2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime First Drive | Flipping the script

So far, there haven’t been many hybrid variants of smaller mainstream two-row crossovers and, understandably, all have focused on efficiency. The new, range-topping 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime is flipping the script.

For 2021, Toyota is looking to reclaim the performance high ground in the compact crossover segment with a plug-in hybrid. The RAV4 Prime may approach performance from a completely different angle, but 302 horsepower is 302 horsepower, and quick is quick. Like our Volvo S60 long-termer, the 2021 RAV4 Prime is poised to be as fun as it is frugal.

Toyota has hinted at this approach before, as the current RAV4‘s sportiest trim level, the XSE, is only available as the Hybrid. Blessed with sharper suspension and steering tuning, it stemmed from the belief of chief engineer Yoshikazu Saeki that hybrids had untapped performance potential. It, like every regular RAV4 Hybrid, is also more powerful than the base 2.5-liter four-cylinder, but the acceleration difference is meager. We’re talking 0-60 times of 7.8 and 8.1 seconds, respectively. The RAV4 Prime moves the ball much further down field.   

If anything, it’s the long-awaited replacement and spiritual successor to the 2006-2012 RAV4 and its optional 269-horsepower V6. That was a hoot to drive as it could blow the doors off most of its contemporaries with its 6.3-second 0-60. So, when Toyota offered us the opportunity to get behind the wheel of the new RAV4 Prime, we eagerly accepted.

The 2021 RAV4 Prime shares its 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle, gasoline-powered four-cylinder with the regular RAV4 Hybrid, but it’s tuned differently. Its 177 hp is just 1 more than the Hybrid’s output, and its 165 pound-feet of torque tops the Hybrid’s by just 2. The 40-kilowatt (53 hp) rear-axle electric motor carries over too, but the RAV4 Prime borrows the front motors from the larger Highlander Hybrid, for a total front-axle electric output of 134 kW (or 179 hp).

Since it’s a plug-in, that means the RAV4 Prime gets a much bigger battery pack than its run-of-the-mill hybrid sibling. The 18.1-kWh pack can provide enough juice for 42 miles of pure electric driving under normal conditions, with a maximum speed of 84 MPH.

When it’s not in pure EV mode, the RAV4 Prime is taking advantage of that stored energy to significantly boost both its performance and efficiency. The EPA has certified the RAV4 Prime at 40 mpg city, 36 mpg highway and 38 mpg combined. For comparison, the regular hybrid checks in at 41/38/40.

So, while it is plenty efficient, squeezing the most out of a drop of fuel is clearly not the RAV4 Prime’s top priority. Its plug-in-hybrid system produces a total system output of 302 horsepower, making it the most powerful compact SUV from a non-luxury brand. Toyota says it’ll also go from 0-60 mph in 5.7 seconds, which slices 2 seconds off the regular Hybrid’s time and is noteworthy for a compact crossover of any stripe.

Toyota’s engineers pretty much maintained the suspension and steering calibrations of the regular Hybrid XSE apart, but there are some minute differences to account for the RAV4 Prime’s additional mass (thanks, battery pack!) and to increase refinement for those who understandably expect a little bit extra from a $40,000 new car.

Apart from being sporty and comfortable, the RAV4 Prime also offers all the CUV-style practicality you could ask for. While the bulkier PHEV powertrain does infringe slightly on the rear cargo space, it’s down just 4.1 cubic feet behind the second row compared to the standard Hybrid and only 6.7 cubes with the rear seats folded, checking in at 33.5 and 63.1 cubic feet, respectively. Available passenger space remains identical to that of the base Hybrid’s.

Toyota is offering the RAV4 Prime in two flavors: SE (the base model and an exclusive trim level) and XSE. Standard equipment on the SE includes heated front seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, a power liftgate, and an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa integration. The XSE ($42,545 before options) gets you a 9-inch touchscreen, upgraded audio, wireless device charging, a moonroof and a fancy two-tone exterior paint scheme.

The XSE model also unlocks one of the RAV4 Prime’s handy convenience features. For drivers who are constantly on-the-go, the standard 3.3 kW charger may not be adequate for keeping the Toyota topped off. While that’s more than adequate for overnight replenishing (it’ll take about 12 hours on a standard 120-volt hookup; 4.5 hours on a DC fast charger), the 6.6-kW charger offered with the XSE’s Premium package is the way to go if you need to juice up quickly; it drops the time required to top off the RAV4 Prime’s battery on a Level 2 connection to just 2.5 hours.

Our loaner model was a well-equipped XSE with the Premium package and high-throughput charger, which adds quite a chunk of change; those options alone drive the price up to $48,305 (including $1,120 for destination). The SE will ring the till at just $39,220. While the price may seem steep, keep in mind that the price will be offset by up to $7,500 in the federal EV tax credit, plus state incentives depending on your location. It’s therefore possible that the plug-in could end up being cheaper than a regular hybrid. 

At first blush, the RAV4 Prime could be mistaken for any other RAV4. While it gets some exterior dress-up to set it apart from the lesser models in the lineup, it still casts the same basic shadow. Toyota decided against including a solar panel roof on the RAV4 Prime because customers shopping in this price range expect features like a sunroof to be available, and the two are not compatible.

Inside, it’s a similar story. The RAV4 Prime borrows the bulk of its interior from the RAV4 Hybrid, with most of the differences appearing in the instrumentation. The Prime’s PHEV format enables a handful of new drive modes, including “Charge,” which replenishes some of the all-electric range, and “Hold,” which lets you save it for later.

There’s also EV mode, which should be self-explanatory but know that using it curtails performance. Without the help of the gasoline engine, it’ll only do 0-60 in 9.2 seconds. This is plenty for getting around, and more than adequate for those who want to commute exclusively on electric power, but we feel like that’s missing the point in this case.

The RAV4 Prime XSE weighs 4,300 pounds, so 302 horsepower will only go so far. It launches assertively and without much drama. The gasoline engine makes quite a racket when the pedal is floored, but the feedback is oddly reassuring.

On the freeway, the Prime offers the same confident thrust that it does off the line. Merging and passing are completely effortless, and the hybrid system always seems to know exactly where it needs to be for what you’re trying to do. It’s intuitive and seamless to the point where it’s easy to forget just how much is going on behind all those benign gauges and toggles.

We expected the RAV4 Prime to disappoint us through corners, but instead we came away quite impressed. No, it’s not sharper than the RAV4 Hybrid XSE, but that’s just fine. Like that sportiest of current RAV4 trim levels, the Prime’s chassis holds its own just fine in terms of ride and handling, and while there’s an obvious soft edge to its dynamics, it never feels outmatched even on a winding road. The 19-inch wheels — a first for any RAV4 Hybrid model — help a bit in that regard without noticeably diminishing ride quality. 

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to draw any useful conclusions regarding fuel economy from our limited time with the RAV4 Prime. After driving around surface streets with the battery almost fully charged, the Prime’s onboard computer told us we were averaging better than 60 mpg. With some freeway and back-road miles piled on, we settled to around 42 mpg — better than the Prime’s EPA city rating of 40 mpg. For reference, West Coast Editor James Riswick managed 36.1 mpg in a RAV4 Hybrid XSE on the same 100-mile test loop where a Honda CR-V Hybrid achieved 35.4 mpg. However, like all plug-in hybrids, fuel consumption really depends on how far you travel, how frequently you plug in and therefore how much you rely on electricity only. If your commute is in the sweet spot, you could see far better than what we managed.  

All-in, we really couldn’t find much to dislike about the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime. It’s a bit noisy under hard acceleration and its handling is not quite as sharp as we enthusiasts might like, but it’s a generally pleasant and capable crossover that manages to combine fuel efficiency and performance in a compelling, family-friendly package.

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