Behind the Wheel
2020 Toyota Prius AWD-e Review: Reliable on the road, more capable than you'd think in the snow
When the first Toyota Prius came out twenty years ago, it was for environmentalist wackos and early-adopter do-gooders who didn't mind driving a weird car (according to cynics), and actually did so proudly.
The Prius was (and is) odd-looking compared to other autos because it's so focused on aerodynamics. Everything on this car is made to maximize fuel economy and, if you drive a long way to work every day, it's worth a look just for the financial benefits alone. That said, if you like owning a big truck and driving everywhere by yourself even though you never haul anything, maybe this isn't the car for you.
There are a lot of Prii on the streets of New England these days.Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sakes U.S.A. Inc.
My test unit was an XLE AWD-e trim, the highest in the Prius lineup. With an $800 Advanced Technology Pack that added a heads-up display and slightly better headlights, it priced out at $31,005.
During my week test driving, I felt a little conspicuous in the thing because of its looks alone, and I live in New England which is full of Prii — and yes, that's the official plural of Prius. Toyota had a contest. It's in the dictionary and everything.
The Prius is so unique looking that everyone knows how green you are and, probably, who you voted for. I wanted to put a Trump sticker on the thing solely because it would confuse people. It'd be like putting a Bernie sticker on your pickup and then rolling coal. Confusing and, potentially, hilarious.
Trolling and visual weirdness aside, the Prius is what I've known it to be for at least ten years: a normal car. Mostly. It has four doors and heated seats (standard in the XLE trim), absolutely enormous windows and great visibility thanks to the high roofline, Apple CarPlay is standard for 2020, and beginning last year there's an all-wheel drive variant too. Toyota calls it the Prius AWD-e.
The car was tested on the snow and on bare roads for this review.Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sakes U.S.A. Inc.
It's a standard front-wheel drive car but at the back there's a standalone electric, magnet-less rear motor that will power the rear wheels from a stop up to six mph. If more rear wheel torque is needed because of conditions, it can keep driving the wheels up to 43 mph.
Naturally, this means the system runs in front-wheel drive mode most of the time, but the rear wheels get a little kick of power when traction-needs demand it — or just to improve fuel economy with the electric motor like a normal Prius would. On dry roads, you'll never even notice it. It feels like any other Prius. The engine turns off when coasting to a stoplight, and kicks on again once you start moving.
At very low speeds, the car is capable of driving itself in full EV mode and then the engine (an ultra-efficient 1.8-liter four-cylinder unit making a whopping 96 horsepower) takes over. Unsurprisingly, it isn't fast. In total, with gas and electric combined, the car puts out 121 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque.
In real-world driving conditions, the Prius AWD-e will be in front-wheel drive mode most of the time. After testing on relatively dry pavement in New England, I went to Utah to test it on the ice and snow. On the highways from Salt Lake City to Midway, by way of Park City, the model was easy to drive with no thrills or reason to exert its tech.
The interior of the Prius is made to be lightweight but is relatively well appointed.Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sakes U.S.A. Inc.
Out on the snow course Toyota built at the former home of the Salt Lake City Olympics Nordic Racing facility, it was a different story. As promised, torque was sent to the rear wheels as winter slipperiness increased, and the all-wheel drive system kept things under control with surprising ease. The transition to all-wheel drive is seamless and more invisible than some of the systems on Toyota's SUVs.
The AWD version weighs in at just 3,220 pounds- that's 210 pounds heavier than the Prius base model.
As the Prius is a hatchback, the rear cargo area is absolutely massive. A Costco run was easy to load and there was plenty of space left over.
Rear visibility is atrocious thanks to the split rear window that looks huge from the outside but is sloped so aggressively (again, thanks to aerodynamic concerns) that it is tiny from the inside.
The car comes standard with Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa compatibility as well as a USB port. The standard 7-inch infotainment screen in the XLE model is too small, with a lot of space wasted by unnecessary buttons around the outside and the unbranded stereo is pretty terrible. There's also a dearth of sound dampening, likely to reduce weight and, again, improve fuel economy.
The car, as tested, comes standard with Amazon Alexa and Apple CarPlay compatibility.Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sakes U.S.A. Inc.
Upgraded versions of the screen and audio system, and additional USB are not available in the all-wheel drive model like it is in the traditional Prius.
But both the heated seats and heated steering wheel work excellently, which is good news for colder climes. My XLE had automatic high beams and windshield wipers, which are increasingly becoming standard on lower-trim vehicles. And there is a full safety suite including automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, lane departure assist, and blindspot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert. Toyota puts most of this in all the cars it sells now and it's worth calling out and praising them for. Car companies that aren't on the bandwagon here are going to be left behind soon.
I don't know that I would buy a Prius, even if I had a long commute. The RAV4 Hybrid appeals to me a bit more and I like the high seating position and, let's be honest, it's much more subtle in its good-fuel-economy-having-ness. But if you don't care if other people know you care about the environment or, more likely, if you want them to know, the Prius remains at the top of its class.