A snow-generous winter brings a flurry of possibilities. Skiing is one of them, building a snowman is another, but tackling a racetrack with AWD vehicles for a full day of slippery fun most definitely tops the list – in our opinion, at least. And we had the opportunity to do just that with Lexus’s finest 2021 AWD-equipped models in order to feel how they handle themselves in the snow, but also how new technologies and hybridization are taking over both decision-making and execution during unpredictable Canadian winters.
All wheel drive is becoming a standard, at least in our part of the world. For example, the current Lexus range features nine AWD models. Fifteen years ago, only five AWD models were in the Lexus catalogue. To top it off, AWD models make up for 93 percent of the brand’s Canadian sales.
Cutting out the middle man
Modern all-wheel-drive systems on all-gas vehicles all work mostly the same way. The engine acts as the mothership and channels the power through the transmission and differentials to reach all four wheels. The computer analyzes conditions, wheel slippage and other data, sends it back to the brain which in turn activates electronics around the differentials to modulate and send power where it’s needed.
Hybridization, however, brings a great deal of opportunities. For example, being able to delete the mechanical link between the front and the back, basically cutting down on hardware. The system is comprised of the engine as the main power source and the front and rear motors as the auxiliary power source, while a battery drives the motors.
The rewards are substantial; drivetrain power loss is reduced because chunks of metal connected to each other are replaced with wires sending out signals.
But decentralizing the power source away from the mothership also makes the response is quicker – obviously, not having so many moving parts to command makes the wheels move faster, giving the possibility to modulate traction differently than with a traditional system.
So, what does it all mean?
Does it mean that hybrid AWD is always better? Not necessary; Subaru Symmetrical AWD is not hybridized and will get you out of anything, especially if you are immobilized in a deep snowbank. However, in many other driving conditions, hybrid AWD systems (or eAWD) do have their particular set of skills.
During our day on the track, we pitted the RX 350 with its 295-horsepower 3.5-litre V6 engine against the 308 net horsepower RX450h during acceleration tests. After many passes, the hybrid almost always seemed to leap forward thanks to a “slowly but surely” strategy compared to the RX 350 which was sliding around considerably during each pass.
On the slalom side, however, the hybrid would block any attempt to let the rear slide, making it hard to manoeuvre the old fashion way.
We also got to test the Lexus UX’s hybrid systems, which was interesting, because one tester was fitted with all season tires and the other with good winter tires. As you may have guessed, no matter who ended up at the finish line, braking was always an issue with the all season pneumatics.
One must take into consideration that the UX’s system is not “all time.” According to the vehicle’s brochure on Lexus’s website: “UX AWD system operates at speeds up to 43 mph” which means it shuts off at roughly 70 km/h. This can become a factor at high speed on the highway during rough weather. But then again, it does have impressive fuel consumption ratings.
Safer and cleaner systems
Lexus hybrid AWD systems are less bulky, smarter and safer than their mechanical counterparts. However, they can act like strict nannies who will throw cold water on your slalom fun faster than you can begin to imagine.
But for that, you can stick to good ol’ actual cars instead of SUVs. Like the RC 350 which was also at the event. This one features an AWD system that sends 70% of the torque to the rear wheels, but can also go 50/50 front and rear when it matters.
One surprising member of the Lexus family is the front-biased all-wheel-drive ES 250 AWD. This one sounds boring at first, but with the ability to send up to 50% to the rear, this seemingly boring sedan can pivot, slide and handle itself pretty well on a snowy course.
In the end, Lexus still offers a good balance of “fun vs. responsible” in its 2021 lineup. And balance never goes unrewarded. Let’s remember the great words of Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi: “Balance is key. Balance good!”