Toyota has been applying a “Prime” moniker to its Toyota Prius for several years. That plug-in hybrid (PHEV) version of the Prius has a slightly higher price and a somewhat bigger battery that enables 25 miles of electric driving before the engine comes to life. The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime shares that nondescript suffix, however the RAV4 is a much more interesting and more compelling plug-in hybrid than the Prius Prime. In fact the RAV4 Hybrid has overtaken the Prius as the best-selling hybrid in the brand’s lineup. Last year alone, more than 500,000 were sold in the U.S. and Canada alone. That’s half a million Toyota RAV4s that found new homes in a single year, and in just two countries.
The RAV4 Hybrid boasts several advantages over the standard RAV4, including a smoother powertrain and better fuel economy. Now, Toyota is introducing a plug-in version of the RAV4, one that’s more powerful, more fuel efficient, and delivers impressive electric range. Now in its third model year, Toyota’s fifth generation of its bestselling RAV4, that makes the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime the crown jewel of the brand’s SUV lineup.
One key differentiator between the RAV4 Prime and its siblings is its ability to cover distances on EV power alone. The RAV4 Prime scores big on fuel economy and power. Some customers will be able to commute to work every day without using a drop of gasoline. The RAV4 Prime is expected to travel 42 miles on a single charge, giving it the highest EV range of any plug-in hybrid SUV on the market. In our testing, we easily got the EPA-estimated 42 miles of electric-only range. Ford’s plug-in hybrid Escape isn’t far behind with an EV range of 37 miles, except the RAV4 Prime has all-wheel drive, while the Escape plug-in hybrid is only available with front-wheel drive. The Prime will tow up to 2,500 pounds, the highest tow rating in its class.
Charging times vary dramatically depending on the method. Included with the RAV4 Prime is a 3.3-kW, 120V Level 1 charging cable, allowing customers to recharge the battery in about 12 hours from home. With a 3.3-kW 240V charger, the time drops to 4.5 hours. XSE models with the Premium package feature enhanced 6.6-kW charging capability to replenish the battery in 2.5 hours on a faster Level 2 charger. With the gas and electric bits combined, total driving range is expected to be close to 600 miles. This means the RAV4 Prime is expected to deliver 94 mpg-e.
It’s counterintuitive to think of a RAV4 as sporty, but Toyota intended this version to focus heavily on performance. The automaker claims the RAV4 Prime is its second-quickest vehicle, just behind the Supra. The powertrain starts with a 177-hp 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle inline-four that has been calibrated for Prime duty. Paired with the internal-combustion engine is Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system. This is two permanent-magnet synchronous AC motor-generators that combine to generate 179 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque at the front axle. There is an additional motor, the same 53-hp, 89-lb-ft rear motor that’s fitted to the RAV4 hybrid, to provide standard all-wheel-drive capability. Electricity to power the system is stored in an 18.1-kWh lithium-ion battery pack. With all the components working together, the RAV4 Prime is rated at a combined 302 horsepower, which is a stout 83 horsepower more than the hybrid. To put it all into perspective, this RAV4 is quicker off the line than Toyota’s own V6-powered Camry TRD.
There are three different electric modes. In auto/HV mode, the engine kicks on to deliver extra power when needed, such as when you kick the gas pedal. You can select an EV priority mode to run on electric power only, even when you use the accelerator aggressively. A battery charge mode uses engine power to recharge the battery, adding EV range as you drive. If you use electric power only, acceleration is slower. In pure EV mode the RAV4 Prime takes a stroll from 0-60 mph in 9.2 seconds, however in hybrid mode it makes it to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds. The RAV4 Prime’s acceleration is smooth and linear from a stop. The gas engine is quick to jump in with an extra kick when you’re switching lanes on the freeway in hybrid mode. The RAV4 Prime’s ride quality is biased more toward comfort than performance, delivering a smooth ride over road imperfections. Road and wind noise is pleasantly muted. The RAV4 in general feels nice and grown-up, almost premium, quiet, soothing, verging on Lexus-like at times.
The Prime benefits from improved exterior styling with a boxy shape and a masculine curb appeal which obtained several thumbs up on our week of testing. The interior should feel familiar if you’re driven a RAV4 Hybrid. Buttons are smartly laid out on the dashboard, giving the cabin an uncluttered feel. Large, grippy knobs allow you to adjust the climate without taking your eyes off the road. On the lower center console, the shifter and cupholders are placed for easy access. Like with the RAV4 Hybrid, soft-touch materials everywhere make the cabin feel more comfortable. Interior storage is helped by some extra shelves cut into the dash, a wireless charging pad, and a good-size center armrest bin. The RAV4 benefits from excellent visibility. It’s easy to see out of the vehicle thanks to the low windows and unobtrusive pillars. There is enough headroom and legroom from any seat. Entry and exit are helped by an ideal ride height and big door openings; shorter passengers can get in easily and taller people won’t have to stoop to get in.
One miss at the moment is the Prime isn’t available in the outdoor-themed Adventure or surprisingly capable TRD trims, maybe this might be a change in a future model year. Our XSE tester came with a long list of standard features, including plush leatherette seats and ambient lighting. On the tech front, there are five USB ports and wireless phone charging. This top trim also includes a 9-inch touchscreen. Both trims feature Toyota’s lengthy list of safety equipment, including adaptive cruise, lane-keeping assist, and pedestrian detection. The XSE trim adds cross-traffic alerts and parking assist for the front and rear. On the options roster, for $5760 a premium package brings along a 10-inch head-up display, exclusive to the Prime. It also includes a foot-activated tailgate, panoramic moonroof, adaptive headlights, perforated and ventilated front seats, and a bird’s eye view camera.
With the battery mounted under the floor no passenger space is lost the RAV4 Prime has the same passenger volume as the RAV4 and RAV4 Hybrid. But cargo space suffers modestly. It offers 33.5 cubic feet of space behind the second row and 63.2 with the seats folded, compared to 37.5/69.8 cubic feet for its siblings. However we had no trouble filling the rear with the seats down after a trip to Ikea.
At this point, you might be wondering why someone would buy a plug-in hybrid in a world increasingly filled with full battery-electric options. Firstly plug-in hybrids are generally more affordable than EVs. They also appeal to consumers who can’t necessarily rely on an established charging network. The idea is to drive electric during your shorter daily commute and use gasoline only when you hit the road. Currently you can get a RAV4 Hybrid for as little as $29,470. But if you want a Prime, you’ll need to spend almost $10,000 more. Prices start at $39,220 for the base SE model, which is admittedly well equipped. The RAV4 Prime XSE starts at $42,545, plus an extra $3,765 if you want the Premium package. Keep in mind the Prime will be eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit and any applicable state credits, which should lighten some of the load. The warranty for hybrid components is extended past Toyota’s usual coverage. Two years of free scheduled maintenance is also included. The Prime’s build quality is good enough to justify the price and gets some nice touches that are exclusive to this plug-in hybrid model. In the end the Toyota RAV4 Prime is an honest to goodness daily driver that does everything it was meant to supremely well and that is good enough for me.