Now at mid-winter in the Merrimack Valley, when talk turns to vehicles with the added traction of all-wheel drive, we can expect to discuss obvious snow-fighters with big nubbly tires, elevated road clearance and high-riding cabins behind assertively vertical, plow-ahead front bumpers and grilles. You know, your average sport-utility vehicle – whether it’s a traditional SUV built on a pickup-truck frame, or a more mild-mannered crossover SUV constructed like a passenger car.
But the Toyota Prius? A snow-fighter?
Talk about mild mannered. The Prius is a low-riding lift-back sedan. Its principal aim is to transport people effectively while consuming as little gasoline as possible.
To meet its low-fuel-use mission, the Prius uses a hybrid-drive propulsion system that combines electric power with gasoline power, letting its gas engine and electric motor share motive duties. Rather than nubbly, max-grip treads, the Prius is more likely to wear easy-glide, low-rolling-resistance tires. It even has automatic louvers that close to limit the air flowing through its grille, when appropriate. That reduces wind drag, which aids fuel efficiency. The Toyota Prius wrings about 50 miles of travel out of every gallon of gasoline.
But a 2020 Prius I drove during a three-day ski weekend also handled icy, snowy, mountainous conditions with as much command and control as the situation required – which was a good amount.
More than that, when evaluating the Prius I recognized how the model has evolved from a unique high-mileage specialty car to an everyday automobile that offers a lot of advantages to drivers who appreciate a versatile vehicle.
“The Prius has matured,” concurred Ryan Horgan, vice president of Rockingham Motors in Salem, New Hampshire. The company operates the dealerships Rockingham Honda and Rockingham Toyota, located adjacently in Salem.
“It’s been with Toyota for 20 years. In the beginning it was a niche car that people sought out if they were environmentally conscious,” Horgan said. “Now it has blended in with the rest of Toyota’s lineup.”
I see the Toyota Prius serving as a low-cost yet distinctive, reliable and highly functional transporter for empty nesters, college students, singles and young couples. It travels well, providing comfort, abundant cargo capacity, and easy maneuverability. It adapts to diverse demands, from maximizing space for bulky luggage, to making ample room for a couple of extra riders in the back seat. And no matter how far the excursion or what type of load it carries, the Prius gets there with fuel to spare.
The Prius version that also gave me winter security did so with all-wheel drive.
Ordinarily the Prius is a front-wheel-drive passenger carrier. But since last year Toyota also has offered the all-wheel-drive variation. For an additional $1,400 above the price of a comparable front-drive Prius, Toyota adds a second electric motor to turn the rear wheels. A computerized control system activates the rear-wheel power mechanism when it senses that extra traction is needed, and only at speeds below about 40 miles per hour. Otherwise, the all-wheel-drive Prius AWD-e operates the same as a high-mileage front-drive version, with its gas engine and primary electric motor sharing the task of turning the front wheels alone.
That arrangement means the Prius AWD-e model sacrifices only a small amount of gas mileage to gain four-wheel traction when it’s most needed: when starting from a stop in snow, and when trudging through it at the moderate speeds that snowy roads reduce us to. The combined, city/highway fuel-economy rating for the Prius AWD-e is 50 miles per gallon. That’s just four percent lower than the 52 mpg rating of a front-drive Prius. The all-wheel-drive hybrid starts a list price of $27,890. It rises as high as $30,330 for a top-end version loaded with features.
“For us, all-wheel drive is a huge plus,” said Horgan of Rockingham Toyota. In the Merrimack Valley, “it makes the Prius more capable than it’s ever been. Prius buyers get the benefit of all-wheel drive so they don’t have to worry about the weather.”
In real-world driving during my three-day winter getaway, the 2020 Prius AWD-e achieved better fuel economy than its official rating. I average 53 mpg over 450 miles of mixed driving.
Some of those miles involved snow-slogging.
One evening I parked the Prius beyond the edge of an inn’s driveway, bumping it over a plow ridge at the driveway’s margin and leaving it on crusted snow. That night a storm dropped about six inches of wet, heavy snow. Worse, by the time I set off the next morning, the new snow had been plowed from the driveway. The ridge between my parked Prius and the drive now was more formidable than it had been the night before. But the all-wheel-drive hybrid car stepped over it smoothly, without a grumble or stumble.
By the time I was underway, roads had been plowed and treated. But some light snow still fell. And slush pools and ice patches are always a worry. The Prius AWD-e cruised smoothly and competently.
But the Prius did more than gracefully tackle the winter conditions that most of us limit our driving to. It also served as a comfortable, helpful and adaptable travel companion. Two of us made the 200-mile drive to our weekend destination. The car’s split back seat was folded flat, creating abundant cargo space beneath the Prius’ back hatch. It easily handled a few travel bags, two bulky sleeping bags in sacks, two sets of snow shoes and poles, a big food cooler, and bags of other supplies.
For the 200-mile return trip, we added a family member as a passenger – the sort of reshuffling that commonly occurs during group getaways. Our new rider had ample room on the shorter portion of the split back seat, while the reconfigured cargo floor still easily handled all the same gear and supplies we had brought along, plus the two travel bags our new passenger added.
In recent years the Prius has dropped in popularity. In large part that’s because many more high-mileage hybrid-drive cars are available today. Toyota itself sells some popular alternatives, including hybrid versions of the compact Corolla sedan and the RAV4 sport-utility vehicle.
You can get all-wheel drive by purchasing the RAV4 Hybrid. But it’s priced about $1,500 higher than the Prius AWD-e. And although the RAV4 Hybrid technically provides more interior volume, I find the space inside the Prius more usable.
By adding four-wheel traction to a comfortable and spacious interior, large and flexible cargo floor, and exemplary fuel economy, the Toyota Prius AWD-e becomes a car that a lot of people can appreciate, for a lot of reasons.
Jeffrey Zygmont is an author of fiction, non-fiction and poetry books, and a long-time auto writer. Contact him at www.jeffreyzygmont.com.
2020 Toyota Prius AWD-e
Vehicle type: 4-door, 5-passenger, all-wheel-drive hybrid-powered liftback
Price range: $27,890 to $30,330 (plus options)
Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles basic warranty; 5 years/60,000 miles powertrain warranty; 5 years/unlimited miles corrosion warranty; 2 years/25,000 miles free scheduled maintenance and roadside assistance
Drive system: 1.8-liter I4 gasoline engine, 71-hp front electric motor; 7-hp rear electric motor
Net power: 128 horsepower
Transmission: continuously variable automatic
Fuel economy: 52 mpg city; 48 mpg highway
Wheelbase: 106 inches
Length: 180 inches
Width: 69 inches
Height: 58 inches
Weight: 3,210 pounds
Fuel capacity: 10.6 gallons
Turning circle: 33.5 feet