Mountain Wheels: Toyota’s hybrid Prius and Highlander offer frugal winter travel options

Mountain Wheels: Toyota’s hybrid Prius and Highlander offer frugal winter travel options

With an optional electronic all-wheel drive system, the fourth-generation Prius steps up from its status as long-lasting hybrid hero and gains some winter credentials.
Toyota/Courtesy photo

As we rapidly move into a new era of increasingly emissions-free motoring — at least out of the tailpipe — we can credit the long-running Toyota Prius as one of the earliest adopters of the green(er) automotive revolution. And I’ll also offer some praise to the Highlander SUV, the hybrid version of which has always been one of the more pleasant but still practical applications of that technology.

With winter now hitting in its first waves, there’s some added value in the electronic all-wheel drive rendition of the Prius, though I know plenty of brave souls who still manage to use their front-wheel drive Priuses all year long.

The XLE-level Prius AWD-e I drove earlier this year demonstrated that with appropriately accompanying winter tires, it’s going to provide a stable, versatile and still unquestionably fuel-frugal option for High Country drivers.

It’s also an infinitely more affordable eco-friendly option than the majority of longer-range electrics, priced at just under $30,000 and readily capable of producing combined figures of 49 mpg or often much higher — no charging stations, advanced route mapping or range anxiety involved.

Last year saw the 20th anniversary of the vehicle and for the carryover, fourth-generation 2021 model, with looks and design of a grown-up automobile — the quirks and standoffishness of the earlier models are mostly gone, thankfully. And as demonstrated with both the limited anniversary edition and a new Nightshade edition, both sporting blacked-out trim and dark wheels, it even has a little swagger to it.

Very little seems to rattle the automobile, as even throttle-heavy driving, use of the heater or air conditioner, or flipping it into the higher-revving Power Mode to outrun the chaos on today’s highways all still have outstanding mileage.

The hybrid power changes over as the 1.6-liter Atkinson cycle four-cylinder interacts with two motor-generators and channels that power through an entirely tolerable continuously variable transmission. The AWD aspect here is electronic, but it offers enough stick and grip to allow even an all-season tire equipped test machine to easily back up a snowy driveway or hold its own in most winter driving circumstances.

And while just 121 combined horsepower, 96 of it from the gas engine, may not sound like a lot, it’s pretty easy to harness and use to cruise comfortably as the vehicle only weighs 3,220 pounds. The AWD tech adds just 150 pounds to the entire automobile.

There are, of course, still a number of curiosities to the modern Prius, with functionality and interior design that remain unique. You’ll intuitively figure out the strange little shifter and adapt to the center-mounted cabin design. (It would be really cool if you could just unplug the steering wheel and sit on the other side of the car, but it’s not quite Lego.) The very robust array of Eco Diaries, Eco Savings and AWD status are great if you want to geek out on data; the two-level rear glass remains as annoying as ever, but the oversized side glass and huge aircraft-styled windows ahead of the side mirrors help compensate.

Less about “Yes, I am a hybrid” design and more about family-focused function, the 2021 Highlander hybrid AWD retains its status as a frugal but well-evolved, three-row SUV. With a base price of $47,115, it continues to be my longtime favorite and entirely right-sized choice, eschewing the dopey bigness of Sequoia and providing a more civilized and comfortable experience than 4Runner.

It’s grown over the years, as even the RAV4 has, but the current model is especially timely as it easily exceeds its combined mpg figure of 35. The versatility of a three-row design and the incorporation of updated technology and pleasant styling also makes it a wise choice in its increasingly busy category.

AWD here is provided by a rear-mounted electric motor. I was fascinated by a “Trail” mode button as the Limited version has become pretty classy with new 20-inch chromed composite wheels and a lot of flash, but I guess it’s still aspirationally designed for off-roading.

Power in the hybrid edition is offered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder and two electric motors generating 243 overall horsepower — more than enough for capable cruising.

The tech improvements in my 2021 model included an extra-wide navigational screen and a slick flip-up phone charger tray, and a multilevel shelf rounds out a cabin that’s full of various bins, cubbies and utilitarian storage space.

For 2022, there’s a new hybrid-only Bronze Edition with 18-inch bronze wheels, bronze colored stitching, illuminated door sills and special cargo and floor mats.

Andy Stonehouse

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