People are quick to make fun of the Toyota Prius, and I understand why: It looks kind of weird, and its earliest adopters were maybe a bit too smug. But people capable of looking past that bullplop quickly realize it’s actually a versatile, competent and, yes, extremely efficient hybrid hatchback.
Perhaps that’s why Toyota isn’t terribly worried about the continued success of the Prius in the face of automakers slashing non-SUV lineups. The company expects to sell about 50,000 examples of the Prius liftback in 2019, in addition to the 4.3 million it’s already sold. Furthermore, about 25 percent of next year’s sales are expected to come thanks to the latest trick up the Prius’ sleeve: all-wheel drive.
Tiny motor, not a big difference
For the 2019 model year, the Prius finally gains all-wheel drive in the US, having had it in Japan for a couple years. This new setup, which Toyota calls AWD-e, takes up about 25 percent less space than the larger rear-axle AWD system found in the RAV4 and Highlander, all in the name of efficiency.
That drive for all the emm-pee-gees also means Toyota swapped in an electric motor without a permanent magnet, which is some engineering-degree-tier stuff that Toyota says creates less fuel-sucking drag than a motor with a magnet. This electric motor adds about 7 horsepower and 40 pound-feet of torque to the mix — up front, the 1.8-liter I4 gas engine and its electric motor put out 121 hp and 105 pound-feet — but the added weight should cancel out any potential performance benefits.
Even the AWD-e system’s operation is geared for efficiency. To that end, it’s not always running — it always provides four wheels’ worth of traction and torque from launch to 6 mph, and it’ll provide grip as required up to 43 mph, at which point it disengages and acts like a front-wheel-drive car. That’s why Toyota expects the AWD Prius to hit 50 mpg combined, just 2 mpg less than the FWD Prius. Having a physical connection to the front end would only harm fuel economy, which is why the AWD-e system hangs out back there on its lonesome.
I could stand and scream about the perfectly fine nature of FWD cars when equipped with winter tires, but the fact of the matter is buyers would rather get their peace of mind from all-wheel drive, and Toyota’s happy to supply it.
On and off the road
To give me an idea of how the AWD-e system works, Toyota set up a small handling course in Kohler, Wisconsin, consisting of a 6 percent grade and a chicane, both of which were covered in fresh snow. There’s no drama as the 2019 Prius stops halfway up the grade and accelerates from a standstill — moderate throttle application is met with the whir of the electric motor doing its business, and that’s it. No muss, no fuss.
On the chicane, however, the AWD Prius feels pretty darn lively. Not knowing when the system will activate the rear motor means the tuchus wiggles arrive suddenly, but not in a way that makes the car feel unstable or anything. It’s just a little excitable, and judicious throttle application can, in fact, get a little bit of a drift going on. I’ll even go so far as to say it feels fun in the snow.
By comparison, the front-wheel-drive Prius feels a little more stable on the chicane. Having all the power go through the front wheels means that the rears will just follow suit all day long, with no ability to move under their own power. I wasn’t allowed to take the FWD Prius up the 6 percent grade for comparison, and while I feel confident that a running start will get the car up a hill like this just fine, it’s definitely easier to tackle in the AWD variant.
On the roads in Sheboygan and Kohler, both Prius variants feel nearly the same. On cold, dry roads, the extra boost from the rear motor doesn’t change how the vehicle acts when accelerating from a stop — and again, it never engages over 43 mph, so both cars drive exactly the same at highway speeds. It’s not a system that’s supposed to be felt at all times, so in that sense, it works exactly as Toyota’s engineers intended, offering extra peace of mind but only when necessary.
Easier on the eyes
Aesthetically, the Prius isn’t for everyone. Without beating a dead horse, I will say that while it’s still plenty quirky, it’s been toned down a little, and I like the results. Up front, a revised front fascia features more compact headlights, and I think it looks better. I’m still torn about the rear end, which switched from vertical taillights to a set that more closely aligns with the Prius Prime. Some people I’ve talked with think it looks cleaner, but not everyone agrees, myself included.
The inside is far more straightforward, gauge cluster notwithstanding. Tall windows make for great visibility, and the rear hatch continues to sport a lower glass section further improving the views. There’s more than enough space in the second row for a 6-foot passenger sitting behind a 6-foot driver. The rear seat bottom is super flat, so somebody stuck in the middle should be sufficiently comfy. My only complaint about the interior is the increased reliance on gloss black — while it’s an improvement over the pre-2019 Prius’ bright white trim, it’s still a fingerprint magnet.
Standard safety and a honker of a screen
While all-wheel-drive trims must make do with a 6.1-inch Entune touchscreen infotainment system, the top Limited trim gets the 11.6-inch screen that first appeared on the Prius Prime plug-in and made its way to the regular Prius in the 2018 model year. Both systems offer similar aesthetics and functionality, but I can’t deny how impressive it is to have that large of a map in front of your face. While Toyota will soon add Apple CarPlay functionality, it didn’t make the development cycle for the 2019 Prius. Bummer.
As with prior Priuses, the gauge cluster is smack dab in the center of the dashboard. I think it’s a little less intuitive than a regular cluster in front of the driver, but it’s still mighty capable, offering up a whole bunch of information simultaneously. While tackling the short snow course, I like being able to see when and how the Prius delivers its power to each wheel.
In terms of charging options, there are plenty. The front row gets both USB ports and, depending on trim, a Qi wireless phone charger. But now the back row can get some juice, as well, thanks to two 2.1-amp USB ports mounted on the rear of the center console.
The Toyota Safety Sense suite of active and passive driver aids has slowly crept its way across damn near the entire Toyota lineup, including trucks like the Tacoma. It’s no surprise, then, that it’s standard across the Prius line, as well. Every 2019 Prius will come with autobrake, lane departure warning, automatic high beams and full-speed adaptive cruise control.
Down to brass tacks
Despite the revisions, the Prius remains affordable. The L Eco base trim starts at $23,770, with the LE at $24,980, the XLE at $27,820 and the Limited at $32,200. AWD is only available on the LE and XLE trims, bringing the price up to $26,380 and $28,820, respectively. 50 mpg for less than $30,000 is a pretty solid place to be.
While the writing might be on the wall for non-SUVs, at least for now, Toyota isn’t backing down. There are plenty of people who will move up to a RAV4 Hybrid if they want. But some buyers want versatility and practicality without having to buy a crossover. Those buyers will definitely appreciate the addition of all-wheel drive to the Prius’ lineup, because it only sweetens the deal on a car that’s already pretty darn good.
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