Toyota’s little “soft-roader” has come a long way since its introduction back in 1994. It has grown larger and more lavishly equipped. The RAV4 has also grown substantially in terms of sales, several years ago displacing the time-tested Camry as its number-one product in the U.S. market.
As one might expect, Toyota added a hybrid version of the RAV4 recently, part of its plan to offer a battery-based version of every model in its broad line-up. Now, however, it is also getting ready to add a second electrified alternative, this one a plug-in.
As with the Prius, the PHEV has been dubbed the RAV4 Prime. But there’s a significant difference in strategy. Where Toyota hybrids traditionally focus on delivering mind-boggling mileage numbers, the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime sets out to strike a “balance of that rational purchase of a hybrid” with what marketing chief Joe Moses calls, “incredible performance.”
Overview: The numbers are likely to shock those who think of Toyota hybrids are slow and stodgy. The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime punches out an impressive 302 horsepower, making it not only the most powerful version in the line-up but the most powerful in its segment.
By comparison the conventional RAV4 Hybrid hits a peak 219 hp, the Honda CR-V hybrid coming in at 232 hp. The plug-in RAV4, meanwhile, can launch from 0 to 60 in an impressive 5.7 second – which is about 0.1 seconds faster than what the automaker originally promised when it debuted the PHEV late last year.
That said, those extra ponies don’t come cheap. There will be two trim levels offered for the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime, the XE starting at $38,100, and the XSE at $41,425. That’s a hefty price premium over the Hybrid, for one thing, which starts at just $28,350 — though the plug-in model will qualify a buyer for up to $7,500 in federal tax credits.
Exterior: The latest-generation RAV4, which debuted in the 2019 model-year, underwent some significant changes, among other things, gaining an extra 1.2 inches in wheelbase while the overall length grew by just a fraction of an inch. As that would suggest, the wheels were pushed out closer to the crossover’s corners.
Visually, it got a more sculpted shape, with a larger grille, distinctive split front lighting and even an optional two-tone paint scheme. Meanwhile, Toyota added three new all-wheel-drive packages with the makeover, each with subtle exterior trim differences.
Early on, Toyota was convinced that hybrids had to feature radical design cues, the Prius being the ultimate case in point. It has been shifting gears, perhaps reflecting the sharp decline in demand for that original hybrid model. And the RAV4 Prime is barely discernible from other versions of the CUV, short of the badging. The XSE model’s most notable cue will be the 19-inch wheels and tires that are the largest ever offered on a RAV4.
Interior: Across the line, Toyota set out to counter its reputation for cost-cutting plastic interiors with the latest-generation RAV4. It has succeeded to varying degrees, depending upon the individual grade. The Prime, and especially the XSE trim we tested, succeeds admirably.
… It features more refined materials and textures, with a nice way of bringing together details that take the Prime to what might be called “class-above” levels …
Of course, at $41,425, it should do just that, considering it has pushed well into luxury vehicle territory. The base version of the new Mercedes-Benz GLB starts at just $36,600.
For the added money you do get plenty of standard features, especially on the XSE, such as leatherette seats, ambient lighting, Qi wireless cellphone charging, an upgraded audio system and a 9-inch touchscreen infotainment display – the largest ever in a RAV4. There’s an 8-way power driver’s seat, both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and Amazon’s Alexa is built in, as well.
Powertrain: Here’s the real story. As Toyota explains in a release, “The RAV4 Prime uses a differently tuned version of the RAV4 Hybrid’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder Atkinson-cycle gas engine. It produces the same projected 176 hp as in the hybrid, but paired with the electric motors, total system output equals 302 horsepower.”
There are three motors, in fact, two paired with the gas engine up front, a third mounted in the rear to create a through-the-road all-wheel-drive system since there is no driveshaft linking the two axles. Under normal driving situations, the front wheels do the heavy lifting, as it were, the134 kilowatt rear motor kicking in when additional traction – or power – is needed.
The RAV4 allows the driver to switch between multiple modes. That includes one that preserves battery power for when it might be needed – particularly useful in some overseas markets where access to big cities will be limited to operating in zero-emissions mode.
Flip that here and you also can switch solely to EV power. We expect true devotees to run that way most of the time. The Prime model gets an EPA-rated 42 miles in battery-only mode – three more than it original anticipated. That should be enough for a significant number of owners to be able to operate emissions-free for their daily commute.
Whether in pure EV or hybrid mode, the XSE adds paddle shifters that allow more aggressive regen when slowing down, the energy pumped back to the battery to deliver more electric range.
In EV mode, incidentally, acceleration is still an acceptable 9.2 seconds. And, unlike the Prius Prime, where the gas engine fires up when you hit 62 mph, the RAV4 plug-in stays all-electric until 84 mph.
Despite the big bump in performance, the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime still manages to deliver an impressive 94 MPGe, or miles per gallon-equivalent, according to the EPA.
Technology and Safety: The big technology is, of course, found under the hood. But the RAV4 Prime also offers the array of infotainment technology mentioned above and, on our XSE, a three-year subscription to the advanced navigation system which includes useful functions like real-time navigation and destination rerouting.
Both models feature the Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 package of advanced driver assistance systems, including pre-collision warning with pedestrian detection, active cruise control, lane departure alert and road sign assist. Other features, including rear automated braking, are part of an optional package.
Drive Impressions: Of all the many crossovers in its segment, the basic RAV4 is solid, reliable and, to be blunt, bland when it comes to road dynamics and performance. The addition of a 302-horsepower drivetrain certainly changes that last factor.
… Pulling off from a stoplight or attempting to pass on a freeway, we were duly impressed with the power available with a twitch of the right foot. Electric motors deliver max torque the moment they start turning, and Toyota has made good use of that when you’re coming off a dead stop …
More broadly, the Prime is no Alfa Romeo Stelvio. It may be quick, but it doesn’t capitalize the word “sport” in SUV. Toyota says it set out to give the PHEV a “more refined” drive feel and, in Comfort mode that is readily apparent. That said, steering feels more precise, with less of the numb overboost we find on the regular gas model. The Prime feels more than willing to be flogged around a bit.
Adding to the refinement, Toyota has taken steps to further reduce road and wind noise, adding laminated side glass, for example. That’s useful when you’re operating in all-electric mode where things you normally might not notice suddenly stand out. Curiously, Toyota’s noise control effort was significant enough we could barely tell when the crossover was operating in electric or gas/hybrid mode.
Wrap Up: We found the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime to be an impressive piece of engineering. The electric drivetrain is, without doubt, the most aggressive available in the nameplate’s broad range of options. The interior is the most sophisticated, and there’s a solid list of features. But the question is whether the steep price can be justified. For the base $38,100 of the SE trim, you could get the Mercedes GLB or a Lexus NX. The XSE puts you almost in Lexus RX territory.
That may explain why Toyota is planning to bring in only 5,000 of the RAV4 Prime plug-ins this year. It’s an impressive vehicle but it may prove to be a hard sell.