Front-wheel drive cars often are at a loss when it comes to climbing slick, icy or snowy hills. That’s certainly been the case with the Toyota Prius. But add a small electric motor to drive the rear wheels when extra traction is needed and the Prius changes character.
It is still pretty mild-mannered, as hybrids go. But now, at least, it will go when the hill is covered in snow.
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The 2019 Prius AWD-e is no rock-crawler. It is designed and intended for use on paved roads. Ground clearance is boosted for the all-wheel drive system, but by a mere 0.2 inch to 5.3 inches from the standard Prius’ 5.1 inches.
The “e” in AWD-e is for “electric,” by the way. It refers to the motor that powers the rear wheels, not to the entire powertrain, which remains the familiar Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive system that comes with the standard Prius.
Except for badging and the AWD system, the all-wheel drive versions – available on the Prius LE and XLE trims – are equipped the same as the corresponding front-wheel drive models.
Toyota isn’t offering all-wheel drive in the base 2019 Prius LE Eco or the top-of line Prius Limited models.
The company added electric all-wheel drive to the Prius in Japan a couple of years ago and says it is now bringing it to the U.S. in response to demand from customers in cold-weather regions of the country.
It also is doing so in an attempt to keep its original hybrid relevant as scores of other gas-electric cars and crossovers have entered the market.
The RAV4 hybrid – another Toyota – has almost overtaken Prius as the automaker’s leading seller in the hybrid segment.
Quite a comedown for a car that once sold in the six figures: The standard Prius hatchback hit almost 182,000 U.S. sales at its peak in 2007 but fell just short of 50,000 for 2018 (all Prius models accounted for 87,591 sales in 2018).
Toyota executives readily admit that they are looking at some significant changes in their Prius philosophy to keep subsequent generations fresh and distinguishable from the company’s other hybrid offerings.
For now, though, the all-wheel drive system and a mild face-lift and butt-tuck are the answers for the 2019 model.
Save for the occasional media frenzy over its sometimes challenging design, the Prius has always been a drama-free car. Adding an all-wheel drive system doesn’t change that.
But when your goal is to get away from the stop light or climb the hill to home without sliding off the road, drama’s not what you want. The Prius AWD-e delivers.
Toyota chose Wisconsin as the venue to introduce the 2091 Prius – with and without all-wheel drive – to a group of auto writers. The company’s event planners figured, no doubt, that Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan coastal area in December wold be a great place for snowy, icy roads.
They guessed wrong.
The high was a chill 29-degrees on driving day, but there wasn’t a bit of natural snow to be found. The ice, while occasionally to be spotted on the fringes of a country road, was mainly on the edges of ponds and slow-moving creeks.
To compensate, Toyota set up a compact handling course in a field belonging to the Kohler Co. (same folks who make bathroom fixtures, and for whom the town of Kohler, Wisc., where we were based, was named).
It consisted of a 6-percent grade covered man-made snow, a slightly icy dirt track that ran in a semi-circle around the back of a much steeper slope that was blocked-off and inaccessible to us, and a short set of esses covered in a few inches of snow courtesy of the same snow-machine that had whitened the test slope.
We weren’t allowed to take the front-wheel drive Priuses up the 6-percent slope, so cannot offer a direct comparison with the AWD version’s capabilities.
Toyota folks said they’d tried it before we arrived. The FWD models would make the climb only with great difficulty and a whole lot of wheel spinning, even with snow tires. But for the Prius, front- and all-wheel drive models, low-rolling resistance all-weather rubber is standard.
The Pruis ADW-e however, did successfully muscle its way to the top from a standing start about halfway up the slope, time and again, without slipping or sliding.
Even with those low-rolling resistance tires, Toyota’s standard traction control system kept the RPMs down and wheel spin to nearly naught while the electrically driven rear wheels dug in and pushed.
The 2019 Prius AWD-e also delivered drama-free performance through the snowy esses and on the gently curving and moderately slick dirt track. But so did the front-drive version, which simply pulled the non-driven rear wheels along and tracked through the snow like a champ.
The AWD system doesn’t incorporate rear-wheel torque vectoring. But the standard ABS and stability control systems seemed to do a fine job of equalizing traction to keep the car pointed straight and shiny side up.
All Wheels, But How Often?
In order to keep fuel economy in Prius territory, Toyota’s engineers designed the electric all-wheel drive system to operate as full-time AWD only up to 6 mph – to provide traction at take-off in all situations.
After that, the computer takes over and decides when – up to 43 mph – the Prius AWD-e needs extra traction and should run as an all-wheel drive car. At speeds beyond 43 mpg, the Prius AWD-e always operates as a front-wheel drive car.
Toyota figures there are sufficient driver assist and safety systems on board to keep things copacetic above 43.
All-wheel drive was never initiated after 6 mph during our on-road testing. The urban rout took us from Kohler to Sheboygan’s lakefront downtown and back; the rural run was through countryside dotted with barns, surrounded by fields of winter-brown corn stubble and bisected by the Onion River (named by early settlers in the area after a river in Vermont).
The sky was steel gray and daytime temps well below freezing. But snow didn’t fall until the day we departed.
The AWD system bulks the Prius up by 150 pounds and adds 7.1 horsepower and 40.6 pound-feet of torque when engaged. The extra weight cancels out any acceleration boost the extra electric motor and rear-wheel traction might otherwise add.
The motor is fairly small – almost 25 percent smaller than the electric motor driving the rear wheels of the RAV4 hybrid, for instance.
Up front, the Hybrid Synergy Drive system uses the standard Prius 1.8-liter inline 4 with a pair of motor generators – one to start the gas engine and provide juice for the battery pack; the other to help drive the front wheels.
Power is transmitted to the front wheel via a gear-driven, shift-free CVT.
Juice for the electric motors, front and rear, comes from a smallish battery pack that’s recharged from the first motor-generator and from regenerative braking.
Front-wheel drive Priuses use a lithium ion battery pack while AWD trims get nickle-metal hydride batteries. Toyota says the NiMH battery chemistry performs far better in extreme cold than do lithium-based chemistries.
Except for the 56 mpg overall LE Eco, front-wheel drive 2019 Priuses all are EPA-rated at 52 mpg overall. The two AWD trims are rated at 50 mpg combined.
The 2019 Prius base L Eco trim starts at $24,690, including Toyota’s $920 destination charge. The LE begins at $25,900, the LE AWD-e at $27,300, the XLE at $28,740, the XLE AWD-e at $29,740, and the Limited tops the line at $33,720.
Styling and Equipment
The 2019 Prius is still a Prius, but with the stand-out styling toned down a bit. Both nose and rear end are smoother and cleaner than before, with smaller headlights and a rectangular taillight arrangement.
The look borrows from the Prius Prime plug-in hybrid. It is a bit more “standard Toyota sedan” and a lot less “Hey, look at me!” than ever before (except, of course, for the Eco econobox-based 1999-2003 models).
The interior is pretty much unchanged from last year’s Prius. The most notable exceptions are the far-more conveniently located seat heater switches and use of piano black plastic trim instead of the glaring Imperial storm-trooper white that debuted with the 2016 redesign. Also new are the two rear-facing USB ports in the center console.
The Limited trim also gets an 11.6-inch touchscreen for the Entune infotainment system; other trims have the standard 6.1-inch screen. While Toyota continues to work toward achieving Apple CarPlay compatibility, it still is not available for the 2019 Prius.
Toyota’s TSS-P suite of drive assistance and safety systems is standard across the lineup.
It provides, among other things, active cruise control with full stop-start capability; lane departure warning, front collision warning and mitigation with pedestrian detection, and automatic high beam activation.