2019 Toyota Prius AWD-e First Drive - Keeping Green On the White Stuff

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

While an inarguable success for Toyota, the Prius lost considerable clout through some odd styling decisions, a market trending toward crossovers, and smug owners who put a sour taste in everyone else’s mouth. I was never really a fan of the model, but I appreciated what it offered — outstanding economy, sufficient utility, and rather good comfort (especially in the current generation) for a reasonable price.

Hoping to reach new customers living in the snowbelt and restore some of its lost groove, Toyota has updated the Prius and will begin offering the model with all-wheel drive. Well, I say “all-wheel drive,” but things are a little more complicated than that.

The 2019 Prius AWD-e utilizes a small, magnetless motor to drive the rear wheels, while keeping the aft axle completely independent from the existing 1.8-liter hybrid system and its own pair of motor/generators. Fortunately, I had an opportunity to explore the new system in the wintry wilds of Wisconsin to see if it’s any good.

(Full disclosure: Toyota flew me out and fed me Midwestern-themed meals for the duration of this press event. It also put me up in The American Club hotel and golf resort, as it’s frequently cheaper and more convenient for an automaker to bring journalists to brand new models than the other way round. We do not allow these catered excursions to influence our judgement, but we do eat the free food.)

Toyota let us loose on Wisconsin’s lightly trafficked roads in both the FWD and “AWD-e” models. The biggest takeaway was how pleased I was with the model’s aesthetic changes. I’ve already discussed how the 2019 Prius’ visual refresh and standard inclusion of Toyota Safety Sense could be a boon for the model’s future sales, and my feelings on that have not changed, even though the market may yet prove me wrong. But I like my odds so far.

The bold and thoroughly perplexing exterior is gone, resulting in a more contemporary body that’s still identifiable as Toyota’s famous hybrid. Though my biggest gripe was always with the two-tone interior the automaker felt compelled to try out on the fourth generation. That’s been similarly toned down and, like the exterior, the manufacturer managed to do so without falling into a pit of blandness.

There are still a few things I don’t like, however. The piano black trim looks great but is located just about everywhere you might place your greasy fingers on a regular basis. Eating chips while driving would result in smudges everywhere. Chromed plastic, another industry trend, also helps keep things looking premium, but occasionally reflects sunlight back into your face. Minor issues in an otherwise solid cabin, but issues for me nonetheless.

By and large, it’s a good space to occupy — comfy, spacious, and reasonably quiet for the segment. With the rear seats folded, there’s 66 cubic feet of interior space for cargo and lots of places to charge your mobile devices. There are even wireless charging ports available for those willing to spend a little more money.

On-road driving impressions were about what I had expected. Under normal commuting conditions, you really cannot tell FWD and AWD apart. Both are comfortable and lack any sense of sportiness. The AWD-e system feels slightly more immediate at launch but, in truth, the car is no quicker or more capable than the FWD model. In fact, Toyota said it might actually be a bit slower, due to the rear motor’s added heft — which ranges between 145 and 170 lbs, depending on trim.

Some of my fellow journalists seemed stuck on this being an issue. But, from my perspective, any difference in acceleration is negligible and utterly irrelevant. AWD-e isn’t supposed to be about sharpening trap speeds. The Prius’ chief concern is economy and that carries over to the all-wheel drive variant. Like Japan’s E-Four, AWD-e serves to help only when you lose traction — something that is rarely a problem when you focus the Prius’ modest 121 horsepower in a straight line on dry pavement. The rear axle is only ever working full-time below 7 mph. After that, it’ll only kick in when it thinks you need it (up to 43 mph), delivering up to 7 horsepower and 40 pound-feet of torque to the back wheels.

Pathetic, right? No, wrong. By keeping the rear axle inert most of the time, Toyota claims AWD-e models manage 52 mpg in the city and 48 on the highway. That’ll make it the most efficient all-wheel-drive car you can purchase without having to plug in. Toyota’s engineering staff also informed me that the AWD-e version rides 0.2-inches higher than its FWD counterpart, resulting in 5.3 inches of ground clearance (which, I suppose, could come in handy in the early stages of a blizzard).

Unfortunately, it never snowed during the press trip, leaving Toyota with no other recourse than to acquire the services of the Kohler locals, who used some form of mechanical witchery to disperse fresh powder onto the test course they had readied for us. After examining the substance for nearly an hour while sipping complementary teas, I decided it was indistinguishable from real snow and therefore suitable for testing purposes.

The course itself consisted of a sweeping paved section that suddenly becomes gravel, a speed bump sculpted from dirt, and a hard right hander that swiftly morphs into a snowy chicane. There was also a small hill that Toyota iced up and expressly forbade the front-drive models from tackling. This wasn’t because they wouldn’t have made it up the hill. In fact, I’m absolutely certain I could have made it over the 6-percent grade on a sportbike with modest run-up.

Fortunately, Toyota made the trial more taxing by having the Prius hold halfway up before attempting an uphill launch through the slippery mush. And AWD-e did not fail to impress. While not picture perfect, it was trouble-free and that’s really all that matters to most people when they’re running a set of all-season tires in the middle of winter. It never failed to make it, but it did leave me a little curious as to how it would fare on a steeper hill.

I would presume far better than the standard Prius, and that’s the point Toyota clearly wants to make here.

The rest of the day entailed jumping between the standard front-drive unit and the new AWD-e. What initially struck me is how similarly the cars still felt, even when I started to push the envelope or got intentionally sloppy. But as I transitioned onto the wintry mix, I noticed how much less understeer there was with the new system. The instant slippage occurred, the ECU would let the little electric motor know it was time to go to work. The end result was a mostly drama-free experience. By the end, I was practically throwing both cars at the snowy corners in a loosely controlled manner while the brakes noisily attempted to pick up the slack I was leaving just about everywhere. With AWD-e, the typical ABS groan was accompanied by a soft whir of the rear motor attempting to prevent car and occupant from going wide.

The final verdict is that the front-drive Prius is fun to misbehave in, but AWD-e makes a legitimate difference when traction becomes a serious problem. It’s more cooperative overall. However, I couldn’t help but wonder how useful this knowledge is after realizing nobody except the people at this particular event were ever going to autocross a brand new Toyota Prius. That noted, AWD-e has its place and is an incredibly smart addition on the part of Toyota. It manages to keep the car from sliding where you don’t want it, inspiring real confidence in drivers who might not understand the physics behind what’s happening on the ground.

People, usually younger adults with no interest in automobiles, often ask me what’s the best new car for them that’s also priced under $30,000. But there’s always an addendum. “It has to get good gas mileage and have all-wheel drive,” they’ll say. “I don’t want to get stuck in the snow.”

My response is usually to tell them just to buy snow tires and be more careful. Such advice is rarely appreciated by my “friends.” Now I can tell them to just buy a Prius and stop texting me; it checks the correct boxes. They won’t care that it’s not full-time AWD and they probably wouldn’t notice if it was, frankly.

Toyota expects AWD-e to account for around 25-percent of future Prius sales in North America. I think they’re being incredibly conservative here. It won’t take much for a dealer to upsell someone on this — especially in the North where the phrase White Christmas is more than just a song crooned by a man best known for his incredible voice, suave persona, and beating his children. But let’s not let Bing Crosby’s contestable indiscretions derail this review.

All-wheel drive is a must-have for many individuals and those on the fence need only be reminded that a meaningful boost in confidence is only $1,400 dollars extra at Toyota. That’s the whole point of this. AWD-e works as intended and, while not as robust as something with a central driveshaft and transfer case, it does enough to help keep motorists from sliding wide off a snowy country road or get them moving on an icy hill to warrant its existence.

For the 2019 model year, the Prius abandons its former trim designations to adopt what’s on offer from the rest of Toyota’s lineup. 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-e is only available on LE or XLE models. Every 2019 Prius will come with automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, automatic high beams and adaptive cruise control. But only Limited trims receive the big 11.6-inch center screen that’s shared with the Prius Prime. The rest of the line makes do with the standard 6.1-inch unit. Both function similarly, but the larger display is easier to read. Toyota still hasn’t managed to incorporate Apple CarPlay, though it says it will be available by next year.

[Images: Toyota; © 2018 Matt Posky/TTAC]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Inside Looking Out Inside Looking Out on Dec 16, 2018

    Prius is the Uber car of choice in our area. It is a modern day Crown Victoria. But Toyota is seriously considering killing off Prius - I read about it in Goggle News today. It just does not sell anymore and I know why. People want EV plain and simple.

  • Inside Looking Out Inside Looking Out on Dec 16, 2018

    BTW Model 3 is all over our Bay Area but I still have to encounter one with Uber logo.

  • Lou_BC I've been considering a 2nd set of tires and wheels. I got stuck in some gooie mud that turned my Duratrac's to slicks. I personally would stick to known brands and avoid Chinesium knock-offs.
  • Carson D How do you maximize profits when you lost $60K on every vehicle you produce? I guess not producing any more vehicles would be a start.
  • Carguy949 You point out that Rivian and Tesla lack hybrids to “bring home the bacon”, but I would clarify that Tesla currently makes a profit while Rivian doesn’t.
  • Cprescott I'm sure this won't matter to the millions of deceived Honduh owners who think the company that once prided itself on quality has somehow slipped in the real world. Same for Toyoduhs. Resting on our Laurel's - Oh, what a feeling!
  • Jrhurren I had this happen numerous times with my former Accord. It usually occurred when on a slow right curve in the road. Somehow the system would get confused and think the opposite lane (oncoming traffic) was an impending head-on collision.
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