REVIEW: The Toyota RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid is perfect for those who want an EV but can't quite commit yet

·11 min read
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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider
  • The Toyota RAV4 is the automaker's most popular vehicle, selling nearly half a million last year alone.

  • The 2021 RAV4 Prime is the plug-in hybrid version, which boasts an impressive 42 estimated miles of EV-only range.

  • The RAV4 Prime has a starting price of $38,100, but my loaner in the top-tier XSE AWD trim started at $41,425 MSRP. After options, it came out to $49,831.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime is what you get when you take the best-selling passenger car in the US, make it a plug-in hybrid, and give it great all-electric range. To those still waiting on the so-called EV revolution, I say it's already here — here in the form of highly capable plug-in hybrids like the RAV4 Prime. 

I already know the regular RAV4 is a champion at almost everything it does, so it was unsurprising that when I made a list of cars I was most excited to drive this year, the RAV4 Prime was near the top. It was time to see if the 302-horsepower, plug-in hybrid version of an already great car would be any better.

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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider

Spoiler alert: It is.

The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Optimus Prime: Plug-in hybrids, roll out

The RAV4 is Toyota's most popular vehicle in the US, with 448,071 sold last year alone. It was the fourth best-selling vehicle in the US overall behind the Ford F-Series, Ram Pickup, and the Chevrolet Silverado — all pickup trucks.

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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider

The RAV4 is not a pickup truck, but it's not a small car, either. It's a two-row, five-seater SUV that's now in its boxy-faced fifth generation. Length comes to 15 feet, width comes to nearly 6.1 feet, and height comes to 5.6 feet. There are 8.3 inches of ground clearance.

Partway through the current RAV4's life cycle, Toyota unveiled the RAV4 Prime — the plug-in hybrid version of the SUV — at the 2019 Los Angeles Auto Show. 

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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider

To be clear, Toyota already had a hybrid RAV4, just not a plug-in one. The RAV4 Prime became the second plug-in hybrid offering from Toyota, following the Prius Prime.

Details and safety ratings: The most powerful RAV4 ever 

A plug-in hybrid is different from a conventional hybrid because, as its name suggests, you can plug it in and charge the battery that way. Conventional hybrids have much shorter EV-only ranges, if they offer any at all. A plug-in hybrid's batteries tend to be bigger and EV-only range is greater, but this also makes them more expensive. 

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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Toyota

The RAV4 Prime uses a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine that produces a claimed 177 horsepower. When combined with the electric motors, total system output comes to a claimed 302 horsepower. 

That means the RAV4 Prime is part of a growing camp of Toyota cars and crossovers with more than 300 horsepower, with Toyota proclaiming it the "most powerful RAV4 ever." Others include the Toyota Camry TRD, Toyota Avalon XLE, and the six-cylinder Supra

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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider

The RAV4 Prime has something Toyota calls "Electronic On-Demand All-Wheel Drive," which involves a separate, rear-mounted electric motor powering the back wheels when necessary, such as during acceleration and in low-traction situations. 

Toyota quotes the RAV4 Prime's EV-only driving range to be 42 miles, which is impressively high. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates it to return 94 mpge (miles per gallon of gasoline-equivalent) and 38 mpg in hybrid mode on city and highway combined driving.

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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider

Comparatively, the average car sold in the US gets about 25 mpg.

At the time of this writing, the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime has not yet been rated for crash safety by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

What stands out: An estimated 42 miles of EV-only driving 

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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Toyota

Compared to the last car I drove, the RAV4 Prime was a breeze to climb in and out of. And there was so much room for everything. The back seats were roomy and the trunk offered 33.4 cubic feet of storage space, or slightly less than the non-plug-in RAV4. 

There was plenty of headroom and, owing to the square design of the rear, visibility was great all around. For front passengers, there were even little rubber-lined cubbies for your loose items. So thoughtful! 

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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Toyota

I awarded additional interior points to the RAV4's extensive button, dial, and switch offerings. True, there was no escaping the slapped-on-screen look, but crucial functions such as the climate and radio volume were still controlled via hard switches. 

The infotainment's user interface looked and felt a little older than some of the other new cars I've reviewed, but it didn't bother me much. I was too busy appreciating the buttons.

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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Toyota

The RAV4 Prime starts up by default in EV mode, but the gas engine will kick in under hard acceleration. In my own testing, which involved city driving and a stint on the highway, the car returned about 35 miles of EV-only driving before the battery depleted. 

Two buttons on the center console let a driver: keep the car in pure EV-only mode; keep the car in pure gasoline-only mode; utilize charge mode to replenish the battery; or put it in either Auto EV/HV mode, where the car switches between EV-only driving and using the gasoline engine depending on driving conditions.

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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Toyota

When in the appropriate mode, the car switches seamlessly between battery power and gas power. You can get sucked into figuring out your route and toggling around the modes to maximize efficiency, but if you can't be bothered and just want to drive the RAV4 normally, you can easily do that, too. 

On an empty battery, plugging the car into a wall socket (voltage unknown) took about 11 hours to fully charge. Putting it into charge mode and driving on the highway fully charged the battery in about an hour. 

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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider

What falls short: The driver information cluster has a lot going on

My one big gripe with the RAV4 was that it was a little slow. The RAV4 in Prime guise fixed that. It felt much quicker and more urgent off the line thanks to the electric motors, but the four-cylinder drone was still loud in the cabin during hard acceleration.

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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Toyota

In fact, I wasn't terribly impressed with the car's overall noise, vibration, and harshness quality — also known as NVH, a measurement of the amount of unwanted noise and tactile input that enters the car during driving. The engine was loud and additional noise coming in from the tires against the road did not make for a quiet ride. 

After being so impressed by the casual athleticism of the new Toyota Venza recently, I also expected better handling. The Venza felt agile and darty. The RAV4 Prime did not. 

Mostly, it felt top heavy. If I took a corner too quickly and didn't brake adequately beforehand, the car tended to lean pretty heavily, which was unpleasant for my passengers. I learned to take corners conservatively.

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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider

The driver gauge cluster also included far more information than necessary. There are a lot of gauges for a lot of different things. 

The left-hand gauge displays a sort of efficiency meter, showing how much power you're using and what effect it has on your battery. The right-hand gauge shows fuel and battery amount. 

The center display includes a speedometer, odometer, a check-rear-seat indicator, and projected ranges of both EV and HV (hybrid vehicle?) driving. It also tells you what driving mode you're in, as well as a few other numbers and figures I couldn't quite figure out.

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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Toyota

During the first few hours of my loan, I had to remind myself not to get distracted by reading the gauge cluster. 

Eventually, I made the executive decision to ignore them all, except for the speedo and fuel/battery gauges — the only ones that really matter. 

How the RAV4 Prime compares to its competitors: That EV-only range, though 

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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider

There certainly aren't as many plug-in hybrid SUVs as there should be. 

A few comparable competitors to the RAV4 Prime that come to mind are the Kia Niro PHEV, Jeep Wrangler 4xe, Audi Q5 TFSI e, Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, Ford Escape PHEV, and the plug-in Lincoln Aviator. The RAV4 Prime beats out all of these with either a better EV-only range, cheaper price, or both. 

The RAV4's closest competitor, the Honda CR-V, does not offer a plug-in version. 

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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider

Within the Toyota family, the Prius Prime admittedly does offer a starting price that's $10,000 cheaper, but its estimated EV-only mode is lower and it's a smaller car overall. The regular hybrid RAV4 doesn't offer an EV-only mode whatsoever, but it does have a starting price of $28,500.

The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime starts at $38,100. My loaner came in the top-tier XSE AWD trim, so starting MSRP was $41,425. With the XSE trim, you get bigger wheels, a moon roof, ambient interior lighting, two-tone exterior paint, and a bigger center touchscreen.

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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider

After options such as a premium audio system ($1,620), special Supersonic Red exterior paint ($425), the Premium Package ($3,765), and some roof-rack crossbars, the new total came out to $49,831.

For a RAV4, that's a lot. 

Our impressions: The solution to range anxiety

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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider
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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider

The RAV4 is Toyota's volume seller, so it's an important one to get right. And for the majority of US buyers, it's exactly what they need. 

It's comfortable, utilitarian, highly practical, well thought out, and incredibly easy to drive and use. When it came down to building a mass-market car, Toyota nailed it. No wonder the automaker sold nearly half a million of them last year.

Then, Toyota took that package and made it a plug-in hybrid — a good one, at that.

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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider

In my own testing, I saw a return of about 42 mpg. Our EV-only stint returned about 35 miles, as mentioned above, and that was mostly on a highway. For someone looking for a fuel-efficient car that can also haul around just about everything, the RAV4 Prime is the perfect solution.

I don't know what your daily commute looks like, but I could ostensibly see most RAV4 Prime owners relying primarily on the battery to get around town for errands and day-to-day life. Potentially, you could whittle your reliance on gasoline down to zero during daily usage.

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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider

There's the gas engine to fall back on for longer commutes, of course. But if your roundtrip commute is less than about 42 miles, you could just charge your RAV4 Prime at home overnight so it's fresh and ready to go the next morning. Treat it like an EV. 

And if there's anything the RAV4 Prime proves, it's that plug-in hybrids like it are a solution for range anxiety. 

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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider

For those who want an EV but fret about being able to complete long trips, PHEVs are the answer. You don't need to worry about finding a charging station because any old gas station will do, and you can rely on the gasoline engine while your battery is charging. 

You won't get stuck. I can't really see a downside, and buyers probably won't either.

If the future of the RAV4 Prime is anything like the success of the regular RAV4, then strap in. Toyota just might wind up selling thousands and thousands of these things.


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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider
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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider
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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider
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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider
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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider
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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider
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2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE AWD. Kristen Lee/Business Insider

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