We all know those people. The early adopters. The ones who have to have the latest and greatest of everything, including cars. Many of “those people” are probably driving electric by now – some might be on their second or third EV. The future of driving appears to be at least partially battery-powered, and the number of owners are growing alongside the number of electric cars on the market. But what if you’re not so easily swayed? Maybe an EV would work for you on paper, but jumping into the deep end isn’t your style. Come dip your toes in the water with the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime.
In the EV game, Toyota has played it conservative and does not offer anything fully-electric. No, their most electrified vehicles are the “Primes” – plug-in hybrids that offer a useful battery-only range but will then engage a gasoline-powered engine to operate for hundreds more miles as a traditional hybrid.
New for 2021, Toyota’s 2021 RAV4 Prime joins the Prius as the brand’s second plug-in hybrid (or “PHEV”) offering. Plug-in hybrids have their place, especially if you don’t have at-home charging or don’t want to deal with the differences that come with road-tripping a full EV. And in the case of the RAV4 Prime, Toyota claims it’s the second-fastest model in their lineup to 60 miles per hour, behind the 2021 Supra 3.0. With 302 horsepower on tap, I wanted to see how well the RAV4 Prime performed as a plug-in hybrid – and if it was much fun in the process.
What Is It?
This is a 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime XSE. It’s the fully-loaded RAV4 Prime, sitting above the more-basic RAV4 Prime SE. Every RAV4 Prime is a plug-in hybrid, rated for 42 miles of electric-only driving. Once the battery is depleted, the RAV4 Prime operates as a traditional hybrid, using a naturally-aspirated 2.5 liter four cylinder alongside the electric motors. Fuel economy is rated at 94 MPGe – calculated by battery-only range and then hybrid economy once the battery is depleted. If running the RAV4 Prime as a traditional hybrid, it’s rated for 38 miles per gallon in combined city/highway driving.
Traditional fuel economy is actually a hair less than the RAV4 Hybrid, but what the Prime has up its sleeve is an extra 83 horsepower. Where the RAV4 Hybrid produces 219 horsepower, the RAV4 Prime is good for 302. It requires the gas engine on top of the electric motors – in EV mode, the RAV4 Prime is not going to provide Tesla-esque acceleration.
Toyota provides a wall charger for the RAV4 Prime that can charge the 18.1 kWh battery in about 12 hours on a traditional 120V wall outlet. Should you use a “Level 2” 240V charger, it’ll take about 4.5 hours at 3.3 kilowatts of charging speed. Every RAV4 Prime can charge at 3.3 kW, but choosing the Prime XSE’s Premium Package also includes a faster onboard charger, which allows 6.6 kW of charging – cutting the charge time down to 2.5 hours. Faster charging is always welcomed, but given how the RAV4 Prime will likely be used, I think even a 12-hour charging time is actually adequate.
MSRP of my 2021 RAV4 Prime XSE with Premium Package was $49,831. That’s a lot of money for a RAV4, especially when the RAV4 Hybrid can be had for less money according to MSRP. But the Prime qualifies for the federal government’s $7,500 tax credit, which brings the cost down to more reasonable levels.
Supply of the RAV4 Prime, though, has been an issue. Toyota only planned on bringing 5,000 RAV4 Primes to the United States for 2021, and thanks to COVID-related manufacturing delays, even fewer are available due to battery shortages. If you find a RAV4 Prime for sale, many are reporting dealer markups of nearly $10,000. Insanity, y’all.
About That ‘Second-Fastest Toyota’ Claim
Toyota claims the 302 horsepower RAV4 Prime is “the quickest four-door Toyota” in their lineup. The same press release mentions it’s “fun-to-drive.” The RAV4 Prime is certainly quick but fun it is not.
Three hundred and two horsepower is achieved by combining the four cylinder engine (177 HP / 165 lb-ft) with two electric motors. The electric motor up front produces 179 HP and 199 lb-ft of torque, and the electric motor on the rear axle produces another 53 HP and 89 lb-ft. That rear-mounted motor is what provides the entirety of the RAV4 Prime’s all-wheel drive system, which eliminates the need for a (heavy) center differential and driveshaft. The sole transmission is a CVT that pairs well to the parallel hybrid system and stays out of everyone’s way.
These motors all come together to push and pull the RAV4 Prime to sixty in a claimed 5.7 seconds as the not-tachometer swings fully into the “PWR” zone. It’s just quick enough to be giggle-inducing, but won’t shove you back in the seat overcome with torque and emotion. And remember, you must be in Hybrid (HV) mode to have all that power on tap. Thankfully, the transition from fully-electric driving to hybrid driving is nearly imperceptible. Pay close attention, and you’ll notice some minute vibration in the floor as the 2.5 liter four spins up to assist the electric motors.
Beyond the straight-line giggles, the RAV4 Prime is… a RAV4. Nothing else has been done to make it more of a “RAV4 TRD,” which is to say the handling is just fine but not really “fun” the way you and I would consider. That said, the RAV4 Prime does take fast, sweeping off-ramps with good confidence. The battery pack is mounted in the floor, helping the center of gravity in this 4,300 pound crossover stay as low as possible. Brake feel was good, with a very smooth transition from regenerative braking (dumping otherwise-wasted thermal energy back into the battery) to the service brakes.
So yes, this is the “quickest four-door Toyota” on sale, but so was the RAV4 V6 sold from 2005 to 2012. Then and now, both RAV4s are straight-line superstars, but neither will encourage spirited driving when things get twisty.
Living the Plug-In Hybrid Life
With more longer-range EVs hitting the market, I see the RAV4 Prime as a sort of transitional crossover for both not-quite-sold buyers and the not-quite-there charging network. As more consumers come around to the idea of EV ownership, realistic battery range and charging time should be more advanced (and consistent) alongside a slightly more robust network of chargers for those longer trips.
In the meantime, vehicles like the RAV4 Prime do serve a good purpose. They’ve got forward-looking tech but feel mostly “normal” for the crowd who’s not so sure about this battery-powered thing.
It’s worth mentioning, though, that I drove the RAV4 in EV-only mode as much as possible and ended up disappointed when I “had to use” the gasoline engine. It does a great job at feeling like a fully-electrified “normal car,” instead of something more space-age. Initial electric-only acceleration is more than adequate, even with a few passengers onboard, and I only wished for more power when going wide-open down an on-ramp.
Toyota provides a few buttons by the shifter that allow the driver to force the RAV4 Prime into EV-only driving, HV-only driving (hybrid operation), or let the RAV4 do the thinking and switch modes on its own. In EV-only mode, the gasoline engine will remain off, even if you bury the throttle in the carpet. Use Auto mode or plan your passes and merges with a bit more space.
Holding the “EV/HV” button will also put the RAV4 Prime into a Battery Charge mode, which keeps the gasoline engine running full-time to recharge the battery. It seems ambitious to recharge the battery this way, and makes the car feel notably slower compared to running in EV or hybrid modes. But, it’ll add a few miles of range in a pinch.
My friend Sofyan of Redline Reviews recently purchased a RAV4 Prime as his personal car, and mentioned that he’s actually exceeded the rated electric-only range by a few miles. I was able to beat it as well, going all around Washington, D.C. on electricity and covering 46 miles instead of the EPA-rated 42. While the brakes do recapture some energy, the RAV4 doesn’t allow full one-pedal driving like some full EVs I’ve driven.
In fully-electric mode, the RAV4 Prime burned electrons at a rate of 2.6 miles per kilowatt-hour. Just like miles per gallon, miles-per-kWh is also a “higher number is better” statistic. Operating as a plug-in hybrid, I achieved a total average of 61.5 miles per gallon. This “total average” figure includes all of the miles I drove on electricity alone, plus the fuel economy in hybrid mode.
For the crowd who might consider a Tesla Model Y or Ford Mustang Mach-E, but still has concerns about living a fully-electrified life, crossovers like the 2021 RAV4 Prime make a lot of sense. I’m personally pretty sold on the idea of road-tripping an EV, as many offer realistic range estimates that wouldn’t require excessive stops to juice up. But until more people and infrastructure are both at that point, PHEVs are a great option.
Driving the RAV4 Prime is both futuristic (check out the “choir of angels” noise in EV-only Reverse) and traditional-enough, the interior is a comfortable and nice place to spend time, and cargo space abounds, with a seats-folded flat floor. Toyota’s infotainment continues to lag behind most, but that was my only huge complaint throughout my week with the crossover.
Though there’s not a ton of outright fun to be had, the RAV4 Prime is quick enough to never leave you wanting for power and otherwise offers a non-threatening glimpse into the future of transportation. In the meantime, it can be driven efficiently day-to-day, and in a generally mindless way that won’t add extra stress for traveling families who just want to gas up and go on longer drives. It is absolutely a transportation appliance, and a pretty good one considering the vehicle landscape we’ve cultivated over the past century.