than once. Overall, it was a fun day, and it produced a few observations worth noting.
Electrification is good for performance
My first exercise of the day was a straight-line acceleration and braking test, followed by a short slalom course.
For this test, Toyota rotated us through its fleet of RAV4s, which included gas, gas-hybrid and plug-in hybrid models, equipped with both front and AWD. Generally, the all-wheel drive cars delivered better traction and those that are electrified had better off-the-line acceleration. I should note, all RAV4 testers were fitted with winter tires, so there was no disadvantage there.
The RAV4 Prime plug-in with 302 total horsepower has a perceived advantage, but it only manifests in hybrid mode. In pure electric mode, a colleague blew past me in a gas hybrid. But as soon as the Prime was put into hybrid mode, which utilizes gas and electric power, it became all-conquering. Electrification, and this was true of the gas hybrid as well, makes a huge difference at launch, as the electric power is put to the ground with no delay. The gas models, particularly the FWD base grade and, to a lesser degree, the TRD Off-Road are at a disadvantage. They struggled to keep up with the hybrids.
I didn’t notice a huge difference among the cars on the short slalom course, apart from the FWD model that is at a disadvantage with torque being routed to the front wheels only. Not great for deep snow.
The 86 and GR Supra are incredible… on dry pavement
In order to liven up the festivities, Toyota brought 86 and GR Supra units along mostly to prove, once again, that rear-wheel-drive cars are bad in the snow. Heck, on all but dry pavement where grip levels are at their peak, they’re not great. Wet surfaces compromise performance significantly, and on snow, forget it.
That point was hammered home when I performed a short drag race against two seemingly pedestrian models, the Prius AWD-e sedan and the all-new Sienna minivan, which is now hybrid-only and available with AWD. To say the 86 and GR Supra got smoked is being kind. It was quite literally failure to launch, as both coupes struggled mightily for grip. By the time I was able to get going in both, the opposition (Prius for the 86, Sienna for the GR Supra) had taken the first left-hander.
Mother Nature helped the sports cars a bit on the backside of the circuit, which had melted to the pavement in spots, offering brief traction before reappearing snow turned them into sleds once more. Meanwhile, the Prius and Sienna bashed through the twisting, snow and slush course with relative ease. The ability to send torque to four wheels instead of two makes a huge difference, particularly off the line.
However, the 86 and GR Supra’s lack of grip made for a fun skid pad exercise. With the electronic nannies turned off, the tendency towards snap oversteer in low-grip conditions was fully unleashed allowing me to do my best Ken Block impression as I drove around in circles. It was great fun.
Don’t sleep on the Sienna and Prius in snow
As it turns out, the Prius and Sienna can even hold their own in deeper snow. Now, it is worth noting the snow-covered quarry route had well-defined tracks for us to follow, but the surface was still fairly chewed up, bumpy and had one deep water crossing. Both family haulers made it through with relative ease, which is quite impressive.
During this exercise, I drove every Toyota on hand, save for the 86 and Supra which were left out for obvious reasons, and I thought they handled challenges presented by the undulating course with ease. A personal favourite was the 4Runner TRD Pro, which was quite popular within our group. But most impressive, by far, was the Prius, which proved it’s a lot more than a commuter runabout for the environmentally conscious. It can handle snow days too.