2020 Toyota Prius AWD-e review: Child’s play – Roadshow

2020 Toyota Prius XLE AWD-e

A face only a mother could love.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

Toyota’s Prius is the OG hybrid. It’s been saving fuel around the world for nearly a quarter century. But this gasoline-electric car hasn’t necessarily been a great choice for economy-minded motorists in regions subject to wintertime ice and snow. Rectifying this, the automaker introduced a Prius with all-wheel drive, a variant that gives up very little efficiency in exchange for enhanced traction in sloppy conditions.

Like

  • Punchy around-town performance
  • Insane real-world fuel economy
  • Spacious interior

Don’t Like

  • Disappointing dynamics, even for a hybrid
  • Gets winded on the highway
  • Ineffective lane-centering

Without even trying, I’ve averaged nearly 58 miles per gallon in an XLE-trim AWD-e model, which is, frankly, astonishing. What makes that score even more impressive is it includes plenty of interstate driving at high speeds, a situation where hybrids are typically out of their element. These vehicles tend to be more efficient around town, where frequent stops and starts enable them to recuperate energy that would normally be wasted.

According to the EPA’s nebbish number-crunchers, this all-wheel-drive gasoline-electric hatchback should deliver 52 miles per gallon city and 48 mpg highway. Combined, it’s rated at an even 50. On paper at least, this makes the AWD-e model slightly less economical than other versions of the Prius. For instance, the extra-miserly L Eco variant stickers at a whopping 56 mpg combined.

The heart of this car’s super-efficient drivetrain is a 1.8-liter I4. In normal use, this engine is fine, but it sounds like a piece of farm equipment when working hard, sending little tingles into the floor pan as it strains to move the Prius. As in other Toyota hybrids, it’s matched to a pair of integral motor-generators, which help provide a total system output of 121 horsepower and around 105 pound-feet of torque — adequate figures, if only just.

The Prius’ engine may not be the most refined or potent powerplant ever built, but it’s fine in everyday use. Thanks to electric torque, the car has surprising around-town punch, though it becomes quite winded at highway speeds, gasping for breath at wide-open throttle as you try outrun the tractor-trailer rapidly filling the rearview mirror.

All-wheel-drive models also feature a rear-mounted motor that powers the aft tires, bringing 7 hp and 40 lb-ft to the party. In normal driving, this arrangement is totally seamless. You’ll never notice the all-wheel-drive system working at all, though the way it actually operates is a little unconventional. That rear motor lends a hand when taking off from a stop, powering the aft tires up to 6 mph. After that, it only kicks in when extra traction is required and only at speeds up to 43 mph. It’s there to provide additional grip, as dictated by driving conditions, without reducing fuel efficiency.

Working with the engine and motors, AWD-e variants of the Prius feature a 6.5 ampere-hour nickel-metal hydride battery, a less-advanced design than the lithium-ion chemistry used in front-drive models. This change supposedly provides greater resilience in extreme temperatures, since all-wheel-drive variants are more likely to be used in places that experience frigid weather.

This car’s braking performance is good, though it’s not quite as seamless as in other hybrids. The pedal is initially light under regenerative braking, but then it gets a bit firmer once the pads and rotors come into play, the transition between these two modes is a little more obvious, a touch less smooth than in some competing models, though it’s not terrible.

Like other vehicles built on the automaker’s TNGA platform, which includes everything from the Camry and Avalon sedans to Toyota’s Highlander SUV, the Prius carries itself well. Yeah, in this application the ride is a bit floaty, but it’s also refined, with no vibration or coarseness from the road being telegraphed to the cabin, even when traversing heinous surfaces. Nothing about this structure feels flimsy, crude or cheap.

2020 Toyota Prius XLE AWD-e

Based on how it looks, the Prius’ interior was probably designed by aliens.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

The Prius isn’t a driver’s car, so don’t expect Porsche Cayman levels of steering precision; the wheel is light in your hands and vaguer than US obscenity laws. My test model’s 15-inch wheels are fitted with a set of Bridgestone Ecopia tires. Undoubtedly, they help deliver that impressive real-world fuel economy, though they feel like they’re made of wood, quite stiff and providing little feel.

Lane-departure alert with steering assist is standard on all 2020 Prius models, part of the Toyota Safety Sense P suite of driver aids. This feature, which requires you to keep your grubby paws on the tiller at all times, is nice to have. It will gently nudge the car toward the middle of the lane if you happen to kiss one of the lines, but unlike proper lane-centering systems, the vehicle will ping-pong from one marker to the other if you don’t make minor course corrections to keep it in the middle. Automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control and automatic high beams are standard equipment in the Prius as well.

Matching the Prius’ alien exterior design is an equally unusual interior. Its dashboard is straight-up bizarre, ostensibly weird for the sake of being weird, with no instrument cluster in front of the driver. Instead, you keep track of speed and other vital vehicle functions on a screen at the base of the windshield or via an available head-up display, which is clear and easily adjusted to suit different-sized drivers.

2020 Toyota Prius XLE AWD-e

This car’s fuel efficiency may be stellar, but its infotainment system is mediocre at best.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

Mounted in the center of my tester’s interior and surrounded by piano-black trim, which attracts an endless amount of dust and fingerprints, is a 7-inch touchscreen. It’s home to yet another middling Toyota infotainment system, though Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa compatibility are standard across the range. Android Auto is, however, conspicuously absent.

My XLE tester also has a Qi wireless charging tray, blind-spot monitoring with cross-traffic alert and parking sensors. Handy stuff. Heated exterior mirrors and rain-sensing wipers are also included.

The Prius’ tulip-shaped electronic shifter sprouts from the bottom of the center stack. It’s oddly satisfying and annoying to use at the same time. It has a nice tactile feel, but the separate park button is fiddly and the car beeps annoyingly inside when you shift into reverse. Like, yeah, I know the car is in reverse; I literally just shifted it. I’m not sure why Toyota thought this was necessary but it’s definitely bothersome.

2020 Toyota Prius XLE AWD-e

This body was built to cheat the wind, which undoubtedly helps the Prius return stellar fuel economy.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

If you don’t mind its unusual layout, the Prius’ interior is pleasant enough, constructed largely of soft plastic embossed with a coarse texture. The SofTex leatherette-covered seats are comfortable front and rear, plus there’s plenty of cargo space, up to 62.7 cubic feet with the aft backrests folded down, which is about 3 cubes less than front-drive versions offer because of the additional AWD hardware.

The Prius AWD-e comes in two trim levels, LE and XLE. With the $800 Advanced Technology Package, which includes a head-up display and adaptive front lights among other things, plus a smattering of additional minor options like door edge guards and a rear bumper applique, my Prius review unit checks out for a relatively modest $31,757, including $955 in destination fees. That’s not much more than an optionless LE model, which can be had for right around $28,000. Of course, if you don’t need all-wheel drive, the bargain-basement Prius L Eco model is about 3 grand more affordable than that.

The availability of all-wheel drive in the Prius is a welcome addition. Four-corner traction broadens the car’s appeal to eco-minded motorists living in Maine, Michigan, Minnesota or anywhere else that receives the wrath of Old Man Winter. If you want a vehicle that’s stupidly efficient and likely as reliable as a blacksmith’s anvil — and if you don’t care about things like speed or style — this is the car for you.

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