by Frank A. Aukofer

With the 2021 XLE AWD-e and other hybrid models, the Toyota Prius is coming of the age of majority. It is in its 21st year and continues as the favorite among gasoline-electric vehicles in the United States, with a total of 2.4 million sold.

When Toyota decided in the late 1990s that Americans were ready for a hybrid, the company gave automotive journalists a taste of the future by lending them right-hand drive Priuses built in Japan, where motorists drive on the left — or correct, as the British like to say — side of the road.

The 2001 Prius came with a 75-horsepower four-cylinder gasoline engine working in concert with a 44-hp electric motor. Together they delivered an EPA fuel economy rating of 52 miles to the gallon in the city and 48 on the highway. City numbers were higher because urban driving made more use of the electric motor.

As this column reported then, customers lined up in droves, with some waiting six months for delivery. Buyers included celebrities, environmental activists, and citizens looking for old-time virtues of cleanliness and economy.

It carried a fairly stiff price for an economy car then of $20,855. Even at that, Toyota at first lost money on every sale. It was one of only two hybrid cars on the market. The other was the Honda Insight, a streamlined two-seater that used a different hybrid system.

Over the years, the Prius proved its mettle, toting up solid credentials for quality of construction, low maintenance, long battery life, and anvil-like reliability.

Now, for 2021, Toyota adds all-wheel drive. It’s called the Prius AWD-e Hybrid. Tested for this review was the SEL trim level, which carries a base price of $30,570, including the destination charge. With an advanced technology package that included a color head-up display, adaptive front lighting, and auto-leveling headlights, the bottom-line sticker came to $31,629.

Standard equipment includes modern safety equipment of automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-keeping warning and assist, and adaptive cruise control.

The AWD-e still carries some of the funky styling and other touches that have always been a Prius characteristic. With its split rear window and additional busy styling, along with the rear headrests, the AWE-e has severely limited rear vision through the inside rear-view mirror. So it’s essential to adjust the outside mirrors correctly to eliminate the big blind spots.

Overall, however, the AWE-e now resembles a handsome fastback with a rear hatch that provides access to 25 cubic feet of cargo space. It also continues with the Prius signature instruments nestling in the top center of the dash, perhaps to make it easier to build this Prius with either left-hand or right-hand drive for different markets.

But most drivers would likely prefer not to have to look toward the middle of the dash while underway. On the tested SEL, the head-up display negated some of that with hybrid system information.

Despite the location, the instruments and the seven-inch center infotainment screen are easy to decipher. The tested SEL came with SXM satellite radio, Bluetooth capability, USB connectivity, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa compatibility.

There’s plenty of space for four passengers, though as usual, the center-rear unfortunate gets disrespected. But the AWD-e has decent ride quality, so complaints from the back seat should be pretty rare.

The power train is quintessentially Prius: a 1.8-liter gasoline engine mated to a 71-hp electric motor. Overall, the system delivers 121 hp and 120 lb-ft of torque. A separate small electric motor drives the AWE-e’s rear wheels. Toyota’s smooth continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), which uses planetary gears instead of the more typical belts and pulleys, transmits the power.

On the highway, the tester cruised serenely, with little intrusion of mechanical, road, or wind noise. The exception was during hard acceleration, which elicited loud grating noises from the gasoline engine.

The AWD-e is no stoplight drag racer, taking nearly 10 seconds to reach 60 mph from rest. But it feels responsive in traffic and, likely because of the modest power common to most Priuses, encourages drivers to hammer their little hybrids to the limit. 

Every motorist has seen a Prius driver bolt from a stoplight, pedal to the metal, to stay ahead of traffic — and never mind the cost in fuel economy. That’s the way it goes.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Toyota Prius XLE AWD-e Hybrid four-door hatchback.
  • Engine/motor: 1.8-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine with 71 hp electric motor; total system 121 hp, 120 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Continuously variable automatic with all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 15 feet.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 93/25 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,300 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 51/47/49 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $30,570.
  • Price as tested: $31,629.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

Photos (c) Toyota