by Jared Rosenholtz
Toyota's best-selling RAV4 crossover went through a major redesign in 2018, which repositioned the hybrid as the most powerful variant in the lineup. With more power than its gasoline counterpart, the RAV4 Hybrid ended up being the smoother and more competent of the two models. Now, for the 2021 model year, Toyota is taking the superiority of the RAV4 Hybrid and cranking it up another notch with a new model called the RAV4 Prime.
Like the Prius Prime, the 2021 RAV4 Prime is a plug-in hybrid. This means the Prime is capable of running with the gasoline and electric motors working in concert or using only the electric motors for up to 42 miles. It also includes more powerful electric motors, bumping the total output to 302 horsepower, and making this the most powerful RAV4 model Toyota has ever built. In the compact plug-in hybrid crossover space, the RAV4 Prime will only face competition from the Ford Escape PHEV, which wins on efficiency but loses on power and performance. Toyota gave us an early opportunity to drive the RAV4 Prime and it immediately became apparent that this is now the RAV4 to get.
The Toyota RAV4 Prime is the first-ever plug-in hybrid version of the popular RAV4. It's also become the most powerful and quickest RAV4 thanks to the 302-horsepower combined output from the combination of a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine and electric motors. Paired with an electronic on-demand all-wheel-drive system and a continuously variable transmission, it accelerates to 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds. Despite this potent performance, Toyota says it is also the most fuel-efficient RAV4 ever with a preliminary EPA rating of 94 MPGe, a 600-mile total range, and a 42-mile range on electric power alone. The RAV4 Prime comes well-equipped with a power-adjustable driver's seat, a 120V charging cable, a pre-collision system, and dynamic radar cruise control.
Toyota doesn't just want you to enjoy the new RAV4 Prime from behind the wheel; it also wants the range-topper to stand out. As a result, the Prime is more boldly attired than lesser versions of the RAV4 and features its own lower front bumper, a bespoke grille, black exterior accents, and dual chrome tailpipes. The SE has 18-inch machined alloy wheels while the XSE gets 19-inch black alloy wheels, which are the biggest wheels ever fitted to a RAV4. The XSE also has vertical LED accent lights and a black roof.
The new RAV4 Prime shares its dimensions with the regular gas-powered RAV4, which means it is 180.9 inches long, 73 inches wide, and 67 inches in height. The XSE stands marginally taller at 67.2 inches and also has a slightly higher ground clearance of 8.3 inches (0.2 inches higher than the SE). The wheelbase measures 105.9 inches. The RAV4 Prime has approach/departure angles of 18.6/21.4 degrees respectively. At 4,235 pounds for the base SE, the RAV4 Prime is a significant 580 lbs heavier than the heaviest gas-only RAV4. The XSE is even heavier at 4,300 lbs.
A choice of seven standard and premium paint colors have been made available for the Toyota RAV4 Prime. On the SE, these are Super White, Silver Sky Metallic, Magnetic Gray Metallic, Midnight Black Metallic, Blueprint, and a new shade called Supersonic Red, which costs an extra $425. The XSE has most of the same colors but swaps Super White for Blizzard Pearl ($425) and, because the XSE has a black roof, it isn't available in Midnight Black Metallic. The Supersonic Red seems to be the color Toyota has chosen to promote the new RAV4 Prime, and it does do a good job of adding some spice to the crossover's look. Our SE tester wore an unassuming shade of Magnetic Gray Metallic, which is great for blending in but poor for helping the Prime stand out next to a standard RAV4 Hybrid.
The Toyota RAV4 Prime instantly positions itself as one of the quickest-accelerating options in its segment, with its 302-horsepower hybrid powertrain propelling the Prime to 60 mph in a mere 5.7 seconds. That officially makes this the second-fastest Toyota after only the GR Supra. Power goes to all four wheels via an electronic on-demand all-wheel-drive system. The zero-to-sixty time is over two seconds quicker than the gas-only RAV4 and also a lot quicker than the 7.5 seconds it takes the RAV4 Hybrid to complete the same sprint. To get close to the RAV4 Prime's performance, you'll need to get the turbocharged Mazda CX-5, but that uses far more fuel and doesn't offer any electric driving range. With a maximum towing capacity of 2,500 lbs, the RAV4 Prime does, however, fall 1,000 lbs short of the conventionally-powered RAV4.
Allowing the RAV4 Prime to accelerate as quickly as it does is a hybrid powertrain that combines a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with permanent magnet synchronous electric motors. On its own, the 2.5L engine produces 177 hp and 165 lb-ft, but the combined output is 302 hp. The system features an 18.1 kWh PHV lithium-ion battery which is mounted under the floor so that it has practically no impact on passenger space. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) is fitted and there are three driving modes - Normal, Eco, and Sport - the latter providing the quickest acceleration times with sharper throttle calibration. There are also three separate EV driving modes, whereby the RAV4 Prime can reach a maximum speed of 84 mph without the assistance of the gas engine.
After already loving the regular RAV4 Hybrid's drivetrain, we knew the Prime was going to be a treat. In EV mode, the RAV4 Prime can hustle to 60 mph in 9.2 seconds, making it quicker than a Prius using its gas engine and electric motors. This means you'll easily be able to keep up and pass traffic without ever needing to burn a single drop of gasoline. When the engine and electric motors are working together in hybrid mode, the acceleration goes from brisk to rapid, pinning you into your seat more than any previous RAV4 model to date. Toyota says the RAV4 Prime takes just 5.7 seconds to hit 60 mph and after driving the car for a few days, this figure seems accurate. We wish we'd had a Volkswagen GTI on hand for a drag race because with the same exact 0-60 mph time, the RAV4 Prime would have made for an interesting opponent. With no gears to shuffle through in the transmission, acceleration is immediate and the RAV Prime can whoosh past other cars with relative ease. Under modest acceleration, the engine can barely be heard humming in the background but if you really mash the throttle, the groan of the four-banger becomes apparent and a bit distracting.
Aside from minor suspension tweaks to account for the added weight of the batteries, Toyota has not gone through extensive efforts to improve the RAV4 Prime's handling characteristics. This means you should not expect the RAV4 Prime to be a performance variant of the RAV4, despite the hot rod levels of power. It rides well over rough pavement and exhibits an acceptable amount of body roll for a non-performance crossover while the steering feels light and fairly responsive. Toyota has integrated regenerative braking that comes on automatically during coasting but it lacks the stopping power to execute one pedal driving like a Tesla or Nissan Leaf. You can trigger heavier regen by downshifting using the gear lever or optional paddles but most drivers will likely leave the system to its own devices. We found the brake pedal feel to be a bit inconsistent, likely due to the regen system, but we also had just a few days with the car and may have gotten smoother with the brakes after a longer period of time.
The RAV4 Prime's higher price point has allowed Toyota to add more sound-deadening materials including thicker glass. Road noise has been a sore point on recent Toyotas but the Prime feels noticeably quieter than the standard RAV4 Hybrid. In EV mode, the cabin feels eerily quiet and under most circumstances, the engine rarely intrudes into the cabin.
Drivers can choose between four different drive modes: Hybrid Mode, EV Mode, a mode that cycles automatically between EV and HV, and Charge Mode. Hybrid Mode delivers max acceleration, using the engine and electric motors together and keeping the batteries at their current charge level. EV Mode shuts off the engine completely, allowing up to 42 miles of electric-only driving range. Charge Mode activates the engine to charge the batteries, which could be useful if you want to arrive at a destination with a full battery. Eco, Normal, and Sport modes can also be triggered regardless of the drivetrain mode.
The Toyota RAV4 Prime is the most fuel-efficient RAV4 ever with EPA estimates working out to 40/36/38 mpg on the city/highway/combined cycles and a 94 MPGe rating on electrons only. Toyota claims that the electric driving range is an impressive 42 miles. It is worth noting that we only observed around 28 miles on a full battery after using the car's built-in charge mode, though it may be possible that the 42-mile range can only be achieved by plugging in to charge. With a 14.5-gallon gas tank, a preliminary EPA-rated range of around 600 miles has been cited.
As the first plug-in RAV4 ever produced, the Prime comes with a 120-volt charging cable as standard which allows for charging at home or at a public charging station. A full charge will take 12 hours at 3.3 kW and with a 120-volt plug, but this drops to 4.5 hours with a 240-volt connection. On the XSE, the optional Premium Package comes with an enhanced 6.6 kW charger. With a 240-volt plug and at least 32 amps, this option drops the charging time to just 2.5 hours.
The standard RAV4's interior impressed us with its well-built and logically designed cabin, and the well-equipped RAV Prime furthers that impression. The base SE has attractive fabric-trimmed seats with red stitching while the XSE gets SofTex-trimmed seats, while the nine-inch touchscreen on this trim is the largest ever fitted to a RAV4. Both variants have standard features that include heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, and the Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 suite with the likes of pedestrian detection, dynamic radar cruise control, and road sign assist. The spacious cabin seats five occupants comfortably and touches like a power liftgate make this a practical SUV.
Since Toyota has mounted the RAV4 Prime's batteries into the floor, it has no impact on the interior space. The RAV4 Prime still offers seating for five with adequate room in all positions. The front seats offer 37.7 inches of headroom (with a moonroof) and 41 inches of legroom while the rear seats offer 39.5 inches of headroom and 37.8 inches of legroom. These are not the largest measurements in the compact crossover segment but they are on par with most competitors. No RAV4 model offers the option of a third row and even if one did, there wouldn't be much space for occupants back there, but instead, the cargo area is practical and capacious.
Both the SE and XSE feature a soft-touch dashboard with red-stitched accents that heighten the impression of quality. A leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift lever are standard, while the SE has cloth-trimmed seats with red stitching. On the XSE, classier leatherette covers the seats and this model also gains chrome door handles and blue ambient lighting. Overall, there is little reason to believe that Toyota hasn't built a cabin that will stay looking smart for a long time.
The RAV4 Prime has a slightly smaller trunk than the regular RAV4 but it still measures a useful 33.5 cubic feet behind the second row. By comparison, the Honda CR-V Hybrid has an almost identical 33.2 cubes. With the 60/40-split folding back seats lying flat, total space increases to 63.2 cubes without the moonroof or 63.1 cubes with the moonroof.
Toyota has done well to make the RAV4 Prime's cabin a usable and practical space. There are in-dash anti-slip storage trays along with a spacious compartment underneath the center console armrest. An overhead console to stash your sunglasses, four bottle holders, and four cupholders (including in the rear center armrest), ensures that most smaller items can be conveniently stored.
Adding to the more premium appearance of the RAV4 Prime are standard features like LED projector headlights and a power moonroof on the XSE. Both trims keep the driver and passengers comfortable with features like dual-zone automatic climate control (along with vents in the back), heated front seats, and an eight-way power-adjustable driver's seat. The multi-function steering wheel houses controls for the dynamic radar cruise control, lane trace alert, and lane departure warning systems. Of course, a rearview camera is standard. Adding convenience to the package is a smart key system with remote keyless entry, push-button start, and a power liftgate. The XSE has additional standard gear like an auto-dimming rearview mirror, blue ambient lighting, paddle shifters, and wireless device charging. A 360-degree camera and a 10-inch color head-up display are available.
The RAV4 Prime SE gets an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system that now includes Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration as standard. Upgrading to the XSE trim nets you an Audio Plus system with a larger nine-inch screen that can also include navigation and a JBL Audio system as part of an optional package. With smartphone connectivity, we didn't yearn for built-in navigation on our SE tester but the inclusion of a nicer audio system and a larger touchscreen would have been welcome additions. Toyota's infotainment system is intuitive and easy to use but the graphics and visual appeal lag behind competitors.
As it is an all-new vehicle, the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime hasn't been subject to any recalls. The gas-only RAV4 has proved reliable through the years, although that model was recalled twice in 2020 for issues like coolant that may leak and front lower suspension arms that could separate.
Toyota covers the RAV4 Prime with its three-year/36,000-mile limited warranty and a five-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty. The hybrid system is covered by an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty and the battery is covered for 10 years or 150,000 miles, whichever comes first. A five-year corrosion perforation warranty also applies, while factory scheduled maintenance is covered for two years or 25,000 miles.
While the new RAV4 Prime hasn't been individually evaluated by local authorities, it's based on the regular RAV4 which has proven itself as a safe crossover. In 2020, the RAV4 attained a five-star overall rating from the NHTSA and the same model year attained a Top Safety Pick award from the IIHS.
Regardless of the trim you opt for, both RAV4 Primes come equipped with eight airbags (including front/rear curtain airbags), tire pressure monitoring, traction control, trailer-sway control, hill start assist, and LED lights with automatic high beams. The latest Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 suite includes all of the driver-assist technologies one would expect on a modern crossover. These features include pre-collision warning with pedestrian detection, lane tracing assist, full-speed dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist, and road sign assist. Both the SE and XSE also have blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, but only the XSE can be equipped with front/rear parking assist with automated braking.
Put simply, the 2021 RAV4 Prime is the best RAV4 we've ever driven. It takes all of the attributes we enjoyed about the RAV4 Hybrid such as the smooth drivetrain, impressive efficiency, and effortless acceleration, and improved on all of them. The RAV4 Prime isn't just quick for a RAV4, it's outright fast, so much so that people driving hot hatchbacks should watch out for RAV4 Prime owners at a set of lights. Toyota has also made the RAV4 Prime quieter than other RAV4 models, improving one of the standard model's biggest weak points.
Buyers who want a compact crossover with a plug-in hybrid drivetrain only have a choice between the RAV4 Prime and the Ford Escape PHEV. The Escape offers slightly better fuel economy when using the gasoline engine but it offers far less power and slightly less EV-only range. It seems then that the Toyota RAV4 Prime is in a league of its own and if you can afford the premium over a RAV4 Hybrid, we highly recommend it.
The RAV4 Prime starts off with the SE at an MSRP of $38,100 and increases to $41,425 for the XSE. These prices are exclusive of tax, licensing, registration, and a delivery/processing fee of $1,095. Previously, the most expensive RAV4 was the Limited Hybrid (non-plug-in) at $36,880. However, the RAV4 Prime's 18.1-kWh battery capacity means that it will qualify for a tax credit of up to $7,500 as well as other state-specific incentives.
The Toyota RAV4 Prime is available in two trims: the SE and the XSE. Both share a hybrid powertrain developing a combined output of 302 horsepower from a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motors. A continuously variable transmission is standard along with an electric on-demand AWD system.
Kicking off the range is the SE, which comes with 18-inch alloy wheels, LED projector headlights, a black diamond-patterned grille, a power liftgate, and dual chrome exhaust tips. Inside, it has cloth-upholstered seats that are heated in front. The driver has an eight-way power-adjustable front seat. Other equipment highlights include a six-speaker sound system, an eight-inch touchscreen, and safety gear like blind-spot monitoring, dynamic radar cruise control, and pedestrian detection.
The XSE rides on bigger 19-inch alloy wheels and has a black contrast roof. It gains a nine-inch infotainment touchscreen, leatherette upholstery, blue ambient lighting, and wireless device charging. It can also be optioned with an enhanced charger that dramatically reduces the battery's total charging time.
The RAV4 Prime may be the most expensive RAV4, but it can still be upgraded to include even more technology and luxury. On the SE, the Weather & Moonroof Package costs $1,665 and adds a heated steering wheel, rain-sensing windshield wipers, heated rear outboard seats, and a moonroof. The XSE avails quite a few more options, starting with its own Weather Package at $815 (all the above features excluding the moonroof, which is already equipped on the XSE by default). Also on the XSE, the Weather and Audio Package together comes to $2,435 and includes the Weather Package's contents plus a premium audio system with JBL speakers, dynamic navigation, and destination assist. The priciest upgrade is the $5,760 Weather with Audio and Premium Package. As the name dictates, this includes the contents of the Weather/Audio packages but also adds a 10-inch color head-up display, a panoramic moonroof, and a top-view camera system, among other items. Perhaps the most useful feature you can have as part of this upgrade is an enhanced charger that speeds up charging to just 2.5 hours.
The RAV4 Prime SE comes pretty well-equipped but if you think a car costing over $40,000 should be filled to the brim with tech toys, the XSE is clearly the way to go. If you can afford it, the XSE with the Weather with Audio and Premium Package adds niceties such as a panoramic roof, heated and ventilated Softex seats, bird's eye camera, camera mirror, HUD, and more for $5,760. This would bring the fully-loaded price to $47,185 minus a $7,500 federal tax credit. It may be well into luxury territory but the XSE trim offers a slew of features to justify the price tag and performance nonpareil in this segment.
The RAV4 Hybrid has until now been the first choice in the RAV4 range for combining decent pace with strong efficiency, but it's been surpassed in almost every way by the RAV4 Prime. Whereas the Hybrid has a combined 219 horsepower and takes about 7.5 seconds to hit 60 mph, the RAV4 Prime has 302 hp and cuts the benchmark sprint time down to just 5.7 seconds. Besides this, the Prime has preliminary EPA estimates of 40/36/38 mpg, which combined with its 42-mile electric-only range, means it can travel around 20 miles further on a full tank. The RAV4 Prime has a slightly smaller trunk but is otherwise just as practical as the RAV4 Hybrid. The top-spec RAV4 Hybrid Limited comes in at around $1,200 cheaper than the base RAV4 Prime while packing in features like a power sunroof and JBL speakers not found on the latter. However, we'd rather go for the much faster and more aggressively styled RAV4 Prime.
Tesla's new baby electric crossover may be more of a luxurious and premium option, but at $52,990 for the Long Range, it's priced similarly to a fully loaded RAV4 Prime XSE. However, new Teslas no longer qualify for a federal tax credit, whereas the RAV4 Prime qualifies for a tax credit of up to $7,500. Sticking with the base Model Y, it carves out an immediate advantage by being a lot quicker, its electric powertrain sending it to 60 mph in just 4.8 seconds, and providing the kind of instant responses that the hybrid RAV4 Prime can't match. The cabins of each SUV couldn't be more different, with the Model Y's minimalist design contrasting with the more conventional Toyota's layout. Both are spacious and well-equipped. For more conservative motorists who remain hesitant to transition to electrified power, the trusty Toyota badge and continued use of a gas engine will hold high appeal. But for those willing to take more of a leap, the pricier Model Y is the more revolutionary SUV.