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2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime first drive review: Have your cake and eat it, too

This plug-in hybrid SUV offers the best of both worlds: shockingly low fuel consumption and impressively high performance.

Craig Cole Former reviews editor
Craig brought 15 years of automotive journalism experience to the Cars team. A lifelong resident of Michigan, he's as happy with a wrench or welding gun in hand as he is in front of the camera or behind a keyboard. When not hosting videos or cranking out features and reviews, he's probably out in the garage working on one of his project cars. He's fully restored a 1936 Ford V8 sedan and then turned to resurrecting another flathead-powered relic, a '51 Ford Crestliner. Craig has been a proud member of the Automotive Press Association (APA) and the Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA).
Craig Cole
8 min read

Gasoline-electric vehicles don't have to be boring and slow. I mean, they can be, but Toyota has proven that performance and efficiency aren't mutually exclusive. Case in point: the 2021 RAV4 Prime. This plug-in hybrid SUV is the automaker's second-quickest model after the Supra sports car. With 302 horsepower on tap, it can zip from a standstill to 60 mph in as little as 5.7 seconds, a time that is legitimately swift. And thanks to ample low-end electric torque, it feels even fleeter.

Delivering that strong performance is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, an Atkinson-cycle unit borrowed from the RAV4 Hybrid but retuned for Prime time. Without going too far into the technical weeds, it's augmented by a trio of electric motor-generators, two in the front transaxle assembly, and a third at the rear. The latter provides on-demand all-wheel drive by turning the aft tires. Serving as an electron reservoir is an 18.1-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, mounted under the main-cabin floor in a way that does not detract from passenger space. It's cooled using air-conditioning refrigerant and is backed by a 10-year/150,000-mile warranty. Drivers are further shielded from repair bills by a separate, 8-year/100,000-mile guarantee that covers other hybrid components.

Toyota's RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid SUV really wows

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That generously sized battery helps provide an efficiency rating of 94 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) and an official electric-only range of 42 miles. Driving it carefully and with the climate control off a good portion of the time, I managed to coax 45 miles out of the RAV4 Prime while running solely on electrons. Honestly, I expected a little more considering I was driving quite conservatively and the conditions were perfect, with temps in the upper 70s. Still, Toyota has delivered on its range promise.

As for efficiency, running this vehicle about 50% on electricity and then 50% on gasoline once the battery pack was depleted, I averaged an indicated 45.3 mpg, though that figure is potentially misleading because real-world economy depends greatly on the ratio between those two operating modes. If, for instance, you drive 50 miles and 42 of them are all electric, the average fuel economy is going to be much higher than if you take a 600-mile road trip burning fossil fuel the whole way. In that use case, when operated as a conventional hybrid, the RAV4 Prime is rated at a still-impressive 38 mpg by the EPA.

The times, they are a-chargin'

Hook the RAV4 Prime up to an ordinary 120-volt household outlet, and it takes around 12 hours to fully replenish the battery pack. Plug it in to a 240-volt line with 16 amps of juice, and that time drops to around 4.5 hours. Still, if that's not speedy enough, XSE models with the premium package (a $3,765 upcharge, which also requires the $815 weather package and the $1,620 audio package) can recharge in as little as 2.5 hours if you have access to a 6.6-kilowatt, 240-volt outlet.

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

As public charging stations become more and more prevalent, it will be easier and easier to live with an electric vehicle.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

After depleting the battery during testing, I found a nearby ChargePoint public station. Hooked to a Level 2 outlet running at 6.6 kW, the vehicle gained 13 miles of EV range after about 45 minutes of charging, right in line with Toyota's 2.5-hour claim.

Despite basically inventing the modern hybrid, this is Toyota's first plug-in SUV. There is no shortage of similar crossover SUV models available today, but they're mostly at the upper end of the market. There aren't too many direct competitors to the RAV4 Prime. Subaru's Crosstrek is one, but it only offers 17 miles of electric range. The Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV is another, with an advertised 22 miles of juice. It's conceivable you might cross-shop this Toyota with plug-in versions of the Kia Niro or even the Chrysler Pacifica, but none of these are a perfect fit, either. Really, this  number-one rival is the new Ford Escape PHEV, which offers slightly less electric range at 37 miles and has around 93 less horsepower, but at least it's a touch more efficient at 100 MPGe.

Forceful yet mild-mannered

Driving the RAV4 Prime purely on electricity is a great experience. It's punchy, smooth and nearly silent. As with other EVs, there's tons of low-end torque, which makes this Toyota leap off the line when you nail the accelerator. Its enthusiasm does wane at higher speeds, but its performance is still solid, able to hit 60 mph in around 9.2 seconds. However, this vehicle's performance shines most when driven as a hybrid. Throw that internal-combustion engine into the mix and this RAV4's sprinting abilities improve by leaps and bounds, with its 0-to-60-mph time dropping by nearly 40%.

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

Potent and efficient, what more could you ask for?

Craig Cole/Roadshow

When navigating corners, the Prime feels like it has a touch more body roll than the RAV4 TRD I reviewed recently. This is likely because of its softer ride, which is partly due to loads of extra weight. At about 4,300 pounds in XSE trim, this vehicle is around 500 pounds heavier than the bulkiest RAV4 Hybrid, thanks to its much larger battery pack. To accommodate that additional mass, the vehicle's chassis has been retuned. The steering is light to the touch, though it's not as crisp as in other RAV4s. The Prime is, however, extremely quiet inside thanks to laminated front side glass and additional sound deadening, alterations that make for a serene driving experience. Braking feel is also praiseworthy. This plug-in SUV's pedal has nice weight to it and is easy to modulate, with no discernible weirdness when transitioning from regenerative to friction braking.

A comfortable and versatile interior

Inside the RAV4 Prime, there's not much to get excited about, and that's a good thing. Just like the non-plug-in model, this Toyota's cabin is one of the better offerings in this segment, being attractively designed and made of quality materials. My XSE tester is further gussied up with red stitching on the door panels, dashboard and elsewhere, plus the seats are covered in SofTex imitation leather, which not only feels nice but makes a convincing argument that cow hides aren't necessary.

As in more run-of-the-mill RAV4s, the Prime's rear seat is generously portioned and quite comfortable, with good support, plus plenty of space for knees and noggins. A pair of 2.1-amp USB-A ports serve riders relegated to the back, though the vehicle is fitted with a total of five such outlets, plus XSE models feature Qi wireless charging, so nobody's phone has to go without juice.

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

This Toyota's infotainment system is pretty middling, but the large screen is clear, bright and easy to reach.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

When it's time to make an Ikea run for a load of marginal quality, affordably priced, flat-packed furniture, the RAV4 Prime makes an excellent schlepper. It offers 33.5 cubic feet of hauling space behind the second-row seat, a figure that grows to a claimed 63.2 when the backrests are dropped. These figures are slightly behind what the standard RAV4 and its hybrid counterpart offer. They both max out at 69.8 cubes. All in, the Prime still offers a few more cubic feet of space than the Escape plug-in.

While there's plenty to like about the Prime's interior, a few things could be improved. The chicklet-like climate control buttons are simply too small to easily manipulate while driving, and some of the switches on the steering wheel feel incredibly cheap. 

Technology bonanza

On that note, I'm not going to further bludgeon a deceased equine, but as I've mentioned many times before, I tend to find Toyota's multimedia offerings to be unattractive and illogical, and that's unfortunately still true in the RAV4 Prime XSE. But it's not all bad news.

This infotainment system is at least speedy, and the tablet-style 9-inch screen it's splashed across is huge and easy to reach, as it's mounted high on the dashboard. Lower-end SE models feature an 8-incher. With all that display real estate, Apple CarPlay (which, along with Android Auto and Amazon Alexa compatibility comes standard) is super easy to use, showing up nice and big.

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

The RAV4 Prime offers plenty of features and amenities. 

Craig Cole/Roadshow

If you still need more screens in your life, don't fret, because all Prime models feature a reconfigurable 7-inch display nestled in the gauge cluster. It's clear and easy enough to cycle through the various menus for things like fuel economy and the trip odometer. If that's not enough, XSE models can even be fitted with a 10-inch color head-up display, which projects relevant driving data onto the windshield. This item is bundled with the $3,765 premium package, which also gets you the aforementioned 6.6-kW charger, ventilated front seats and an awesome digital rearview mirror. The latter features yet another screen behind the glass where a video feed from the reversing camera is displayed to provide a much broader field of view behind the vehicle.

That package also includes a 360-degree camera system, which can be handy for certain parking situations -- in theory at least. For some reason, this feature, and even the RAV4's standard reversing camera, are appallingly bad, super gritty and hard to see on the infotainment screen. This is particularly strange because the digital rearview mirror, which is available on XSE models, looks great, providing a clear, crisp image.

When it comes to advanced driver aids, Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 is standard equipment on the RAV4 Prime, bringing things like automatic emergency braking and road-sign recognition to the table. Lane-keeping assist is included, too, and works quite well, even if it feels a bit soft-handed. It doesn't lock you into the middle of the lane quite as strongly as competing systems do, resulting in more wandering. You also get adaptive cruise control, though it's rather middling. On the highway, it's great, seamlessly adjusting vehicle speed to match surrounding vehicles, but in stop-and-go traffic it can be pretty jerky.

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

Like other members of the RAV4 family, the Prime model is quite handsome. 

Craig Cole/Roadshow

Dollars and (common) sense

The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime is slated to start arriving at dealerships in all 50 states later this month. Keeping things simple, it will be offered in two trims: SE and XSE. My top-shelf tester arrived fitted with all three available options packages, things that inflate its price tag to right around $49,000 including $1,120 in delivery fees. That's a steep price to pay for what is a mainstream compact crossover SUV, however, that figure does not include any potential discounts. The RAV4 Prime may be eligible for up to $7,500 in federal tax credits, plus other discounts offered by individual states. Of course, you can save a big chunk of change by getting an SE model. They kick off right around $39,195. That's still a bit pricier than  Ford's  entry-level Escape plug-in hybrid, which begins at roughly 35 grand, but the RAV4 does have more power and a nicer interior, plus  Toyota enjoys a better reputation for long-term quality and resale value.

Punchy and efficient, the Prime is easily my pick of today's RAV4 litter. The addition of a plug-in hybrid powertrain has made a good SUV even better. If you can manage the upcharge, this is the RAV4 to get.