By Eric Peters
How many vehicles with all-wheel drive average 50 miles per gallon? Not many.
Very few even manage 35 mpg as best case on the highway — usually just barely.
Cue the exception: the new AWD-equipped Toyota Prius. It exceeds 50 mpg in the city, averages 50 mpg and won’t get stuck in the driveway when it snows.
What It Is
Toyota took the Prius hatchback and added all-wheel drive.
An additional electric motor drives the rear wheels (the regular Prius is front-wheel drive) at speeds up to about 43 mph whenever the system detects slippage upfront. The system automatically disengages above 43 mph (and whenever front wheels aren’t slipping) to conserve energy and fuel.
Otherwise, it’s the same as the regular Prius.
It costs $26,380 to start for the LE Eco trim. The same Prius in the same trim with front-wheel drive starts at $23,770 and tops out $28,820 for a loaded XLE.
The Prius itself carries over largely unchanged, but the available AWD system gives it additional capability and something none of its primary rivals — models like the Hyundai Ioniq, Kia Niro and the new Honda Insight — offer.
There are other hybrid models available with AWD, but none of them are dedicated hybrids like the Prius (and the Ioniq and the Niro), meaning they weren’t designed to be hybrids from the wheels up but rather converted into hybrids after the fact. Take, for example, the hybrid version of the Toyota RAV4 crossover.
These models do get better mileage than the non-hybrid versions of the cars they’re based on, but none even approach the 50-plus average mpg capability of dedicated hybrids like the Prius and its direct competitors.
It goes very far on a gallon — and continues going when it snows.
There’s a minimal mpg penalty compared with the FWD Prius.
The hatchback layout is space-efficient and practical.
What’s Not So Good
There’s no additional horsepower to offset the additional weight of the AWD system.
The AWD Prius gets a little more ground clearance (5.3 inches) than the FWD Prius (5.1) inches, but it’s a negligible difference. More clearance would definitely help in the snow.
The Prius (both versions) has less back-seat legroom and cargo capacity than the previous generation.
Under the Hood
The AWD Prius is powered some of the time by the same 1.8-liter gas engine as the FWD Prius, but it gets a second electric motor to power the rear wheels — also some of the time.
There is also a different (nickel-metal hydride) 600 volt battery pack. The FWD version uses a lithium-ion battery pack.
As mentioned, the rear electric motor powers the rear wheels when the system detects slipping upfront, so it works pretty much like the AWD systems in other cars — with one difference. To save gas, the system automatically cuts off at speeds over 43 mph on the assumption that if you’re moving at that speed, low traction is probably not a problem.
Mileage is 52 mpg city, 48 mpg highway and 50 mpg combined.
That’s a bit less than the 58 mpg city and 53 mpg highway (and 56 mpg combined) that the FWD Prius can deliver, but it’s still vastly better than anything else with AWD can deliver.
On the Road
The AWD Prius drives like the FWD Prius — just not as quickly.
It carries about 200 pounds of extra curb weight (3,220 pounds versus 3,010 pounds), and that increases the max-effort zero-to-60 mph run to about 11 seconds. The FWD takes about 10.5 seconds.
FWD rivals like the Ioniq, the Kona and the new Insight hybrid are quicker, but they might not get out of the driveway if there’s snow on the ground. The AWD Prius probably will.
At the Curb
When Toyota redesigned the Prius, the object seems to have been to make it look less stodgy. And that was definitely met.
It looks downright racy now, with slashes and pleats abounding. But it is less roomy.
The slicker profile comes at the cost of both back-seat legroom and cargo capacity. Legroom is 33.4 inches now versus 36 inches for the previous Prius, and cargo capacity is 27.4 cubic feet now versus 39.6 cubic feet previously.
Still, it has about as much room inside as its FWD-only rivals (and much more cargo room than the Insight, a sedan that has a 15.1-cubic-foot trunk).
Be aware that the higher LE and XLE trims come with larger 17-inch wheels. Compared with the base trim LE Eco, which comes with 15-inch wheels that have less rolling resistance, these will cost you about 3-4 mpg.
The Bottom Line
The Prius may not get going as quickly, but it can get going in conditions that keep others from going anywhere at all.