By on December 14, 2018

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]

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35 Comments on “2019 Toyota Prius AWD-e First Drive – Keeping Green On the White Stuff...”


  • avatar
    APaGttH

    If any other automaker had a high flying model sales drop 63% of their previous decade peak and:

    1) Offered up a redesign that makes the Pontiac Aztek look reasonable
    2) Ignore market demand for CUV/SUV and actually killed the model in the lineup that was closest to CUV/SUV functionality
    3) Ignored electrification and called it a bridge (do a Google search, about 12 years ago) and said hydrogen was the answer

    That automaker (Detroit, Tokyo, Seoul, Munich, Paris…) would be EVISCERATED on these pages.

    • 0 avatar
      James2

      Just proof that no automaker is immune from making stupid (in hindsight) decisions.

      FWIW, this gen Prius is still ugly. Though Honda is still trying hard to steal the title “World’s Ugliest Car” from Toyota –saw a Clarity in the flesh this AM and OMG!!!

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Posky

      You might be right but Toyota always wants to be the tortoise in that fable where it raced the hare. We don’t really expect it to chase trends at the same pace of other manufacturers and its sales have yet to fall off a cliff. Even this big drive to bring back sporting models and inject some excitement into the brand has been a slow and calculated process. For the most part, I’ve found the company’s inability to jump on the mobility bandwagon refreshing. It’s is making fewer promises than a lot of other companies; promises they might not be able to keep. Toyota also seems to be aware that not going all in on SUV/CUVs is a gamble — they’re just under the assumption that their own car sales will improve as more and more manufacturers stop building them.

      As for the Prius, they know they screwed up with this latest generation. Visual adjustments and AWD-e are a bandaid for a much larger problem but I do think it is an effective one. Next year’s sales stats will determine how right or wrong I am.

      • 0 avatar
        APaGttH

        …We don’t really expect it to chase trends at the same pace of other manufacturers and its sales have yet to fall off a cliff…

        I will argue that Prius sales have fallen off a cliff. Worst sales year since 2004 is coming up, and in 2004 the Prius was just ramping up. Let’s also address the 800-pound elephant in the room, a lot of those sales are livery/taxi (admittedly good fleet) and indirect livery (Lyft/Uber).

        I would seriously question what actual retail sales are.

        Second 800-pound elephant in the room. Sixty-five-percent of hybrid buyers are one-and-done, they don’t buy another hybrid. I would speculate this has a lot less to do with “I hate hybrids” and a lot more to do with lifestyle has changed and they need a different category of vehicle to support.

        https://www.forbes.com/sites/eco-nomics/2012/04/13/65-of-hybrid-owners-dont-buy-another-hybrid/#4e0c52d21526

        If Toyota wants to keep the Prius line going in North America (versus moving drive train to RAV-4, Corolla, Camry, Highlander) the answer is to bring back something Prius-Vish but is more CUVish in dimensions, and include the AWD system.

        • 0 avatar
          Featherston

          Please cite some numbers on Priuses bought new as taxis. I see a huge number of Prius taxis, and 100% of them thus far have been 2nd and 3rd gens. By their paint jobs, none of them appear to have started life as a taxi. And I have yet to see a 4th gen pressed into taxi duty. We’ll see them cycle into taxi service soon, but I question the notion that they’re being bought new as taxis.

          Also, we’re now 21 years into the Prius era, and the only negative experiences I’ve had with them are in the form of crappily driven taxis and ride share vehicles (which is a taxi/ride share thing and not a Prius or hybrid thing). The “smug owner” accusation rings hollow to me. And no, I don’t have one.

      • 0 avatar
        jalop1991

        “but Toyota always wants to be the tortious in that fable where it raced the hare.”

        yeah, Toyota tries not to be tortious:

        https://www.dictionary.com/browse/tortious

        • 0 avatar
          APaGttH

          So can you provide some links to the growing success of hydrogen and the Toyota program…or is the money they invested there and in fuel cells providing profits to the bottom line.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      For #3 they were wise to avoid electrification and their overall sales, including all hybrids, are reflective of it.

    • 0 avatar
      Booick

      Don’t be ridiculous, the prius V was only sold to taxicab drivers. The RAV4 hybrid exists and gets 39 MPG combined. It’s a brilliant vehicle and IMO, there’s no reason to buy a prius at all. The RAV4 hybrid beats the prius in every way that counts and starts at about 27,500. If for some odd reason you must have a liftback, the ionic hybrid also beats the prius in every way that counts and does it at a substantial discount.

      Plus, what Toyota doesn’t want to admit, for some strange reason, is that their prius customer base largely moved on to EVs as soon as they became viable, and toyota will continue to lose out in the prius and sales in general because they don’t have an EV for their former prius customers to grow into.

      I was thinking about a jeep grand cherokee for my next vehicle, but with the release of the 2019 RAV4 hybrid, I will consider that vehicle as well.

      • 0 avatar
        APaGttH

        ….Don’t be ridiculous….

        Interesting way to start.

        ….the prius V was only sold to taxicab drivers….

        Huh, I know people who are taxi cab drivers who own/owned Prius-V so I guess I can say, “so don’t be ridiculous.”

        …The RAV4 hybrid exists and gets 39 MPG combined. It’s a brilliant vehicle…

        Mostly agree

        …and IMO, there’s no reason to buy a prius at all…

        1000% agree. Between the Hybrid Camry, Hybrid RAV-4, and coming soon Hybrid Corolla it is a dead model walking.

        …The RAV4 hybrid beats the prius in every way that counts…

        Taxi, livery, Uber, and Lyft drivers would disagree with you

        …and starts at about 27,500. If for some odd reason you must have a liftback, the ionic hybrid also beats the prius in every way that counts and does it at a substantial discount…

        But Ionic says “Hyundai,” ick, Koreans! Toyota quality or something like that I’m told.

        …Plus, what Toyota doesn’t want to admit, for some strange reason, is that their prius customer base largely moved on to EVs as soon as they became viable, and toyota will continue to lose out in the prius and sales in general because they don’t have an EV for their former prius customers to grow into….

        1000% agree. This, exactly this, hence my point of their conscious business decision over a decade ago to not follow electrification and invest in fuel cells because hydrogen is the future and electrical vehicles aren’t viable. And how is that working out? (don’t tell me I’m being ridiculous – I agree with you)

        …I was thinking about a jeep grand cherokee for my next vehicle, but with the release of the 2019 RAV4 hybrid, I will consider that vehicle as well…

        Errrrr…OK…I wouldn’t think that was a cross shopped vehicle, but there you go.

        Oh ya, don’t be ridiculous…

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    Come back to Wisconsin in a couple of weeks and we’ll have plenty of snow for you to drive in. Despite what the nay-sayers think people who live and function in the snowbelt know what a difference AWD AND snow tires make. A Prius with AWD should find a nice niche here

  • avatar
    Garak

    Why did it take so long for them to implement AWD? I remember people talking about rear wheel hub motors 20 years ago. Well, better late than never, I guess.

    Anyway, I live in a country with harsh winters and high fuel prices, so an economical AWD car sounds interesting. I hope there’s going to be a MPV variant.

    • 0 avatar
      brandloyalty

      I have heard the awd version has been offered in Japan. An awd Prius V would find some buyers.

      • 0 avatar
        tonycd

        They do offer an AWD Prius V, slightly jacked up. It’s called the RAV-4 Hybrid.

        As for this car, having sat in one, this generation of the car abolished rear seat room, especially headroom, that was surprisingly generous in the previous-generation 2010-15 Prius. This step backward came at the same time that all the leading compacts – Corolla, Civic, Sentra – were dramatically increasing the size of the aft compartment. I think a lot of families are moving down in price from midsize sedans, a big (pun intended) reason why prices of the latter are cratering. Maybe Toyota figures that buyers who want that room should buy Camrys and Corollas instead, but if they cared about Prius sales, it was the wrong time to shrink the useful room in the car.

        I will give them this, though: Thank God they got rid of the toilet-white plastic all over the lower dash and the shifter surround. You can’t smear enough greasy fingerprints on the new piano black trim to make it look as hideous as that was.

  • avatar
    gtem

    I’m most interested in how Toyota handles the traction control system and other torque-limiting systems. Their past hybrid AWD (Highlander/RXh) have proven to get totally befuddled in fairly innocuous situations, and back home in hilly Central NY where Prius models became fantastically popular, the main issue with winter traction was how aggressive the TC was, even cars with snow tires were hamstrung by it. A former coworker resorted to studded snow tires on his gen 2 and that seemed to solve the problem.

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      Many AWD systems have a TC defeat for winter driving

      • 0 avatar
        gtem

        The Toyota Hybrid one is particularly aggressive as it prioritizes preventing the drivetrain from getting damaged even more so than other systems that can be “mostly” shut off.

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      The Achilles heel of these “throttle-by-wire” cars is that they don’t allow for much wheelspin before cutting power. My previous hybrid Altima, which was all Prius parts save the engine, would not allow me to rock out of any situation at all. And there was not TC defeat on that car. I don’t think the replacement Prius my employer has provided to me has that feature either…

      • 0 avatar
        Lie2me

        I’ve only seen the TC “OFF” (defeat) on AWD vehicles allowing the wheels to spin and dig for traction. I have it on my Escape and yes it does work and is necessary for some winter situations

  • avatar
    dividebytube

    >>fed me Midwestern-themed meals

    so bland?

  • avatar
    theflyersfan

    Surprised no one has mentioned the awful (for a Prius) 27.8mpg on the trip computer. For something advertised and rated at 50mpg, cold and snow notwithstanding, that kind of mileage drop is unacceptable. Or did the C&D road warriors get to the car first?

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      The Prius has various displays for mileage. The one displayed (ODO) will show the mileage over the life of the car. The car shown has only a few hundred miles on it. If all of those were super short trips with numerous drivers whaling on it, that number is not surprising. There is also a mode for the actual trip since start. I notice at start up and the first few miles the displayed MPG is in the high twenties. By the time my 46 mile trip ends, I have had in typical conditions anywhere from 60 to 72 MPG. Amazing, indeed. This car can be in EV mode at crazy high speeds.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    I see they also took this opportunity to dial back the ugly a little bit. Probably hoping the AWD would distract folks enough to not really notice.

    But like theflyersfan above said, 28mpg? I think I’ll find something less offensive to look at for slightly worse mpg thanks.

  • avatar
    thejohnnycanuck

    Hey Toyota, add an AWD option to the new Corolla hybrid and just kill this thing. Although chances are even without AWD the Corolla hybrid might just do enough damage to accomplish that.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    The article didn’t mention whether there is regeneration from the rear wheels, or how it is set up for “one pedal” driving. Does it have a spare tire?

  • avatar
    HotPotato

    Wait…7 horsepower to the rear wheels? Is that a misprint? S-E-V-E-N? Is this proof of the car-guy conviction that the usefulness of AWD for most people most of the time is 99% psychological? Is this the placebo effect gone automotive? Or is it really all that’s needed when the fronts spin from a dead stop and the car just needs a little nudge forward from the rear for the fronts to gain grip again? This is either the most cynical marketing and profit-wringing ploy ever, or the most brilliant way ever to provide the benefit of AWD without the usual weight and mileage penalty.

    • 0 avatar
      JREwing

      How much power do you really need in poor weather conditions? In icy conditions, 40 lb-ft is plenty to break the tires loose.

      It’s a rather brilliant poor-weather solution. It’s not sucking away precious energy unless it really needs to happen. It makes the Prius genuinely useful in low-traction conditions (particularly if said owner equips it with snow tires). Less is more, at least in this case.

      I’d have plenty of complaints if they marketed the Prius as a sporty vehicle, but nobody buying this thing is expecting a sports car. What this does is allow folks to confidently pull away from a stoplight in snowy conditions. Mission accomplished.

    • 0 avatar
      wsn

      @HotPotato

      It seems that you don’t live in a place where real snowfalls occur. When a car is stuck, it is common that you only need a good push to get it out. A person is not as strong as a horse, thus that push can’t even reach 1 hp. As such 7 hp is sufficient in terms of power as long as the 40 lb-ft torque is enough.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

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

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