The Prius is losing its grip on the market for several reasons. First, customers have many alternatives to shop from, with efficient hybrids available from neither every manufacturer. Second, hybrid technology no longer gets top billing for green offerings, now that mass-market EVs are here. Lastly, it looks a bit weird, like a robot catfish.
Toyota has moved to help its stalwart hybrid literally gain more traction. The e-AWD variants of the Prius incorporate a small electric motor that drives the rear wheels, giving greater control when accelerating from a stop. The idea is to add greater all-weather capability to the Prius, broadening its appeal.
On the face of it, giving the Prius all-wheel-drive is extremely useful. In winter, cars that run on battery power alone can lose range to low outside temperatures (if you park your car in a heated garage, this is less of a concern). The argument that the Prius always made is that it provides efficient motoring without requiring any special treatment or knowledge. You merely need to scrape the ice and snow off your Prius e-AWD and drive it to work.
However, e-AWD could also fairly be called all-wheel-drive-light. Toyota has managed to tuck an electric motor into the rear multilink suspension without compromising cargo space, but it does only produce 7 horsepower. At speeds above 70 kilometres an hour, it shuts off completely, and there is no torque-vectoring functionality to improve handling.
The Prius e-AWD thus drives for the most part like any other Prius. It accelerates fairly slowly, doesn’t have pretentious of sporty handling, and generally lulls the driver into driving in a relaxed and efficient manner. Which is exactly what it’s supposed to do.
There is, however, one happy advantage to the e-AWD system. On slippery surfaces, the relatively instant torque of the normal Prius’ electric motor makes it all too easy to spin the front tires with a bit too much throttle. On the standard low-rolling-resistance tires, the lack of traction can make it look like you’re gunning your engine.
The AWD variant smoothly accelerates without fuss, and is even a bit quick off the line initially, if you need to scoot forward and zipper merge. It's a little more pleasant in urban driving.
Fitted with proper winter tires, the Prius e-AWD handled wet and slushy city driving, hummed along the highway without issue, and zipped up to the top of a local ski hill in some truly miserable conditions. The hybrid drivetrain hummed away beneath the hood, burning as little fuel as possible. Average observed real-world consumption was just above 5.0 litres/100km, excellent given the low temperatures.
In short, this is a very sensible car, well suited to year-round commutes. It is no more exciting to drive than a normal Prius, but the very mild fuel economy penalty and slight 54kg weight gain mean that the all-wheel-drive system is a little added all-weather security for minimal compromise.
Yet, don’t be surprised if the Prius continues to lose market share to small crossovers, including its stablemate, the RAV4 Hybrid. Practical and pragmatic the Prius may be, but it’s still a bit odd. All-wheel-drive gives it more grip, but some consumers will probably be a little bit more concerned with how it looks parked in their driveway.
- Base price: $28,550
- Price as tested: $33,450
- Engine: 1.8-litre four-cylinder, AC motor
- Transmission/drive: CVT
- Fuel economy (litres/100km; city/hwy): 4.5/4.9
- Alternatives: Mitsubishi Outlander, Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid
Mild changes for the 2020 model year include a slightly less-fishy face, but the Prius is still an acquired taste. On the plus side, the unusual styling does at least eschew the general modern trend of fake grilles and overly aggressive fascias.
Gone are the white plastics that made the between-the-seats storage disturbingly like a bidet, replaced by shiny piano black trim. Over all, the Prius remains comfortable and spacious for its footprint, and comes with standard heated seats – higher grades get a heated steering wheel as well.
As mentioned, the Prius is hardly a rocketship. Performance, in this case, is more about how its fuel economy seems unperturbed by bad driver habits. You’ll get the best efficiency by driving smoothly – which the car will coach you to do – but you don’t need to treat the Prius in any special manner to enjoy visiting the gas station less often than a conventional car.
The dashboard in the Technology model is dominated by a huge touch screen, but all models come with at least a seven-inch touch screen and Apple CarPlay. Commendably, Toyota has made all safety-related driver assists standard across much of their model range. Collision mitigation, pedestrian detection, and lane-departure and blind-spot warnings are all standard.
As a hatchback with a large trunk opening, the Prius is surprisingly capable. Total space is 697 litres.
Adding low-speed traction without compromising Prius ideals of efficiency and useful packaging, the e-AWD model promises to be easy to live with. It’s an evolutionary change, rather than revolutionary, but it’s a great choice for Canadian commuters.
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