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Dear Kelley Blue Book: All-Wheel-Drive Family Sedans

The Challenge: Finding an all-wheel-drive mid-size family sedan


Canadian drivers need to deal with the annual harsh driving conditions a typical Canadian winter delivers. Whether that means snow, freezing rain or a mix of both, traction at all four wheels is becoming a must-have for many consumers. While all-wheel-drive (AWD) can be readily found in a wide range of trucks and SUVs, for buyers who prefer the ride, handling, and fuel economy of a mid-size family sedan, in the past, the Subaru Outback was the perennial lone choice. But recently, Nissan and Toyota recognized the demand for traction with sedan buyers, introducing AWD versions of their traditionally front-wheel-drive (FWD) Altima and Camry sedans. The question we're asking is: Which one of this trio of AWD mid-size family sedan contenders is the best choice overall to tackle challenging Canadian winter driving conditions?


The Contenders


2021 Nissan Altima 

Since the original arrived for 1993, the Nissan Altima mid-size family sedan has put its power down to the road via its front wheels only. That all changed when the sixth-generation Altima arrived for 2019, offering AWD as standard fare. The 2021Altima’s Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail price range starts with the base Altima S at $29,498 CDN and tops out with the $35,498 CDN Platinum. Overall, the Altima’s interior has been upgraded and would be at home in a class-above model. Seating up to five people and offering up to 437-litres of trunk room (the best in this trio), the Altima remains a capable mid-size family sedan.

Whatever trim level of Altima you can afford, the only powertrain choice is a 2.5-litre 4-cylinder making 182 horsepower and 178 pound-feet of torque with a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Combined city and highway fuel economy is estimated between 7.9 litres per 100 kilometres (L/100 km) on the lower S and SV trims and 8.2 for the Platinum. Nissan’s part-time FWD-based Intelligent AWD system is equipped with a center differential made up of gears that split power from the transmission to both front and rear axles. Wheel sensors function to detect traction loss, indicating which pair of—ether front or back—wheels require additional power.


2021 Subaru Legacy

When the first Subaru Legacy arrived for 1989, AWD was an option on the FWD family sedan. But since 1996, traction at all four wheels has been standard, a strategy that continues with the current models, redesigned for 2020. Base 2021 Legacys start at $26,695 CDN and get a 182-horsepower and 176-pound-feet of torque 2.5-litre 4-cylinder engine. If your budget allows it, the $37,395 Limited GT and $39,395 Premier GT trims receive a 2.4-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder that makes 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. Both engines are mated to a CVT. Combined fuel economy estimates range from 7.9 L/100 km with the base 2.5 engine to 8.7 with the more powerful turbocharged unit.

As a practical family sedan, the Legacy boasts more interior room than ever (the most rear legroom of this trio) and a more luxurious interior than the Nissan and Toyota contenders, featuring high-grade materials and much-improved sound insulation that dramatically lowers noise, vibration and harshness. Subaru’s Symmetrical AWD is full-time and arguably more capable. While part-time AWD systems only respond to a loss of traction, full-time AWD systems are always active, making them the most effective and the safest solution for all possible Canadian winter driving conditions.


2021 Toyota Camry

Except for the short-lived Camry All-Trac models in the late-1980s, the Toyota Camry mid-size family sedan has traditionally been a FWD family sedan. However, following the Camry's latest redesign for 2020, Canada's best-selling mid-size family sedan can now be had with traction at all four wheels. Base, FWD 2021 Camry LEs starts at $27,250 CDN. You'll need to add $3,340 to get AWD. While the $30,790 Camry Hybrid and $40,890 XSE (with a class-exclusive 301-horsepower V6 engine) remain FWD, all AWD Camrys use a 2.5-litre 4-cylinder with 203 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque with an 8-speed automatic transmission. Combined fuel economy estimates range between 8.2 and 8.4 L/100 km, depending on the trim level.

Prioritizing rear passenger space over trunk capacity, the Camry offers only 427 litres feet of trunk room (the least in this group). Toyota's AWD system is part-time and FWD biased. When the Camry's sensors recognize a loss of traction on the front wheels, a coupler engages the free-spinning driveshaft, resulting in up to 50% of the engine's torque arriving at the rear wheels of the car when called upon. 


Our Choice

With only three vehicles being evaluated, all of our contenders make the podium. But which of this trio of AWD family sedan gets the gold medal?

While the 2021 Toyota Camrys’ reputation for reliability, excellent driving characteristics, and conventional automatic transmission win it praises, the Toyota’s premium pricing, weaker fuel economy and smaller trunk relegate it to third place. For a first attempt at traction at all four wheels, the 2020 Nissan Altima ends up as a relatively solid choice. The Nissan’s large trunk, good fuel economy and comfortable interior are its highlights. 

But the top podium spot has to go to the 2020 Subaru Legacy. The Subaru’s combination of competitive pricing, excellent fuel economy (with the base engine), more sophisticated AWD system, and the availability of the more powerful turbocharged 4-cylinder, make it easy to recommend as the best choice of this trio of AWD family sedans.

If you’re in the market for a new vehicle and have a unique buying request, please contact KBB.ca at KBBSupport@coxautoinc.com. 


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