Automotive

Review: 2020 Toyota Prius AWD-e isn’t what you think

Review: 2020 Toyota Prius AWD-...
The new Prius AWD-e has some good points and some bad, making for a mixed return
The new Prius AWD-e has some good points and some bad, making for a mixed return
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Although the exterior of the Prius is now more contemporary, the interior remains quirky with this unusual dashboard layout
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Although the exterior of the Prius is now more contemporary, the interior remains quirky with this unusual dashboard layout
The odd split-hatch may be weird to look through in the rearview, but it does make for some sizable cargo space in the compact Prius
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The odd split-hatch may be weird to look through in the rearview, but it does make for some sizable cargo space in the compact Prius
The Prius started Toyota's now-popular Hybrid Synergy Drive system more than 20 years ago
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The Prius started Toyota's now-popular Hybrid Synergy Drive system more than 20 years ago
The Prius AWD-e's all-wheel drive system only works full-time at under 6mph and intermittently up to 43 mph
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The Prius AWD-e's all-wheel drive system only works full-time at under 6mph and intermittently up to 43 mph
Long synonymous with “efficiency,” the Prius has been steadily losing sales over the past several years as consumer interest in the quirky hatchback has dwindled
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Long synonymous with “efficiency,” the Prius has been steadily losing sales over the past several years as consumer interest in the quirky hatchback has dwindled
The black portion of the tailgate is glass, making for a "split view" from the driver's rearview mirror
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The black portion of the tailgate is glass, making for a "split view" from the driver's rearview mirror
The new Prius AWD-e has some good points and some bad, making for a mixed return
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The new Prius AWD-e has some good points and some bad, making for a mixed return
Toyota softened the look of the Prius considerably in the latest refresh, bringing the front fascia into line with the rest of the Toyota sedan lineup
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Toyota softened the look of the Prius considerably in the latest refresh, bringing the front fascia into line with the rest of the Toyota sedan lineup
Design changes in the new Prius generation also bring a more everyday look to the hybrid
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Design changes in the new Prius generation also bring a more everyday look to the hybrid
Although bold accent lines remain, the rear hatch and quarter of the new Prius is much less statement making
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Although bold accent lines remain, the rear hatch and quarter of the new Prius is much less statement making
The AWD system in the Prius AWD-e adds about 120 pounds to the car, reducing fuel economy by about 2 mpg
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The AWD system in the Prius AWD-e adds about 120 pounds to the car, reducing fuel economy by about 2 mpg
The back seats of the Prius, while cramped, are actually roomier than those found in many compact cars
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The back seats of the Prius, while cramped, are actually roomier than those found in many compact cars
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Last year, Toyota debuted a new all-wheel drive variant for the most-recognized name in hybrid cars, the Prius. The announcement made headlines, and the car was shown throwing snow and getting slushy with its new-found all-wheels-turning capability. That’s not what happens in the real world.

Long synonymous with “efficiency,” the Prius has been steadily losing sales over the past several years as consumer interest in the quirky hatchback has dwindled. Even the allure of over 50 mpg (4.7 l/100km) on the daily drive hasn’t been enough to keep the Prius on top. The current-generation Prius underwent a facelift that helped make it more mainstream in appearance, but to no avail. Toyota is hoping that adding more all-weather stability to the car synonymous with “hybrid efficiency” will help. And it might.

After a week with the car, though, it’s clear that buyers need to understand what it is, and isn’t, capable of doing. The Prius’ AWD system has both limits and useful high points, and it’s far different from the AWD you might find in your crossover or sports car. The AWD in the Prius is not going to make the car corner better or accelerate faster. Neither will it allow you to turn donuts in a snowy parking lot with any kind of thrilling speed. It won’t make you more stable on wet roads at higher speeds, either. What it will do is help you not get as stuck, and it might help minimize the slip and slide from a stop sign in snowy weather.

The new Prius uses an intelligent all-wheel drive system that Toyota calls “AWD-e.” Similar to the AWD found in the RAV4 Hybrid model, the Prius’ system has no mechanical linkage from the engine/motor/transmission to the rear wheels. Instead, it’s all electrical with an added motor on the rear axle to provide propulsion there. Thus the system adds only about 120 lb (54 kg) to the car’s weight.

The little 5.2 kW (7 hp) motor on the rear axle adds to the 121-horsepower (90 kW) engine/motor combination under the hood. Fuel economy drops from 52 mpg (4.5 l/100km) combined to 50 mpg (4.7 l/100km) combined. In the real world, we saw a 45 mpg (5.2 l/100km) average during a week of mixed driving in mostly inclement weather while at high altitude.

The black portion of the tailgate is glass, making for a "split view" from the driver's rearview mirror
The black portion of the tailgate is glass, making for a "split view" from the driver's rearview mirror

The system layout is a good one for the little car, but it has some limits – mostly in when and how that rear motor engages. The Prius AWD-e rarely engages the rear axle for "performance" reasons (i.e: mashing the throttle to get a quick takeoff or in hard cornering). The Prius isn’t a sports car, so that makes sense. It seems a lost opportunity, but perhaps Toyota doesn’t want to associate the little hybrid with any kind of fun factor for fear of breaking its identity. Additionally, the system is limited as to the speeds at which the AWD can be used.

The AWD-e works at speeds under 43 mph (69 km/h) and, in our experience, works best at speeds under 10 mph (16 km/h). Where the system is most useful is in getting going from a stop when the roads are slick. That means getting through the stoplight, making that turn after a stop sign, or getting out of the cold parking lot in order to drive home.

What it doesn’t mean is added stability on the highway, better stopping power, or even a noticeable improvement in stability during the drive itself. Toyota designed this on purpose, having the AWD system engage full-time at speeds under 6 mph (9.6 km/h) and then disengage and become only occasional at speeds up to 43 mph.

Several things work against the added AWD system, which should have been thought of during implementation. The Prius, for starters, comes standard with low-rolling-resistance tires. These are notoriously terrible on slick roadways. The Prius AWD-e model adds less than a quarter of an inch of ground clearance, increasing it by 0.2 inches (0.5 cm) to 5.3 inches (13.5 cm). This means slushy roadways are still going to be dicey. There is also no way for the driver to control when or even if the AWD engages. And the system trends towards efficiency at all times, meaning the AWD may not be there when it’s needed.

Although the exterior of the Prius is now more contemporary, the interior remains quirky with this unusual dashboard layout
Although the exterior of the Prius is now more contemporary, the interior remains quirky with this unusual dashboard layout

During our week with the Prius AWD-e, it snowed almost continually. The Prius, despite the addition of AWD, was only sometimes confident about going out and about. While a 2WD minivan and small crossovers braved the weather without problems, the Prius struggled to stay in a straight line and was tough to maneuver around corners with hard-packed snow on the road. Stopping distances were much-lengthened in the weather as well, especially for the Prius thanks to those no-grip tires. It did get started from a stop on said roads without many problems, though, showing that the limited-use AWD is doing the job it’s meant to do.

The added US$1,400 to the price and loss of 2 or more MPG might be difficult to justify to buyers, given the limited use scenarios for the Prius AWD-e models. The Prius AWD-e starts at US$26,935 (before delivery) and our test model was priced at $33,021 after delivery.

Product Page: 2020 Toyota Prius

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11 comments
guzmanchinky
Sounds like the biggest limiting factor might have been the tires.
Mazyar Aman
Whoever wrote this article clearly does not understand the purpose of this car. This is not only a biased, but a totally nut-job article. "Neither will it allow you to turn donuts in a snowy parking lot with any kind of thrilling speed."... are you serious? The car is made for fuel efficiency. The performance and reliability of Prius is unmatched for the amount of power it generates and the fuel it uses. AWD is added so it could meet road condition requirements in restricted areas, and at least be able to move in all weathers whereas 2WD would not move at all. Prius is not meant for speed, 4x4 performance, or rough terrain.
Bob Stuart
Snow tires also have low rolling resistance, because of the softer rubber. What were you running on the comparison vehicles?
paul314
I don't think anyone who lives in a snowy area uses the standard prius tires during the winter. The question is more whether this would let a prius get around with regular snow tires instead of needing studded ones.
Phil Cassell
I agree with Mazhar on this one. I currently drive a 2015 Prius V and then allure of the AWD Prius was that it has AWD and still have more space then most hatchbacks on the market. I live up north and during the winter months the roads in town are a constant slippery mess. I took the AWD Prius out for a test drive last week and guess what? I was doing donuts in a parking lot and the BS about really getting any added traction...not true. I deliberately went down the messiest snow and over covered roads and when I hit the gas I would feel the car slip for a second and then the rear wheels kick in and keep the car stable. I was taking snowy corners and was practically drafting the car because the AWD was keeping everything in line with the all season tires. We almost bought the Technology AWD bought we like the V because of the space and decided to pass. I hope that there will be more AWD small hybrids out there. :)
buzzclick
I have every confidence in the Toyota engineers' ability to produce efficient and functional cars that are very reliable, and this edition of the Prius looks pretty sweet as well. If you live in the north, you're getting AWD when you really need it without affecting the weight or the performance much. Toyotas are some of the best cars I've ever owned.
Pablo
Only 50mpg with all that rocket science? Big deal, my 1991 CRX did that with basically nothing but a well designed engine and a few tweaks to maximize efficiency. I'm not sure I'd call what they did to these things a "facelift"... cat lady glasses tail lights? And I'm pretty sure I wouldn't pay $1500 for an option to make it easier to pull away from a stop sign. To me, the Prius has always been a little bit ugly, best regarded as a test bed for the technology we'll all be using soon. At least I don't have to listen to that insipid whine of the inverters in slow traffic on the 405 any more, we don't open the windows that much in Phoenix!
bwana4swahili
Add winter tires and continuous AWD, and you might just have a usable car!?
Username
If you want to turn donuts in a snowy parking lot, awd is useless. What you want is rear wheel drive or fwd and a handy parking brake.
Tim Jonson
Dear Toyota Engineers: This comment is a genuine attempt to help you. You desperately need the help. I bought a 2017 Prius Prime and I drive it every day in EV mode, battery only. For readers who don't know, the Prius in the article is a PHEV, meaning you can charge the battery before you drive it, giving the car 25 or 30 miles of 'electric car' mode. It would have been too helpful for the author to provide this background. The reason I bought the ugliest car ever made is Toyota's reliability. The reliability cannot be disputed- it's the best of all car makes. But this is where the good news ends. The car is riddled with poor planning, execution and design. Let's start with the poor fitting of the battery. It results in a high deck in the cargo area and no middle passenger in the back seat. The charging port looks like the designer quit halfway through, the way you have to stash the inner car plug cover is absurd. The rear compartment for the charging cord lacks a hinged door and is impractical. Moving to the dashboard: the LED graphics are terrible and cluttered. There are 5 different modes for the graphics, but this is only to present the same information a different way, yet all 5 modes are terrible. The owner's manual in the glove compartment is 850 pages of obtuse nonsense- with my engineering background it took me 30 minutes to figure out how to change the time on the dashboard clock. Toyota puts nice 5 spoke aluminum wheels on the car and then covers this with crap plastic hubcaps that would insult a Chevy Spark. I could go on... I'll spare you. I bought it for the reliability, and it has been reliable. But when both Kia and Hyundai produce such beautiful PHEVs, you have to wonder what's going on with Toyota. Are they too big??