Mountain Wheels: All-wheel-drive Prius, new RAV4 serve up all-season stability |

Mountain Wheels: All-wheel-drive Prius, new RAV4 serve up all-season stability

Andy Stonehouse
Mountain Wheels
The 2019 Prius AWD-e in action at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs.

An online photo of an overly ambitious motorcyclist stuck in snow on Vail Pass this week was a pretty tangible reminder of the necessity of virtual four-season traction up here in the High Country.

Toyota, which announced its new 2020 Highlander at this week’s New York Auto Show, has been doing an accelerated job of upgrades and reissues of its products, and the last two weeks brought back-to-back opportunities for me to drive a couple of especially winter-ready machines: a new, all-wheel-drive version of the Prius hybrid, and a completely new model of the popular RAV4 SUV.

The 2019 Prius AWD-e is exactly as named: a standard-sized Prius with the addition of fully electronic and automatic all-wheel drive. Unlike your standard AWD vehicle, the work here is all done by an electric motor driving the rear wheels — no driveshaft, switchable center differential or mechanical power distribution whatsoever. Instead, the system gives the entire car its off-the-line boost, up to 6 MPH, and then can remain in operation up to 43 MPH, if slippage is detected.

I decided to test this out by heading to Copper Mountain last weekend for a wonderful, nearly-end-of-season day on the slopes (do make sure to head over to Sunsation this weekend, where you can watch the Red Bull Slopesoakers or catch live music from the Struts, featuring a lead singer who I’d swear is Freddie Mercury, come back to life).

The big takeaway from Prius AWD-e is that the effect is not really a tangible one, especially on largely dry pavement (drive it in fresh snow, and more aggressive all-season tires, and you will likely notice the difference).

There are no AWD controls or switches ­— there’s no center diff to lock, after all — and with an indicated 60 MPG on my drive back across the passes, it certainly doesn’t represent any noticeable drain on performance.

Prius does, of course, retain a certain sense of oddball chic, with a less-overt, double-layered rear window and incredibly long headlamp units up front, and the strange center placement of instruments and control. Prius AWD-e (and the XLE trim level I tested, with an MSRP of $32,146) gets a distinctive interior treatment, with loads and loads of piano black trim on nearly all the surfaces, plus some useful niceties such as two more USB plugs and a large cordless charging pad.

I forgot for a moment I was not driving the all-electric Chevy Bolt and was initially hesitant to use the seat heaters, heated steering wheel or defroster, but the Prius still packs a 1.8-liter engine to supplement battery power, so you can stay as warm as you want — and still have largely sufficient power for tackling the passes.

More power, plus a moderately upsized and considerably more aggressive-looking design, also help make the all-new 2019 RAV4 a compelling choice, when squared off against vehicles such as the Nissan Rogue or the Subaru Forester. It rides on a wheelbase that’s over an inch longer than the last model, providing additional rear passenger comfort, and boosting cargo space inside by almost two and a half inches.

This somewhat Tacoma- and Tundra-inspired fifth-generation RAV4 is a completely different experience than the RAV I owned back in 2010, with a cascade of edgy surfaces, an infinitely improved and useful suite of controls and, in the special Adventure edition I drove, colors and surfaces that made it look much more pricey than its $32,900 sticker price.

That was, admittedly, before about $7,000 in options — heated and cooled leather seating up front, the premium Entune navigation system with an 11-speaker JBL audio upgrade, plus the top driving safety options and another large cordless recharging pad. Mine also sported an FJ Cruiser-styled baby blue and white paint job, plus adventurous orange highlights inside, including an array of useful storage spots.

The Adventure model is a little more punchy than your standard RAV, with more prominent roof rails, grille and bumper, plus 19-inch wheels and slightly larger tires. Those mods help give the vehicle a decent 8.6 inches of ground clearance.

The more abundant power comes in the form of what they call the Dynamic Force 2.5-liter four-cylinder, matched with a fast-shifting, eight-speed transmission. Output is an impressive 203 horsepower, or as much as 219 horsepower from RAV4’s hybrid variant; I found the transmission on my tester a little lurchy in low-speed situations, but it also had less than 500 miles on it, so perhaps a break-in would smooth that out.

My Adventure model came with torque-vectoring AWD and a rear-driveline disconnect, vastly improving dry-pavement mileage (it gets a 33 MPG highway rating) but also offering a full multi-terrain select system to customize for mud, sand, rock, dirt or snow travel.

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