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AWD And Electrified, Finding An Affordable, Efficient All Weather Ride

My father is shopping for a new vehicle and he wants something with All Wheel Drive (AWD) that will be easy on the wallet in terms of price/payment and fueling costs. He’s open to SUVs, sedans, and hatchbacks or crossovers. He’s got a lot to choose from!

First a few other parameters: my father doesn’t want a large vehicle (subcompact or compact is what he’s looking for); he is not picky about body style but it must be capable of handling inclement weather since he’s moving to an area with cold, snowy winters and plenty of rain; he prefers a new vehicle but is open to a used one, depending; while he assumes a hybrid of some sort is better, due to fueling costs, he wouldn’t be opposed to a used AWD electric vehicle (EV) or a fuel efficient non electrified vehicle (if that’s ultimately what meets his budget). Speaking of budget, he would like to keep his monthly payment in the $250-$300 range, he’ll put at least $12,000 down, and of course the final price matters (even if the payment is the same he’d rather have as short a term as possible). Since there are a lot of possible choices, I am going to break this into multiple articles and will focus first on hybrid subcompact and compact sedans and hatchback comparisons as this offers the lowest price of entry and the best fuel economy for vehicles that still use gas.

Toyota offers a couple hybrid sedans with AWD that start under $30,000 US, namely the Prius and the Corolla hybrids which both get around 50 MPG combined. Subaru offers two of the lowest priced, most fuel efficient non-hybrid AWD vehicles you can buy in the US right now, the base Impreza which starts at $22,995 and gets 34 MPG on the highway, 27 in town and the base Legacy which starts at $24,895 and gets 35 MPG on the highway and 27 around town. Nissan offers one non-hybrid AWD sedan choice at $29,025, the Altima SV, which also gets excellent fuel economy considering, at 36 MPG highway, 26 around town. Since we aren’t talking about SUVs yet (SUVs in terms of how the manufacturer markets them anyway), there really aren’t many other models to choose from that start under $30k.

Immediately, upon considering these 5 models, besides whether their powertrains are hybrid or not and their body style, two things stick out immediately: the Toyota models are far more fuel efficient, however their AWD systems may be less capable (given that they are AWD by virtue of their electric motors and hybrid batteries, which means they have less horsepower going to the rear wheels, they have no direct, mechanical connection or transfer case to the front wheels, and they may no be able to run in AWD for sustained periods/at all speeds, depending. In other words, Toyota’s hybrid sedan AWD options are potentially at a disadvantage in the worst weather conditions, or most demanding traction scenarios. Here’s more detail on that difference, as it applies to the Prius (which uses AWDe) and Corolla hybrid (which uses the similar Electronic On-Demand AWD) models, as explained by Motortrend: [the AWDe] Toyota all-wheel-drive setup is designed to maximize fuel efficiency and minimize weight and drag. As such, the rear motor is an induction-type unit that's only available at speeds below 43 mph. Like the system in the RAV4 and Highlander Hybrids, there's no transfer case and no mechanical connection between the engine and the rear wheels. Somewhat surprisingly, AWDe always provides motive force at speeds below 6 mph, even in dry conditions. That's likely because the electric motors operate more efficiently than the gasoline engine at low speeds, helping reduce emissions and fuel consumption. If the system detects wheelslip above 6 mph, it will continue sending electricity to the rear motor until the Prius exceeds 43 mph. And again regarding the Electronic On-Demand AWD in the Corolla: the rear wheels are driven solely by a single electric motor-generator, which receives power from the onboard hybrid battery. There's no mechanical connection between the front and the rear wheels, and when extra traction isn't required, the rear axle is disengaged (except on deceleration, when the rear wheels capture momentum through the motor-generator to recharge the battery). To me, it sounds like the On-Demand AWD system may be slightly more robust or capable, given it doesn’t seem to include the same speed limited application of AWD, however the disadvantage may be slightly less fuel economy as a result. Note, since the Motortrend article was re: 2020 model years, the AWDe information may only apply to Prius models of that generation. The current 2023 Prius appears to use the same Electronic On-Demand AWD as the Corolla hybrid, which means selecting AWD for the current model year Prius will see your fuel economy take a little more of a hit.

Otherwise, briefly comparing the two Toyota models to the Subaru and Nissan options the other major differences are: The Nissan Altima and Subaru Legacy are the largest vehicles in this grouping (but they only have the second and third most interior volume). Interestingly, the Impreza is both the smallest car and the car with the most internal volume due to its hatchback/small wagon configuration (it has almost 7 more cubic feet of interior volume than the next largest Legacy). The 0-60 times for the group are as follows: Prius 7.1 seconds, Altima 7.4 seconds, Legacy 8.0 seconds, Impreza around 9 seconds, give or take, and Corolla 9.7 seconds. Interestingly, the quintessential economy car of recent times, the Prius, is the most performant in sprints to freeway speeds. Since all of these base model vehicles can be had for under $30,000, and as long as a $12,000-ish down payment is made and a loan rate/schedule low/long enough is available, a monthly payment for any of these should be possible in the $250-$300 range.

Are you also interested in a relatively inexpensive AWD vehicle (that isn’t an SUV per se)? Are there other models you are considering? Please leave your questions and comments below.

Images courtesy of Toyota, Nissan, and Subaru.

Justin Hart has owned and driven electric vehicles for over 15 years, including a first generation Nissan LEAF, second generation Chevy Volt, Tesla Model 3, an electric bicycle and most recently a Kia Sorento PHEV. He is also an avid SUP rider, poet, photographer and wine lover. He enjoys taking long EV and PHEV road trips to beautiful and serene places with the people he loves. Follow Justin on for regular electric and hybrid news coverage.