Advice about 2011 Highlander and AWD

biosmonkeybiosmonkey Member Posts: 2
edited November 2010 in Toyota
I am in the market to move from my Tundra back to an SUV, mainly due to kids and the desire to have a better ride for commuting. I need a foldable 3rd row seat, and would strongly prefer a vehicle with 4wd capability for camping/beach/ski purposes, and the very occasional snow. I live in Atlanta, though, so the need for 4wd in bad weather will be minimal. However, when I need it, well, I really need it. Given the large discrepancies in AWD capability that I have read, I am leery about getting a vehicle with full-time awd.
The 4runner sounds like a good option also, but I have read that it is very truck like, which is kindof what I want to get away from?
The Highlander sounds like what I need, if it only had a 4wd on-demand option, which it doesn't.
I also saw this video on youtube
around 3:10 they test a 2007 AWD Highlander, and the results are concerning. Not sure how much the awd system has been changed up to 2011.

I will be test driving both of these soon, but wanted some advice/opinions on getting AWD in my situation, and how well it works in 2011 Highlander for snow and sand.

I should also mention that I am concerned about extra maintenance and care that goes with AWD and tire rotation/inflation/differential servicing. I have never owned an awd car, and a lot of the info I have read talks about possibly damaging the system with even a difference in tire tread height??


  • wwestwwest Member Posts: 10,706
    First, there is NO such thing as a full-time AWD/4WD system.

    The HL was/is and remains a ONE-WHEEL drive system, there fully open diff'ls, front, center, and rear. It can be called AWD since when a wheel begins slipping Traction Control will activate, braking the slipping wheel(s) to apportion torque to wheels remaining with traction. The sad part, but a SERIOUS SAFETY aspect, is that it will also instantly dethrottle the engine.

    The "backup" is the ability to switch TC off thereby returning the vehicle once again to ONE-WHEEL drive system but allowing unlimited wheelspin.

    What we have out there in the marketplace today, "base" FWD marketplace, is both reactive F/awd systems, and pre-emptive F/awd systems. The reactive type, VC (Viscous Clutch/coupling) or TC (Traction Control), is fading away due to their poor performance in the real time wintertime environment.

    There are now many versions of pre-emptive F/awd systems, the Honda/Acura SH-AWD system being the best of the best of those IMMHO. The idea is to ALWAYS bring on the rear drive capability, engage the rear drive in the instances most likely to result in loss of traction, and thereby loss of directional control, due to too much engine torque being used for roadbed conditions.

    So, these systems engage the rear drive, in effect locking the "virtual" center differential even in highly tractive conditions. All of these systems seem to be incurring premature drive train component failures.

    Were I in your shoes I would probably purchase an Acura MDX but disable the rear drive coupling(***) control circuit except in time of KNOWN need.

    *** Remove fuses or add a manual switch.
  • adefinaadefina Member Posts: 9
    I am looking at a 2011 Highlander for my daughter. I am not sure what you mean by this statement. "The sad part, but a SERIOUS SAFETY aspect, is that it will also instantly dethrottle the engine." What does this mean? Thanks.
  • wwestwwest Member Posts: 10,706
    Loss of traction on the front, driven wheels of a FWD or F/awd is considered such a serious matter that INSTANT reaction is required. Even the newer pre-emptive F/awd systems, Venza, Sienna, that could probably alleviate the loss of traction issue will do the same, apply braking to the slipping/skidding wheels and fully dethrottle the engine.

    The currently accepted, seemingly accepted, design fix is to provide a method for disabling the TC, Traction Control, system temporarily.
  • johnd15johnd15 Member Posts: 41
    The Highlander is a very safe vehicle - see safety ratings & airbag content. I own a 2011 with 4WD. I know the 4WD system is not as effective as Subaru's symmetric all wheel drive design. But I opted to go with HL anyway, driving on 99.9 % flat roads. If you live in a snow belt (which I do), get snow tires for your daughter's car. I'd take 4 Blizzak snow tires in place of 4WD anyday.
  • johnd15johnd15 Member Posts: 41
    You wanted comments on how the 2011 HL 4WD handles in snow; I can now tell you. In N MI we've had a lot of snow & blizzard conditions already. I've experienced nothing but secure driving with no problems whatsoever driving on the snow & ice, on flat roads or uphill. There is a "snow" mode which I engaged just once out of curiosity. You can say I am definitely satisfied with its winter capabilities. I have had the ABS come on a couple of times braking on ice and stopped in a straight line quickly. The tires on our HL Limited are the Toyo A20s; my HL just broke 1000 miles.
  • luckysevenluckyseven Member Posts: 134
    edited December 2010
    AWD in current Highlanders is proven to be more then adequate in everyday city/suburbia driving. I've been through 3 Ohio winters with it, and drove through number of major snow storms without any problems. Two days ago we've got a major blizzard here in Ohio and I loved HLs handling going through it. What I also wanted to note that HLs is not an off road vehicle so it's AWD can't be compared with true 4WD. HLs AWD does what it is supposed to do, and not too bad on fuel comparing to other "better" 4WD implementations. I've been reading many negative posts about HLs AWD from wwest on this and other forums, looks like he's on the quest ... and funny thing he never even owned a current generation HL. :shades:

    I also wanted to comment on the youtube video you linked... It's all true- traction control will take over in this situation on HL, and you'd get stuck in the deep snow or ice because of that. What Subaru's PR video conveniently "forgot" to mention that you can temporary disable traction control. Current HLs have a button for that by the knee and that would get you un-stuck and moving. So this is not a real life scenario. Subaru's 4WD is very good, but it comes at fuel economy price. There is always a trade-off in car designs.
  • typesixtypesix Member Posts: 321
    At the time the Subaru video was made, the 1st generation AWD Highlanders could not defeat traction control via a switch(some have found a way to temp. disable traction control). The video didn't "forgot" the TC switch as the 2nd generation Highlander wasn't out yet. The video needs to be updated to reflect current Highlanders.
  • luckysevenluckyseven Member Posts: 134
    Current generation HLs have been out for 3 1/2 years now. Subaru folks had plenty of time to update the video, if they'd wanted so.
  • wwestwwest Member Posts: 10,706
    For the HL, including the 2011, disabling TC would have only made matters worse since absent TC activation the HL with three simple open diff'ls becomes a ONE-WHEEL drive vehicle.

    TC, Traction Control, is the only means the HL has for re-apportioning engine torque to non-slipping wheels. To do that it applies braking to any slipping wheel(s) in order to sustain engine torque to a level higher than would be required for just freely spinning that slipping wheel(s).

    Since this is a F/awd it will more likely than otherwise be the front wheel(s) that lose traction first. Since that is such a DIRE matter, often leading directly to loss of directional control, engine dethrottling is applied simultaneously with TC braking in order to URGENCY return your front wheels/tires to a tractive state.

    There is also the potential for brake component overheating and rotor warpage if engine torque control is left to an unknowledgeable or inexperienced driver. It is for this reason that even RWD or R/awd TC systems will also dethrottle the engine but shortly after, typically a second or so, beginning braking the slipping wheel(s) should the driver not immediately "feather" the throttle.
  • luckysevenluckyseven Member Posts: 134
    wwest, have you ever driven a second gen HL in a snow? Too bad I can't post direct links here to toyota owners forum but it's easy enough to google. All I can tell that most of 2 gen HL owners, including me, really impressed with HL handling in deep snow and blizzard like conditions. HL AWD had very good opportunity to prove itself to many of it's owners in the big snowstorm that covered east coast few days ago, and it did it with flying colors
  • financeman2financeman2 Member Posts: 5
    Your advice and warnings of risk may have elements of technical merit but certainly do not mirror my real life experiences driving in bad weather situations with an 08 AWD Highlander and now an 11 AWD Highlander. I am in my fourth winter season using the current Highlander AWD configuration...and have found it nothing but exceptional performance from the system.
  • wwestwwest Member Posts: 10,706
    edited January 2011
    Then why does most of these F/awd systems have a TC off function..??

    And take a look about at how many owner without the TC off function are trying to find a substitute.

    A halfway decent R/awd system would NOT require that.
  • kyfdxkyfdx Moderator Posts: 232,895
    I have a R/awd system in my SUV, and it has a traction control disabling function..

    It's merely to keep the ABS from kicking in, to stop wheelspin... You need a little wheelspin to get out of deep snow.. Even my RWD sedan has the T/C disable function..

    I don't see what that has to do with FWD based vehicles?


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  • wwestwwest Member Posts: 10,706
    edited January 2011
    Soon after purchasing my new '92 LS400 I came to realize that its TC was more often a detriment, even putting me in harms way sereral times. So I removed the TC box and inverted the logic that always enabled TC upon startup.
  • financeman2financeman2 Member Posts: 5
    Don't know...don't really care. I simply need a vehicle that works and drives effectively in slick road conditions...and this system works for me. I agree the AWD configuration is not a replacement for a full time 4WD system found in a Jeep or a 4Runner, but that does not diminish its value for my purposes. Again, I am very satisfied with the operation of the system.
  • luckysevenluckyseven Member Posts: 134
    Did you modify your 92 LS400 to enable or disable TC on start up? The only reason to disable TC if you get stuck in a snow/mud/sand. For 3.5 years of ownership 2 Gen HL I didn't find myself even once in a need to do so. In every day driving TC kicks in on the background, on rare occasions when needed and has only positive effect on handling. There is very little similarity between 92 LS400 and AWD 2nd gen HL in terms of handling with TC either enabled or disabled.
  • biosmonkeybiosmonkey Member Posts: 2
    Alright, so I guess it's about time to respond to my own thread.

    First of all, the 4wd Highlander does use 3 open differentials, and traction control (ie braking) to redirect the torque to the non-spinning wheel. In this sense, it really is a 1WD vehicle I suppose. I will not comment on the safety factor of throttling the engine, but considering that a high rpm freely spinning wheel is typically going to happen in a low-speed "get me out of the mud/snow" situation I don't really see how that's an issue.

    So I purchased a 2011 4wd Highlander, and have put around 700 miles on it so far. Very, very pleased with it.

    I live in an area that saw a big winter storm dump 5-6 inches of snow on us last night. So after shoveling a path for the wheels, I had an opportunity to test the very reason I bought 4wd.

    My driveway has a decline to it, so when backing out I am actually going uphill backwards. My neighbor has a similar situation, however, he has a 2wd Tundra. He spun his wheels most of the time, eventually making his way out after inching backward over the course of an hour. A few times, he started sliding forward and almost hit his house. I was a little hesitant to try, considering that if my car lost traction and I slid forward, I would fall off of a small cliff and plummet into the woods (no convenient house to stop me).

    But, this was the reason I bought it right?

    My neighbor, anxious to see how much trouble I would have, had asked if he could watch, so I knew I had an audience too (I think I saw popcorn?).

    So I warmed up the car, engaged the Snow button, and put her in reverse.

    I backed out of my driveway with absolutely no problem. If a tire slipped, or the tc engaged, I didn't know it. Even when I got to the street, and was driving in 5 inches of snow, I felt pretty much in control. Admittedly, I did not drive around the neighborhood for fun, so I can't say how well it would have done in a driving situation, but I didn't need to do that anyway.

    My neighbor was pleased I did not plummet into the woods, although I think he was a bit disappointed in the lack of entertainment.

    Nonetheless I am very pleased. Time will tell, but overall a great car, and highly recommended.
  • accord6mtaccord6mt Member Posts: 53
    I recently purchased a 2011 Highlander 4WD and I have about 1,100 miles on it.

    Last Saturday I drove to Snowshoe, WV (from the Washington, DC area) on a ski trip. Snowshoe is about 4,500 feet higher in altitude than DC so it gets a lot more snow up there. I drove there in the middle of a snowstorm and the last 20 miles up to Snowshoe are all steep mountain switchback roads. Through sometimes near zero visibility and about 6-8" of snow, I had absolutely no problem taking the Highlander up the hills. Never once did I get stuck and I confidently made my way up the mountain (on crappy OEM tires, no less). We got another snowstorm on Tuesday (12" this time) while in Snowshoe and I decided to use the "Snow" setting while driving around the mountain. It worked out well! The "Snow" setting altered shifting points beyond just starting in 2nd gear and it just worked. At the end of the day that's all I really care about - it just works. I'm never going to do anything extreme with the Highlander and I'll never try to make the Highlander do anything that it wasn't designed to do... it seems like a very capable vehicle.

    So 1 month later and about 3 + hours of driving up and down steep mountain roads covered in 4-8" of snow, I can say that I'm very pleased with the real world performance of my Highlander.
  • luckysevenluckyseven Member Posts: 134
    I can see that some people trying to come up with Toyota 4WD/AWD conspiracy theories but never bother to drive the thing. Other group of people enjoying real-world performance of this very capable vehicle.
  • accord6mtaccord6mt Member Posts: 53
    Just a quick update - Yesterday I drove the Highlander through about 6-8" of heavy, wet, slushy unplowed snow in the DC area... the kind of wet snow that turns to ice when pressed into the ground. What I saw while driving around was amazing: there were literally dozens and dozens of cars and 2WD suvs stuck on both sides of every road that had a decent hill. I've never seen anything like it. Cars were literally just spinning their wheels and the 2WD suvs were doing the same thing. I had my Highlander in "Snow" mode and even when stopped on the same inclines that other cars were stuck on, I made it up the hill without issue. Once again, a big thumbs-up to my Highlander :)It just works!!!
  • farmitfarmit Member Posts: 1
    Alright everyone, Thanks for the posts. Looks like there's enough % of good to get the 4WD vs the 2WD. Only looking for the extra security of a possable snow while traveling from my flat land central valley California to going across the U.S. It's better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it...I can see my 2012 Limited already.................
  • wwestwwest Member Posts: 10,706
    edited May 2012
    I'd much rather drive around on foul weather in a 2WD(RWD) that goes no where, over a FWD or F/awd wherein my life is constantly threatened due to the extreme potential for loss of directional control.

    By the way, "snow mode" is just another "nanny" helping you "feather" the throttle so you can more easily get up and going initially. Some earlier snow modes result in the transaxle never starting out in 1st gear, 2nd only. Others, mostly DBW, lower the "gain" of the throttle control servo.

    That's why many new vehicles now have a TC off function so that you can get around by simply feathering the throttle. Many of us are old enough that we HAD to learn "feathering" the throttle as only RWD vehicles were around.

    Bottom the FWD for FE but carry a good set of tire chains, for the FRONT, for the seemingly RARE occassions of need.
  • luckysevenluckyseven Member Posts: 134
    I wouldn't listen to wwest since he's only driven a HL in his imagination but loves bashing Toyota's AWD . HL's AWD performs pretty good on the snow as long as your tires are capable. I love "snow mode" button it really improves handling under heavy snow conditions. AWD will take about 2MPG more then FWD.
  • wwestwwest Member Posts: 10,706
    My '01 F/awd RX300, purchased new, now is closing in on 100K miles. My RX300 uses EXACTLY the same F/awd system, mostly non-functional F/awd system, as does the HL. The RX and HL shared that F/awd system until the RX350 was switched to the new Venza, more functional, pre-emptive, F/awd system as of the 2010 MY.

    As I have said, modern day "snow mode" systems simply detune the engine's throttle response in reaction to acceleration position, simply making it more difficult to lose directional control on the slippery stuff. Most driver's of "my" era learned to use "snow mode" long before such an item existed. Start off in second gear, and/or pretend you have an egg between your foot and the accelerator pedal.

    Also, learning to drive a Porsche 911 over our nearby mountain passes during the wintertime simply adds to the level of knowledge for wintertime survival.

    "..loves bashing..."

    No, I simply think driver/owners should be well educated as to the capability/functionality/limitations of their vehicles.

    The HL's, and the pre-2010 RX', TC implemented F/awd system is strickly of the passive type, only reacts, "engages", POST wheelspin/slip development.

    Prior to TC activation it is, and forever remains, a simple ONE-WHEEL drive system, THREE fully OPEN differentials, front/center/rear.
  • luckysevenluckyseven Member Posts: 134
    edited May 2012
    We've been over this number of times. All you have just nice sounding theories that had been proven wrong by real life experiences of actual HL owners. If HL would have any issues with snow performance we'd hear about it a lot after 5 years of production. You'll have hard time finding actual current gen HL owner complaining on a snow performance. You're the one who's never bothered to drive a HL, is having the most concerns about it. Do you really imagine yourself in a Highlander when driving a 911 Porsche in a snow? Why don't you just stop this nonsense?
  • scooby19scooby19 Member Posts: 1

    I have a 4runner awd that has differential lock and a 08 HL awd. Having driven both in bad Neast ohio weather I am pleased with the HL in deep snow and slush. My wife feels quite safe using snow mode, prevents lead foot on ice. Again in real life situations the HL does really well. I know I can turn off the traction control but have never found it necessary, even in 10-12 inches of unplowed road. I do obsess about wanting true 4wd in the highlander but have never needed it.

  • 2010highland2010highland Member Posts: 1
    edited January 2017
    I know that this is an old thread, but I just wanted to thank WWest. His description of Toyota's AWD system on my 2010 Highlander is spot on, and explains why I was experiencing what seemed like odd behavior when using tire chains on the front wheels and trying to climb a steep hill in deep snow. In that case, all the power got sent to the rear wheels since there was so much resistance on the front wheels. The differential system sent all the power to one rear wheel until the traction control system kicked in to stop it from spinning. Unfortunately, that also caused the rear end to slide sideways as the rear tires (no chains) spun wildly and so I repeatedly eased off the throttle at the same time that the Toyota system reduced engine power. As a result, I was stuck until I just hammered the throttle so that the brakes got applied and finally got power to the front. I imagine I wouldn't have encountered any problems had I had tire chains or snow tires on all four wheels, or just a Front Wheel Drive Highlander with tire chains.

    Not sure why luckyseven is so defensive about Toyota's AWD system. WWest wasn't critical, he just described how it worked. I'm sure that Toyota's goal was to give consumers an "easy" experience that was mostly dependable. But, as with all things that involve engineering, the outcome in unusual situations can be unpredictable, and dangerous.
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