Do you really need AWD in a Toyota Prius? Probably not, but the Japanese brand is offering this option anyway for the few that will want it. The Prius remains the most recognisable hybrid vehicle on our roads and has been much improved in this revised guise. There are smarter looks, a nicer interior, more equipment and extra safety kit. Otherwise, things are much as before, a clever hybrid powertrain delivering a set of efficiency returns that emphasise this car's superiority over comparably-priced diesel rivals.
The Prius was the car that in its first two decades of life re-shaped the global automotive landscape, bringing hybrid technology into the mainstream market, while focusing the motor industry's attention on the way its products could be cleaner and more efficient. This Toyota did all that and in this rejuvenated MK4 model guise, aims to continue to set those standards, building upon quite a heritage of ingenuity. At its original launch in 2016, this MK4 model aimed to widen its appeal beyond enviro-conscious folk, hence a smoother drivetrain and extra interior space. Now it's improved its safety credentials and added in the option of 4WD. 'You look smart: you should drive a Prius', Toyota's advertising tells us and around the globe, millions of drivers are doing just that.
It's difficult to imagine why a typical Prius buyer might want AWD unless he or she happened to live in an outlying country area. But Toyota had to develop this E-Four AWD-I ('All-Wheel Drive - intelligent') set-up to pair with this hybrid unit in its RAV4 SUV, so thought it might as well offer it here. AWD-I equips the Prius with an extra electric motor on the rear axle, powered by the hybrid battery. The 4WD system automatically engages to provide additional drive to the rear wheels when pulling away on slippery surfaces - at speeds up to 6mph. At higher speeds - between 6 and 44mph - it can if necessary also come into play, transferring torque to the rear axle when sensors detect a loss of grip. Operation is automatic and on-demand and you can monitor it via a selectable dash-top display. Most of the time though, this set-up will be redundant because it doesn't operate in normal driving conditions, or under braking. Still, at least it doesn't add a load of extra weight to the drivetrain: that's because, unlike mechanical AWD systems, the E-Four design needs no driveshaft between the front and rear axles and has no centre differential. Otherwise, it's standard self-charging Prius recipe. The Prius hybrid powertrain has been mated to a 1.8-litre petrol powertrain ever since 2009, but this particular VVT-I unit is very different to that used in the pre-2016 MK3 model and works in partnership with a more responsive CVT auto gearbox. These days, the hybrid technology uses a more effective battery and a clever heat recovery system which combine to enable the electric motor to cut in 60% more frequently than it did with the previous pre-2016-era MK3 model.
The Prius has always been styled to make an eco-statement - and nothing's changed there. However, for this revised fourth generation model, Toyota's taken the opportunity to give the design a cleaner look. At the front, slimmer bi-LED headlight units have been introduced, helping create a stronger horizontal line that emphasises the car's wide and planted stance. There are also revisions to the bonnet and the front bumper, plus smarter combination lamps at the rear. Inside, Toyota has tried to improve the perception of quality, improving the upholstery and adding a piano black treatment to the fascia. The Toyota Touch 2 multimedia system has been improved with the seven-inch touchscreen now engineered to respond to pinch, flick and swipe gestures like those used on smartphones. As before, the cabin continues with the theme of mounting all the useful displays and information in the centre of the cockpit rather than putting the dials directly in front of the driver. Instead of an instrument binnacle behind the steering wheel, the speed and other info is shown on an upper information display mounted just below the front windscreen. This gives a much greater sense of space inside the cabin than most rivals. In this AWD variant, the E-Four drivetrain cuts boot space by 45-litres, though you do still get a flat floor for ease of use. But the boot is still 457-litres in size and if extra space is needed, the rear seats can split 60/40 and fold down.
The AWD version of the Prius comes only with upper-spec 'Business Edition Plus' trim and costs around £29,000, which represents a premium of around £1,600 over an equivalently-trimmed front-driven model. There's lots of standard kit, including 17-inch alloy wheels with a contrast black and dark grey finish. Plus this variant's colour head-up display features turn-by-turn navigation directions. Also at this point in the range, you get a parking assist system with front and rear sensors, plus a thumping JBL premium sound system. Plus of course you get all the features common to mid-range 'Business Edition' trim, including heated front seats, a Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Cross Traffic Alert, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, automatic wipers, smart entry, a leather-covered steering wheel and soft-touch trim for the upper door sections. Options include Simple Intelligent Park Assist with front and rear parking sensors. Safety-wise, there's a standard 'Toyota Safety Sense' package. With this, you get a 'Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection' autonomous braking system, 'RSA' 'Road Sign Assist', an 'Automatic High Beam' set-up, a 'Lane Departure Alert with steering control' 'Sway warning' feature and an 'Adaptive Cruise Control' system that keeps you a safe distance from the car ahead and automatically regulates your cruising speed, slowing you down or speeding you up with the traffic flow. There's also a 'Blind Spot Monitor' which warns you on the move if you're about to dangerously pull out to change lane or overtake; and a 'Rear Cross Traffic Alert' system warns you of oncoming vehicles when you're reversing out of a parking space.
For an AWD Prius model fitted with 17-inch wheels the WLTP figures are 58.7mpg on the combined cycle and 108g/km of CO2. An equivalent front-driven Prius manages 59.6mpg on the combined cycle and 104g/km of CO2 on 17-inch rims. To help you to put these stats into some kind of perspective, we'll give you some competitor reference here. A front-driven Prius model's most direct rival, the Hyundai IONIQ hybrid, manages 62.8mpg on the combined cycle and 102g/km of WLTP-rated CO2. Or, to put it another way, that Hyundai's about 10% less efficient than the most frugal version of this Toyota. Which means that this car is going to work out as a very efficient choice, especially for business users concerned about their Benefit-in-Kind taxation status. The Prius' BiK rating varies between 21 and 24%, depending on variant chosen. The running cost clincher here might come when you start to consider the savings a Prius will deliver for you when it comes to servicing expenditure, thanks to the low maintenance requirements built into the Hybrid Synergy Drive system. As part of this, there's no starter motor or alternator to go wrong, no drive belts to break, a maintenance-free timing chain, no particulate filter to get clogged up with diesel fumes and of course, thanks to the CVT auto gearbox, no clutch either.
Toyota's Prius continues to make real world sense. Yes, even in this AWD form. It's a car you can justify buying, even if you're not trying to make some kind of environmental statement. True, it isn't cheap but it's decent value for what you get, especially if you compare against comparably-specified high-efficiency diesel rivals featuring engine technology that by comparison, dates back to the Ark. In our view, a Prius doesn't really need the embellishment of AWD: or Plug-in technology; or an MPV body. The standard front-driven self-charging model is, in our view anyway, still the one you'd ideally want. Though its character hasn't fundamentally changed, these days, it's a little smarter, a little more alert, a little more user-friendly and a little more efficient. A little more Prius? If that's your perspective, we'd find it hard to disagree.