Back in March Break, and normal people were fleeing south for sun and sand. So of course we headed north to Algonquin, where the snow still lay three feet deep.
When we did the same thing two years ago, the daytime temperatures never got above -16 C, but then at least our ride for the voyage was appropriate: a Ford Flex with loads of power and space, and all-wheel-drive traction.
This year we would be taking a Toyota Prius. What are we thinking? Toyota’s seminal hybrid fuel-sipper is designed to shine in the city, where it’s most able to exploit electric propulsion, and where stop-and-go driving maximizes regenerative braking to restore charge to the battery.
And as for the Northern Ontario winter – well, just look at the Prius: front-wheel drive and a low-slung build that’s more about slipping through the air than plowing through snow berms.
But this isn’t any old Prius. It’s the new AWD-e version that was added to the lineup for 2019. At the same time, all Priuses receive a welcome cosmetic do-over for 2019; it’s still basically the same, um, provocative body shape, but new front and rear light clusters help de-freak the look.
To be clear, the AWD-e makes no pretense to be an off-roader, or even a Subaru substitute. There’s only a minuscule five-millimetre increase in ride height, and the tires are the same fuel-economy easy-rollers as on other Priuses. There’s no transfer case, no power take-off, no centre differential, no driveshaft connecting front to rear.
Instead, the AWD capability is provided by a relatively small electric motor that drives the rear wheels. Rated at just seven horsepower and 40 lb-ft, and adding about 70 kilograms of mass, it doesn’t add much performance, if any, to what you get from the combined 121 hp supplied by the 1.8-litre gasoline engine and 53-kW electric motor that partner in varying and mysterious ways to drive the front wheels.
The battery on the AWD-e reverts to nickel-metal-hydride technology as it handles extreme cold better than the Lithium-ion cells used on other Priuses.
The AWD-e’s rear motor is programmed to always activate from initial launch up to 10 kilometres an hour, and then part-time as needed up to 70 km/h. Its role is to help you accelerate more effectively and more stably on low-friction surfaces than you could with just front-wheel drive.
Algonquin provided an ample supply of snow-covered side roads, where the AWD-e performed exactly as billed. Mind you, that was mostly snow that had been packed down somewhat by previous traffic; when the snow got deeper and the road steeper, the Prius struggled.
Otherwise the AWD-experience was much like any other Prius, with its space-oddity cockpit layout and good visibility. In terms of space, the Prius is a compact hatchback but with a body length more typical of a compact sedan, so although many alternatives have roomier rear seats, its trunk volume is exceptional.
Real-world performance feels livelier than its leisurely zero-to-100-km/h time of about 11 seconds suggests, although the seemingly random flares of engine revs generated by its continuously variable transmission are more noticeable than in some other hybrids with quieter engines. The TNGA platform that underpins the Prius delivers a nicely cushioned ride and, even if the handling isn’t hugely engaging, there’s at least enough competence that engaged drivers won’t be bored to tears.
But what about the fuel consumption – the overarching raison d’être of the Prius? According to the official government numbers, the AWD-e rates 4.5 litres/100 km in the city and 4.9 on the highway, respectively 2 per cent and 7 per cent thirstier than the front-wheel drive model. Our mid-March 1,300-kilometre week of mostly highway driving netted an actual 5.4 litres/100 km – hypermiserly by any standards.
Bottom line, the added capability of the AWD-e may not be transformative, but neither is the cost. The starting price of $28,990 is just $1,000 more than the base FWD Prius, and that includes some additional bells and whistles. No wonder Toyota Canada expects the AWD to account for two-thirds of Prius sales going forward.
Then again, we wonder if Toyota will sell any FWD Priuses going forward. After all, fuel-economy zealots who don’t head north when everybody else is going south can now have the new hybrid version of the 2020 Corolla. It offers the same fuel economy as a front-drive Prius, for $3,200 less.
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