Since 1997, the Toyota Prius has continually grown its now infamous hybrid empire. Although not the first hybrid (think 1700s steam-motor carriage) or even the first hybrid sold in the U.S. (think 2000 Honda Insight), the Prius is the first mass market hybrid, the longest-standing one, and a global best-seller. More than 4.3 million Prius vehicles have been sold worldwide, a figure that excludes the expanded Prius family of Prius c, Prius Prime, and Prius v models.
Overall, though, Toyota car sales are down year-over-year by 11.6 percent, while crossovers/SUVs and trucks are up 10.1 and 16.3 percent, respectively. Low fuel prices don’t encourage shopping for fuel-efficient vehicles either. But small cars still sell by the millions, and gas prices still fluctuate by the millions of barrels. So, the real question isn’t why still sell a car—a hybrid, no less—but why take 22 years to offer an all-wheel-drive (AWD) version of it?
Track tested, drifting approved (sort of)
The new 2019 Prius is fun to drive, which is something I never thought I’d say in this universe or any alternate one (disclaimer: only the AWD-e version). The front-wheel-drive (FWD) model, unfortunately, is just more of the same. No surprises. No excitement. Just purpose (fuel efficiency) and performance (fuel efficiency). Prettiness doesn’t equal fuel efficiency. Neither does dynamics, apparently. After all, four generations of Prius have us expecting the vehicle to handle in no other way, with the 2019 model being no exception. Except that it is.
Although not on sale until January, I recently test drove pre-production models in wintry Wisconsin. The air gave a chill, but there was nary a snowflake nor ice nor sleet nor freezing rain. So, the Toyota team improvised and created a snowy test track.
Complete with a 6-percent-grade hill, sweeping back stretch, speed bump, sharp corner, and S-curves, the full circuit offered enough stop-and-go zig-zagging to activate the AWD-e system, but it was a rather short course taking no more than 30 seconds to complete. Even less time with the FWD models, which weren’t allowed on the icy incline. All the vehicles were equipped with standard low-rolling resistance all-season tires, by the way.
Still, if you do enough continuous laps at faster-than-you-should-but-totally-real-life speeds (which I did because, uh, research), then the little obstacle course proved its point: winter tires are a must during winter.
The Prius AWD-e, despite its dancing shoes, handled the increasingly slushy ice box rather well. There was no rollback when stopped on the hill, and taking the bumpy all-dirt back stretch at 30 mph proved the vehicle could handle a long curve with poise. At the 90-degree right-hand turn leading up the chicanes, there was some understeer, but this is a Prius, not a Porsche. The mini-autocross portion is where the smiles appeared because if you ever wanted to drift a Prius, now you can! Wut?
The coned-off section was built with tight, short turns and the Prius AWD-e slid some, which I attest to the tires, but I never once felt out of control. While I could sense the AWD system during my counter-steers, I didn’t realize how much of an impact it made until lapping with a FWD Prius. Yikes.
Even with bypassing the mini-summit, I drove slower. I felt more body roll. I tapped the brakes more. I felt increasingly less confident in my abilities and the car’s. Through the esses, life passed in slow motion with seemingly every light on the instrument cluster yelling at me. And then I got a little stuck when I stopped in the middle. Hi, wheel spin. Away from inclement weather, however, the FWD and AWD models essentially handled the same way.
The 2019 Prius is a mild refresh really, carrying over almost all its tech, including utilizing the same Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive system. The powertrain remains a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine combined with two motor/generators. A continuously variable transmission is standard. Net output is unchanged at 121 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque. The Prius AWD-e might vary slightly due to its added weight. Toyota did not provide specific numbers but suggested any changes would be negligible.
A key difference between FWD and AWD Prius models is their battery packs. The standard Prius is equipped with a lithium-ion battery while the Prius AWD-e features a compact Ni-MH that is designed for cold-weather climates. Efficiencies are built into the AWD system itself as well.
The “e” in AWD-e stands for electric. Although a clunky term, it refers specifically to the independent rear motor, which powers the rear wheels from zero to 6 miles per hour and then as needed at speeds up to 43 miles per hour. This top speed was determined to be where peak fuel efficiency and performance begin to drop.
AWD-e also is an on-demand system (not driver-defeatable) and activates only when the vehicle systems sense a change in driving conditions. Additionally, the rear motor features no magnets, which decreases vehicle drag, thus providing high fuel efficiency.
The automaker estimates the Prius AWD-e to achieve 52/48/50 miles per gallon (city/highway/combined). Impressive numbers, and not far off from the 54/50/52 miles per gallon of FWD models. The Eco trim remains the family fuel snob at 58/53/56 miles per gallon.
Model year changes include redesigns to the headlights, fog lights, and taillights as well as updated front and rear fascias. The exterior also features two new Captain Planet-appropriate colors with Supersonic Red and Electric Storm Blue.
On the inside, finally gone are high-contrast white plastic panels, having been replaced with piano black inserts. Unfortunately, while not eye-searing, the gloss black sure attracts dust regardless of how clean the rest of the cabin is. Another minor but noticeable change is the placement of the heated front seat controls. No more reaching around the gear lever as the buttons have been repositioned to an ergonomically friendly location between the wireless phone charging panel and cupholders.
Lastly, the 2019 Prius trim levels now coincide with the rest of the Toyota lineup with L Eco, LE, XLE, and Limited. Gone are the numerical designations of Two, Three, and Four, which, intended or not, only remind me of the sound machine that is Gloria Estefan. Not that there’ll be much use for AWD in Miami, which is why the Prius AWD-e is reserved for its high-volume core: LE and XLE.
As mentioned earlier, the state of the small car is no secret. Regarding the Prius liftback specifically, U.S. sales have slowed from the six-figure numbers enjoyed between 2005 and 2015, peaking at roughly 181,000 in 2007, to last year’s 65,631 units. The downhill trajectory has continued into 2018 with Prius experiencing a 23.2 percent year-over-year decline through November.
Therefore, it makes strategic business sense for the now “low-volume” Prius to offer AWD at a price point the majority of consumers are likely to shop. Should buyers say otherwise, Toyota says it will acknowledge vehicle packaging as needed. AWD-e is expected to comprise 25 percent of total liftback sales.
AWD-e is not for everybody
The 2019 Prius will start at $24,690 (including $920 destination fee) with the L Eco trim. The Prius LE AWD-e will start at $27,300. The as-tested price of the AWD-e vehicles I drove was $29,740.
As to my “Why now?” AWD questioning, “Consumer demand,” the automaker responded. Okay, but the Prius AWD-e has been available in Japan since 2016 yet makes its North American debut in 2019? So, why not at the same time? We get snow and stuff, too. Some places even have mountains. Hmm. If they say so then, Toyota.
Although my corporate sleuthing was going nowhere, I can attest that the 2019 Prius AWD-e is worth the wait. Maybe not a two-decade wait (or any decade wait, for that matter), but current owners and the Prius curious will be pleasantly surprised as to how differently (e.g., fun! engaging!) the already super fuel-efficient Prius handles. Although it still looks kind of like a bean—a sleek bean—fuel efficiency finally isn’t its only strong suit.