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2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime Test Drive Review
The RAV4 Prime brings a plug-in hybrid powertrain to Toyota’s popular crossover for the first time. The Prime is not only more fuel-efficient than the current RAV4 Hybrid (introduced for the 2019 model year), but also more powerful, quicker, and more refined. It makes an impressive case for electrification.
Look and Feel
Toyota built its reputation on the Camry, Corolla, and Prius, but the RAV4 is now the automaker’s bestselling model. So, with the 2021 RAV4 Prime, Toyota brings plug-in hybrid tech to a vehicle with mass appeal. The RAV4 itself adopted rugged, truck-like styling in its most recent redesign, with lots of sharp angles, chunky wheel wells, and a hood flat enough to serve as a kitchen table. That tougher look will likely help lure even more buyers away from hatchbacks and sedans, as well as the RAV4’s more car-like competitors. Since the current-generation RAV4 has been around only since the 2019 model year, the look is still fairly fresh.
Under the skin, the RAV4 Prime is still a car-based crossover, however, sharing the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform with most of the automaker’s other recent models. It has more in common with the Corolla than it does with a 4Runner or Land Cruiser.
The rugged look carries over to the interior. As with other RAV4 models, the Prime has oversized door handles and dashboard knobs with rubber grips, functional touches that also give the interior a bit of character. The Prime gets red upholstery stitching, but that’s about the only thing that distinguishes the plug-in hybrid SUV’s interior from those of lesser RAV4 models.
Overall material quality doesn't feel worthy of the Prime’s status as the flagship RAV4 model. The interior doesn’t feel like a step up from less-expensive gas- and hybrid-powered RAV4 models, and you can’t even get real leather seats in the Prime. Toyota does offer a panoramic moonroof, but not the solar roof offered on the Japanese-market version of the Prius Prime. With so much space for solar cells to help charge the battery pack (and potentially improve real-world electric range), that seems like a missed opportunity.
Where many cars shout their green credentials with unusual styling, the RAV4 Prime flies under the radar. Unlike the Prius Prime, which gets completely different exterior styling from the standard Prius, the Toyota RAV4 Prime looks largely the same as other RAV4 models. Black exterior trim, a different grille, model-specific wheels (18-inch standard, 19-inch wheels optional), and badging are the only differentiators. Even the charge port is camouflaged behind a second fuel-door flap on the opposite side of the car from the actual fuel filler.
The RAV4 Prime uses an upgraded version of the normal Toyota RAV4 Hybrid's powertrain. That means you still get a 176-horsepower, gasoline-powered, 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine mated to Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system. As with the RAV4 Hybrid, the Prime uses a dedicated electric motor to power its rear wheels, enabling all-wheel drive (AWD) without any mechanical connection between the front and rear wheels. However, Toyota has increased the electric-motor output, giving the Prime 302 hp, or 83 hp more than the RAV4 Hybrid and 99 more than the gasoline-engine RAV4.
That robust power output gets the Prime from zero to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds, according to Toyota, making it the automaker’s quickest-accelerating four-door model—there's not much sense comparing an SUV like the RAV4 with a sports car like the Supra. The RAV4 Prime lives up to that impressive figure on the road, with urgent acceleration that really puts the “sport” in this SUV. The acceleration is a revelation, as plug-in hybrids from mainstream brands are typically focused more on economy than performance.
The powertrain's quick response is electric-car-like, regardless of speed or the battery’s state of charge, and the transition between gasoline and electric power feels smooth regardless of throttle load. Like with an electric car, this is also a largely silent experience. The engine is barely audible even at high revs, although pedestrians will hear you coming, thanks to a warning system that plays bizarre sci-fi noises.
Toyota also tried to make the Prime more refined than other RAV4 models, giving it laminated glass, more sound-deadening material, and different suspension tuning. The Prime's interior does seem quieter than other RAV4s, and the ride, while far from sporty, is comfortable and smooth. This is a car set up for long highway cruises, not corner carving, but that’s likely more relevant for the target buyer. Overall, it’s a step up from other versions of the RAV4.
While the Toyota RAV4 Prime does a good impression of a luxury SUV, it doesn’t do much to encourage efficient driving. Paddle shifters allow the driver to adjust the level of regenerative braking, but even the most aggressive setting does not allow for true one-pedal driving. Toyota’s hybrid system also feels fairly normal, which is good for drivers transitioning from conventional cars, but bad for helping to build a fuel-efficient driving style.
Full EPA ratings were not available at press time, but Toyota anticipates an electric range of 42 miles in EV mode, with an efficiency rating of 94 MPGe combined. The Prime comes standard with a 3.3-kilowatt onboard charger, allowing a 12-hour recharge from a 120-volt household outlet, or 4.5-hour recharge from a 240-volt Level 2 AC charging station. The XSE trim level gets a 6.6-kW charger, which cuts the Level 2 charging time to 2.5 hours. Unlike the rival Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, Toyota does not offer DC fast charging.
Form and Function
Toyota claims the lithium-ion battery pack, which is mounted under the vehicle floor, doesn’t take away interior space. The RAV4’s Prime's 37.6 cubic feet of cargo space (with the rear seats in place), is above average for the segment, and a wide trunk opening makes loading and unloading easy. The cargo area also has a handy 120-volt outlet that can be used to power tools or gadgets out in the wilderness.
Up front, the center console storage bin is spacious, but storage space on the console itself is limited due to the shifter and drive-mode selector knob. At least Toyota included a good spot for phones, directly ahead of the shifter, where they won’t become airborne during hard cornering or braking. That slot can also be equipped with a wireless charging pad, depending on the trim level and option package selected.
The chunky shifter and drive-mode selector have a solid feel, with recognizable detents that make it easy to use both without looking down. The electronic parking brake activates automatically when the car is shifted into “park,” so you don’t have to think about it. There isn't a dramatic difference between the drive modes, which include “normal,” “eco,” “sport,” and “trail.” The latter is designed for light travel off-road, although despite the RAV4 Prime's all-wheel-drive system, it isn’t really suited for anything more serious than a rutted dirt road.
Passenger space looks above average for this segment. The front seats are comfortable, offering a good balance of cushioning and support, and they are available with both heating and ventilation. On the other hand, the rear seats feel flat and unsupportive, although legroom is generous and heated outboard rear seats are available. Front-seat legroom is not as good; drivers with long legs may have trouble finding a comfortable position.
Shoppers looking for a commanding view of the road will not be disappointed, and the upright roofline provides good outward visibility as well. Toyota also offers a video rearview mirror, which improves rearward visibility by showing a feed from the backup camera in the mirror. A 360-degree camera system is available as well, with good resolution and camera angles.
Tech is one of the standard RAV4’s weak points, but the Prime gets a handful of upgrades. The base SE trim level gets an 8.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard equipment, as well as a built-in WiFi hotspot. The XSE has a 9.0-inch screen—the largest available in a RAV4. A head-up display and video rearview mirror are also available. The Prime is the only RAV4 model to get these features, albeit only as optional extras. The HUD, which shows compass directions, speed, and hybrid system status, is easy to see without being distracting.
The infotainment system is fairly basic, but it offers a similar level of functionality as you'll find from most other mainstream brands. The touchscreen is well positioned, and Toyota included much-appreciated knobs and buttons for important functions like audio volume and climate control. Screen menus are logically laid out, with text and graphics that are easy to read while driving.
Like other Toyota hybrids, the RAV4 Prime gets a digital instrument cluster that displays information such as current gas mileage and drive mode, as well as a Hybrid System Indicator that shows whether the powertrain is regenerating or using electrical power. This indicator display uses a needle sweep similar to a tachometer. In the Prime, the 7.0-inch display also shows the remaining electric range. All of that information is crammed into a fairly small area, but it’s nonetheless easy to get used to. Another feature that carries over from other Toyota hybrids is the eco driving score, which rates the efficiency of your driving on a scale of 1 to 100.
Other available tech features include Qi wireless phone charging, a foot-activated liftgate, and LED driving lights. Toyota RAV4 Prime XSE models get a free trial of the Toyota Remote Connect telematics service, which allows the driver to preset charging and climate control, as well as find nearby charging stations.
Like other RAV4 models, the Prime comes standard with Toyota Safety Sense 2.0. This includes a pre-collision system (with pedestrian and cyclist detection), lane-departure alert with steering assist, lane-tracing assist, automatic high beams, and road-sign assist. Blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert are standard as well, along with eight airbags. That’s a fairly high level of standard safety features for this segment.
The driver aids generally worked as advertised, although lane-tracing assist, which uses gentle steering inputs to keep the car centered in its lane, does not work as well as similar systems from other manufacturers.
Specific ratings for the Prime model are not available at this time, but other versions of the RAV4 received a “Top Safety Pick” rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), missing out on the highest “Top Safety Pick+” rating due to poorly-rated headlights. The gasoline and hybrid RAV4 also received a five-star overall safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), albeit with four-star ratings in the driver’s side front and rollover crash tests.
The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime starts at $39,195, including a mandatory $945 destination charge. That puts the base SE trim level about $2,000 above the most expensive RAV4 Hybrid. The top XSE starts at $42,500. However, Toyota expects the RAV4 Prime to qualify for the full $7,500 federal tax credits for electric vehicles, because of the Prime’s large battery pack. Toyota is unlikely to hit the 250,000-unit cap that triggers a phaseout of that credit anytime soon. The Prime’s added performance and higher level of standard equipment also help justify its price premium over other RAV4 models.
The RAV4 Prime is also priced above the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and Ford Escape Plug-in Hybrid, its closest rivals. Like the Prime, the Outlander and RAV4 are plug-in hybrid versions of existing compact crossovers.
However, the RAV4 Prime beats the Ford and Mitsubishi on electric range and acceleration (which, admittedly, may not be much of a concern for most buyers). The Ford Escape Plug-in Hybrid offers greater fuel economy, at an EPA-rated 100 MPGe, but it's available with only front-wheel drive (FWD). The Toyota RAV4 Prime also offers more cargo space than the other two crossovers. That combination of utility, efficiency, and performance makes the RAV4 Prime a good value despite its relatively high price.
As with other plug-in hybrids, ownership cost can vary depending on how much (or how little) the RAV4 Prime is charged. Frequent charging means more all-electric driving, which in turn means better MPG. It’s really not worth getting a plug-in hybrid if you don’t plan on charging it regularly, or if you don’t have reliable access to charging stations.
Stephen is a freelance automotive journalist living in New York state. He's obsessed with anything on four wheels, but particularly fond of his Subaru Impreza.
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Toyota RAV4 Prime Questions
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