Leave it to Toyota to reinvent itself in a category that it sort of created in the first place: the hybrid.
Now, hybrid power sources have been around since the 1700s, but back then the internal combustion engine (ICE) was combined with steam power. The hybrid car we are familiar with today still involves an ICE but it’s now paired with an electric motor and battery pack. And the vehicle that brought this technology of efficiency into our American consciousness was none other than the…Honda Insight.
The what? Exactly. You thought a different vehicle was the original hybrid, didn’t you? One with a boomerang-shaped profile, perhaps? The Toyota Prius arrived in the U.S. just after the Insight, and would ultimately change the course of gas-sipping history.
Whatever beef early adopters had with the Insight, fuel-conscious consumers gravitated instead toward the Toyota Prius – especially after it got a redesign for 2004 that included styling that has become synonymous with the word “hybrid.” More than 4.3 million global sales later, the Prius remains the most recognized nameplate in fueling freedom. Those numbers, by the way, don’t include the full Prius family, which extends to the Prius c, Prius Prime, and Prius v.
To be honest, not much is inherently different between this year’s updated Prius model and the previous one. Still in its fourth generation, the 2019 Prius is considered a mild refresh, but even the slightest of updates can leave a notable impression.
Available in two new colors – Supersonic Red and Electric Storm Blue – the vehicle’s exterior receives redesigned headlights, fog lights, and taillights as well as new front and rear bumpers, but the interior would appear almost untouched to the non-fanatic. There are changes, however minute.
First, the white plastic trim that radiated throughout the cabin has been replaced with piano black pieces. Although the eye-searing color contrast that was in abundance on the center console and steering wheel are gone, the replacement dark plastic panels also happen to be dust bunny party zones.
No complaints arise with regard to the repositioned front-seat heater controls. For better ergonomics, they have been moved from next to the shift lever (i.e., away from the driver) to a lower, more accessible slot between the cupholders and wireless device charging panel.
Also, the trim levels have been given names that align with the rest of the Toyota brand. Gone are Two, Three, and Four. Now the Prius lineup consists of L Eco, LE, XLE, and Limited.
There are more updates for the 2019 Prius, and the most significant among them is the one you can’t see.
Coming to America
More than 20 years after its domestic market debut in Japan, the popular Prius is now available with all-wheel drive (AWD). Offered on Japan-only Priuses since 2016, North American buyers can finally opt for the drive system starting with the 2019 model (LE and XLE trim levels only).
When asked why the two-decade wait for AWD, especially considering almost 18 million square miles of the Earth’s surface is covered in snow, Toyota mentioned something about consumer demand, albeit meekly as if not entirely convinced of its own answer. As for why AWD is offered only with LE and XLE trims? Because they comprise the majority of Prius sales, the company replied.
Nevertheless, AWD-e is here and the “e” designation – clumsy to say with any sort of repetition – refers to Toyota’s first independent electric, magnet-less rear motor. That drawn-out descriptor means the new Prius requires no center differential or front-to-rear driveshaft, which makes the system about 25% smaller than AWD systems in other Toyota vehicles. Also, having no magnets equates to decreased vehicle drag, which further improves fuel economy.
AWD systems, however, invariably add weight because they add more components, which reduces fuel economy. Yet Toyota estimates the Prius AWD-e to get 50 mpg in combined driving (52 city/48 highway). Those numbers are pretty close to the front-wheel-drive (FWD) Prius, unless we’re talking about the gas snob Prius L Eco (rated at 56 mpg combined).
All 2019 Priuses utilize the brand’s overarching Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive system, which in the Prius remains a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine combined with two motor/generators. A continuously variable transmission is standard for all as well. The carryover powertrain’s output is 121 horsepower and 105 lb.-ft. of torque, but could vary on the Prius AWD-e. Toyota did not release further specifics but suggested any adjustments would be slight.
With underpinnings all but the same between the FWD and AWD Prius models, one would assume the drive experience to be identical as well. Yes, and no.
Under ideal driving conditions, the Prius AWD-e will operate like the FWD model. With on-demand AWD, there is no button, switch, or toggle for a driver to use to select their preferred drive system. Instead, AWD-e will function only during specific scenarios.
From a complete stop and up to 6 mph, AWD-e powers the rear wheels to propel the Prius forward. If your commute is the sunshine-on-cue streets of Hollywood, then FWD action is all you’ll get.
But if you find yourself where precipitation of any sort (rain, snow, mud) comes into contact with the roads your tires are traveling upon – and should vehicle sensors indicate a loss of traction like wheel spin – then the AWD-e system will reawaken to control torque transfer between the wheels to keep you shiny side up.
The all-wheel assistance will automatically activate as needed at speeds up to 43 mph, a velocity at which performance and efficiency decline, according to Toyota engineers. It’s at the lower speeds where you’ll most need, and have the most fun with, the Prius’ AWD-e system, anyway.
On a crisp winter day in Kohler, Wisconsin, Toyota created a snowy, icy road course specifically for our test-driving research. More adventure exercise than racing circuit, the short track included a hill with a 6% grade, a curved backstretch, a speed bump, a 90-degree corner, and S-curves. Equipped with keys to a selection of FWD and AWD vehicles, I took the small arsenal of pre-production Priuses to task.
Being able to drive both iterations back-to-back was eye-opening. On the backstretch, the FWD versions felt harried when hurried, and approaching the sharp corner begged for early and sometimes hard braking before ultimately oversteering into the turn.
Taking the Prius AWD-e through the same section, it presented a poise the FWD version did not, equally transferring its confidence to the driver. I was able to drive faster, brake later, and still hold a tighter angle of approach into that corner.
Same with the slalom esses. Where the FWD model would slow down, maybe get stuck, express gobs of wheel spin, and then silently scream at you via instrument cluster warning lights, the AWD hastened, helped you correct your deliberate power slides, and gave you something to smile about other than fuel savings.
Although the test cars were wearing their stock all-season shoes (not ideal in actual wintery conditions), the AWD-e system is no doubt the missing link to having the most fun in a Prius, ever. I even drove the course again, multiple times, just to make sure.
Does the Prius Still Matter?
No leader is immune to a downfall. Markets are volatile, regardless of industry, and, to be frank, the Prius’ best years in the U.S. were between 2005 and 2015, when it annually experienced six-figure sales. Peak Prius was actually achieved in 2007, when 181,000 units were sold. In 2018, Toyota moved only 49,534 of its mainstay Prius liftback model here in the States.
How have the mighty fallen? Consistently low gas prices and unexpectedly insatiable consumer appetite for crossovers is how. Small cars (fuel-efficient or not) are almost all but forgotten.
Still, more than 17 million new vehicles were sold in the U.S. in 2018. They were not all trucks or SUVs. Cars still sell, and the selection of hybrid and electric vehicles grows every year. The Prius, for all its longevity, will continue to be the poster child for hypermilers, but its audience is no longer niche.
Starting at $24,700 (including a $930 destination fee) for the L Eco and $27,310 for the LE AWD-e, the 2019 Prius arrived in dealerships in January 2019.