By on December 18, 2018

2019 Toyota Prius AWD-e - Image: Toyota

As America’s new vehicle market shifts to vehicles with four driven wheels, greater ride height, and dog-friendly tailgates, it seems more than sensible for the Toyota Prius to take part in some community outreach.

The Prius, America’s 10th-best-selling car just a decade ago, can keep doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. Or, the Prius can make a significant change – via available “independent electric, magnet-less rear motor” – to offer all-wheel drive, one of the feature sets that’s drawing car buyers away from cars.

And that’s exactly what Toyota has done for the otherwise refreshed 2019 Prius (reviewed last week by our own Matt Posky). In a manner of speaking, Toyota expects big things from the Prius AWD-e: 25 percent of Prius customers, to be precise.

But one-fourth of all Prius volume is not what it used to be. In fact, it’s a far cry from what it used to be. A mere fraction of what it used to be. One-quarter of all Prius volume will make the Prius AWD-e barely more common than the Alfa Romeo Stelvio.

2019 Toyota Prius AWD-e blue - Image: Toyota

For the Prius, despite a market that’s much more open to green vehicles as a general concept, times have changed, and not in its favour. In 2007, for instance, the introduction of an AWD Prius that would earn 25 percent of all Prius volume would have resulted in over 45,000 annual sales in the United States. But sales of the Prius – by which we mean the core Prius model, not the C or V or Prime – have plunged 60 percent since 2007. In the last half-decade alone, Prius sales are down by half, a startling drop attributed to a number of factors.

First, competition is now everywhere. This isn’t 2000, when the lone Prius alternative was a two-seat Honda with rear wheel skirts. Toyota’s own lineup is littered with hybrids, including three other Prius nameplates that produce three-quarters as much volume as the core Prius. Don’t forget the RAV4 Hybrid that now sells nearly as often as the Prius.

In bites and pieces, little by little, vehicles such as the Ford C-Max, Hyundai Ioniq, and Honda Insight have eaten into the Prius’s pie. Then there are the hybrid versions of mainstream cars, from the Ford Fusion and Kia Optima to Toyota’s own Camry.

Throw in a nascent EV segment, plus a new wave of attention-grabbing green cars, and the Prius’s initial thunder is long since lost. After peaking at over 181,000 sales in 2007, Toyota is on track to generate around 50,000 Prius sales in the U.S. in 2018. (From a high of 236,655 sales in 2012, the entire Prius lineup won’t likely top the 90,000 mark in 2018.)2019 Toyota Prius AWD-e badge - Image: Toyota

The increased level of competition hasn’t been the Prius’s only problem. The benefits of Prius ownership – namely, the fuel savings – have dwindled during its lifespan. In 2007, when Prius demand was at its zenith, a Prius owner enjoyed 46 miles per gallon in mixed driving. At the average U.S. price per gallon in 2007 of $2.79 and 12,000 annual miles, that Prius owner saved $794 compared with the owner of an all-wheel-drive 2007 Honda CR-V.

In 2018, two of three models in the Prius lineup are rated at 52 mpg in combined driving. With average fuel prices at $2.42/gallon and big leaps in ICE efficiency, a new Prius saves just $443 compared with a new CR-V over the course of a year.

You won’t be wrong in suggesting that the Prius and CR-V aren’t direct competitors. But don’t ignore the fact that Prius sales tumbled 60 percent since 2007 while CR-V sales jumped 71 percent during the same time period. The CR-V provides meaningful context. Regardless, the Honda is just an example of the advances made by the very vehicles American automobile buyers want. (Fun fact: the Prius’s fuel cost advantage over a F-150 tumbled from $1,504 in 2007 to $824 in 2018, using a 2007 F-150 4.6 4×4 and a 2018 F-150 2.7TT 4×4 as examples.)

The fact that the Prius simply no longer holds the allure it possessed in a prior era is not lost on Toyota, as proven by the company’s push of the successful RAV4 Hybrid, by Prius Prime sales that have grown 34 percent this year to now collect three-in-ten overall Prius sales, and by Toyota’s determination to broaden the Prius’s appeal. As a car trying to relocate vast numbers of its own buyers that have fled for greener pastures, the Prius has company. Think of the Nissan Altima and Mazda 3, both of which are hoping to benefit from all-wheel-drive availability as new iterations launch.

True, they are still just cars, the very sort of machine that’s rapidly fallen out of favour in the U.S. market. But an AWD-e offering could be what Toyota requires to sell more copies of the Prius in Colorado and the northeast (even with degraded fuel economy that takes the Prius AWD-e back to levels the Prius first managed in 2010.)

Besides, the 2019 Toyota Prius AWD-e has ride height on its side. It sits two-tenths of an inch higher than the regular Prius. Don’t for a moment think that there won’t be Toyota sales consultants trying to turn that fraction of an inch into a selling point.

[Images: Toyota]

Timothy Cain is a contributing analyst at The Truth About Cars and and the founder and former editor of Follow on Twitter @timcaincars and Instagram.

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12 Comments on “Toyota Expects a Quarter of Prius Customers to Choose AWD-e, but 25 Percent of Prius Is Not What It Used to Be...”

  • avatar

    AWD Prius sounds good, but it will no doubt get squeezed by the Rav4 Hybrid on the one end (I’m actually looking forward to that car in particular as a potential future ride for my wife), and then the current Camry Hybrid is now rated on par with the Prius in fuel economy, while having superior comfort and dynamics. Hybrid Corolla will give people yet another good option, without the absolutely ugly Prius looks, but loses the utility of the hatch.

    Sure there will be a lot of internal cannibalization and competition, but that’s always been Toyota’s approach it seems: offer something for everyone within popular mainstream categories, leverage global product to do so. Even if the Prius isn’t as popular as it once was, stick with it, who knows when the next gas crunch might come. Much like they stuck with the midsize truck segment and the midsize BOF even when it was unpopular, and are now being rewarded with record sales of both the Tacoma and 4Runner.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    There’s no way the new design hasn’t also factored into its sales decline. The Prius has always been one of the ugliest cars you could buy, though it was space efficient and for many years it was part of the allure. “Look at me! I’m saving the planet!” was what people bought it for. The latest design prior to this undercover face lift (more like a face lowering in this case) is a bridge too far for most people. It is actively and aggressively ugly whereas before it was ugly in a bland way.

    The photos seem to be missing the tacked-on gray textured cladding required of all cars with increased ride height.

    • 0 avatar

      Uh no, for the most part people bought the Prius to save gas. Not necessarily to be smug. The Prius is now the choice of taxi fleets and rideshares for the fuel savings alone.

      • 0 avatar
        Land Ark

        Smugness is not the correct term. Sure some people bought one and judged everyone who didn’t, the a large number of people bought them to do what they felt was their part in helping eliminate emissions since, at the time, hybrids were the best way to do it. The vast majority of Prius owners didn’t spend any time thinking about it.

        Obviously I would never cast a blanket saying that everyone who bought them thought like that, but there was certainly a time where some people wanted to be seen driving a Prius. It was as much a fashion statement as a mode of transportation. Many of the people buying Priuses could afford a lot more expensive cars, and now they have moved on to Teslas.

  • avatar

    AWD should be standard on everything, just like AC.

    • 0 avatar


      For electrics the space robbing packaging costs aren’t that bad, but for ICEs, they are a major pain. For bicycles, I can’t even begin to imagine what a pain it would be, having to drag all the weight and complexity of a driven front wheel around.

  • avatar

    The problem for green car makers is that green car buyers aren’t very loyal, and non-green car buyers aren’t very interested in green cars unless there is a big bump in fuel prices. The Prius has been the number 1 trade-in on virtually every new green car introduced in the past 10 years – Leaf, Volt, Bolt, Tesla. Now Tesla might be getting the same treatment as the most popular car owned by those signing up the the new Porsche EV is Tesla. The subsidies that EVs get also don’t help the subsidy-less Prius, but also point to the environmental pointlessness of the subsidies – how much environmental help is generated by the Model 3 or Leaf subsidies when the most common trade-in is the already very green Prius? The answer: virtually nothing or less.

  • avatar

    I like the idea of different power plants driving different sets of wheels.

    I’d like the front wheels to be driven by diesel, and the rear wheels to be powered by a steam engine, please.

  • avatar

    We are way past peak Prius. Eventually, as sales continue to decline with America not wanting cars, the brand being associated with clueless left lane drivers, Prius no longer having the “look at me I’m saving the planet” mojo and competition from the Camry, Corolla (soon in AWD format also), and RAV-4 sitting on the showroom floor next to it, the Prius in NA will go away.

    Volumes in Japan can more than keep the Prius alive but every automaker eventually reaches the clinical decision that building a LHD version to NHTSA/DOT specs won’t be worth it – when adding in the marketing effort, parts, training, and the fact that R&D investment lives on in other products benefiting from the drivetrain.

    The Prius is going away. Not next year, not the year after…but it is going away.

    • 0 avatar

      The nameplate _may_ go away, but until all cars are partially or fully electric, there is a market for one which is optimized from the ground up to be hybrid. So, in essence, it won’t go away until all cars are Priuses.

      EPA ratings don’t fully capture its fuel saving benefits over hybrid retrofitted ICE cars. Its small frontal area to interior volume, and aero shape, means mileage deteriorates less at more realistic Utah highway speeds, than Camrys and Corollas and Rav4s. While its lower weight and smaller, lower resistance tires and purpose programmed throttle tuning pay off in realistic city/stop-and-go driving.

      You just can’t get its efficiencies from more traditional designs. And the difference isn’t even negligible. For some people, this matters. Heck, it _may_, although perhaps in Prime guise, again be the fashion belle it once was, once people realize how stupid and dead end the currently fashionable pure battery electrics really are for many/most realistic usages.

  • avatar

    Ultimately it makes no difference if the Prius name itself disappears. The concept of a hybrid powertrain is what counts and the Prius brought that into prime time. As the story points out there are plenty of models that now incorporate the technology into their portfolio. If Prius is limited to a car model only, it will follow the curve of decline like all other cars are doing. Frankly, does it make sense to have Prius-branded CUVs? With all the other Toyota CUVs and cars with HSD, I really don’t think so. Perhaps the exception might be if gas jumps in price and buyers assume the Prius-branded CUV is more efficient than the others. That extra 10 MPG comes with some odd compromises to make it work. A good example is the climate control that provides a setting for “driver-only” climate control settings. I guess a tenth here and a tenth there adds up…

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