2021 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Limited
The top of the line RAV4 Hybrid is too expensive for its own good.
Words and pictures by Mitchell Weitzman
Let's be clear on this right out of the gate: the RAV4 Hybrid Limited is a more than fine car built for the masses. It's practical and convenient like a good set of tupperware, but it also has the character and charisma of those same cold-storage devices. Perhaps that's why it sells so good in America. Last year alone, over 400,000 of these transportation inhibitors left dealer lots to Toyota's delight, making it the best-selling vehicle in the country that isn't a pickup truck. So, I investigated (hoping) to find out what makes this crossover so damn popular.
First pitch is a swing and a miss on a high and rising fastball. This Hybrid Limited represented the most expensive RAV4 Hybrid you can buy, with the MSRP reaching a shocking $42,486. For what is supposed to be an affordable car for the everyperson, this borders on extremism. Luckily, a RAV4 Hybrid starts at just under $29,000, but you likely won't want that one with its cheap furnishings. I have a notable disdain for entry-level RAV4s, primarily for their steering wheels that are made of what must be raw, scratchy Styrofoam; The Limited and others have a nice and soft leather wheel in comparison. It doesn't matter that this is the heralded 'Limited' or not. It's just too much. When did Toyota become the Porsche of the normal car world with meteoric trims and options? Aside from that, this is simply too expensive of a car for what it is and forms the main negative against it in this test.
For that much money, you're into larger, Highlander territory, of which is what I'd recommend instead. Frankly, being called a RAV4 or not for the price, inside the car is not special enough. For $5,000 less it'd be much more acceptable. I recently had a Honda CR-V Hybrid Touring that stickered for just $35,950, and that interior was just about on par with the RAV4 (though it did have hollow sounding doors when closed). What's worse is the fact that I also just had time with a new CX-5 Signature. Mazda's little 'ute has the interior of a BMW for $39,225 among its other wondrous highlights. The reality is this segment of crossovers is insanely competitive and the RAV4 Hybrid at this asking price is unwarranted.
That out of the way, there is a decent amount of leather and other cushy materials in the cabin, but there's a few odd rubbery textures and sharp and hard plastics to be found that are out of place. The seats are comfortable and there's a huge abundance of space everywhere. The cargo area is particularly impressive at 37 cubic feet as the hybrid powertrain does not impede on space in the back. This is supposed to be a 'compact' SUV, but there's nothing really compact about this car anymore at 182 inches long and 73 wide. Though, the enlarging size might be a reason for the recent success. The styling is boxy and angular and while it does look awkward from many angles (honestly, the pictures make the RAV4 look too good), customers do seem to like it and Toyota must be commended for taking a bold approach there.
Toyota's so-called Entune infotainment handles radio, Bluetooth, and navigation and makes itself easily seen in the center of dash, sticking up like an afterthought. Visually, the screen looks like Obama just won re-election, with large bezels that remove screen space and ancient graphics. It isn't bad to use, but it can be sluggish and not something worth showing off. The large screen in a Highlander looks far nicer, but then it's also not the easiest to use. There's the optional JBL stereo that, while good, was a ways off of giving a concert-in-a-car feel despite the well-reputed name and branding. The panoramic sunroof in the RAV4 is beautiful to look out of at least and virtually increases cabin volume further.
Toyota does do as good as anyone when it comes to safety, but I wouldn't call it class-leading anymore. Included with all RAV4s is Toyota Safety Sense to provide active systems for collision warnings, lane-departure, and blind-spot monitoring. I can't think of a rival that doesn't offer any of these as standard nowadays, but regardless it's a strong selling point with a catchy marketing name for those with families (or dogs) to protect. There is a semi-autonomous lane assistant for highway cruising, but I did find it wandering in keeping itself straight.
Now for the propulsion. A 2.5L Atkinson cycle inline-four is combined with 3 permanent-magnet AC motors for a combined 219 horsepower. Besides the benefits to fuel economy, the Hybrid is the RAV4 to own from a performance standpoint, too; Gone are the days of hybrids being the slow version of a car. 0-60 MPH comes up in 7.3 seconds with 50-70 requiring 4, both representing time saved in relation to the normal RAV4. Both these times are also substantially quicker than the CR-V Hybrid. Compared with the Honda further, I found the Toyota's unit to be a more responsive and eager engine, but both could be smoother and less of a racket at full throttle. Conversely, it's still a full second slower to 60 than the high performance, turbocharged Mazda CX-5 I just had, though that guzzles gas by comparison.
The EPA might rate this particular RAV4 at 40 MPG overall, but good luck with that. I averaged a measly (yet still mightily impressive) 34 MPG overall and 36 on the highway. Both numbers improve on the CR-V Hybrid's numbers, but not by much in the real world. Here is another hybrid vehicle again failing to meet the claimed economy, while most non-hybrids easily beat the EPA's ratings. What I find more puzzling is that the larger and heavier Highlander Hybrid Platinum I tested earlier this year achieved 31 MPG overall (34 MPG on a long day trip on country roads even) and 33 on the highway.
While the current-generation RAV4s are leagues better to drive than prior models, they have only elevated themselves from mediocrity to just average. Nothing about the way it drives stands out in anyway, but then again, nobody is buying a RAV4 to stand out. The ride quality is acceptable and not ground breaking in anyway. The steering works, but lacks any excitement or eagerness. Sure, it can be hustled on back roads at speeds you wouldn't think possible, but the handling lets go in a rather shocking way when you've reached its limit.
Case in point: on a long, looping cloverleaf onramp, I pushed it to an understeering scrub rather easily and early by adding throttle. I then relaxed the throttle to tighten the line towards the exit and the whole vehicle snapped into a four-wheel skid. What you would want is lift-off oversteer - to swing the rear around and point the nose to the apex and power out. This wasn't lift-off oversteer, but lift-off understeer skidding. It wasn't difficult to control, I just waited for it re-catch grip on the wide and empty 2 lanes I had to exploit, but it was startling behavior. The worst news is that it demonstrated this behavior with all the traction and stability controls on and engaged, and it didn't seem like they attempted anything (no flashing lights) to reel the car back into the 'boring zone.' Mazda's benchmark CX-5 exhibited near-perfect lift-off behavior in the exact same scenario. So Toyota does have some work to do to reach their goal of making their cars more fun to drive still. Maybe poach a few Mazda engineers.
All this leads me to recommend that if you're spending over forty large on a RAV4, you might as well step up to the even larger and nicer Highlander Hybrid instead since the economy is largely the same. The economy of this RAV4 Hybrid is stellar in its own right, but it fails to live up to the lofty expectations and fails justifying the enormous asking price. The RAV4 Hybrid XSE is a much better and more reasonable proposition at about $5,000 less. But, if you're looking at or below $35,000 for a hybrid fuel-sipper, my money would be on the CR-V Hybrid and its nicer-for-the-money Touring spec. At this sky-high price, you could even get a nicely equipped BMW X1 that gets almost the same mileage even without hybrid assistance and creams it in terms of performance.
Oh, and then there's the new Venza! Toyota just released the Venza, a hybrid compact SUV that is mechanically identical to the RAV4 Hybrid. The differences? It looks better and has a more special and intimate interior at the expense of inside space. Pricing is largely the same, too, as the RAV4 Hybrids. On appearance and feel alone, it's closer to a more upscale Lexus than a Toyota. This generation RAV4 seemed exciting when it was first released being such a dramatic change and step in the right direction, but the novelty has worn off after a couple years now.
So, confused yet? It's tricky that it's not consistent and so much can change for a few thousand dollars here and there. If you want an affordable, hybrid compact SUV, then I'd look at the CR-V Hybrid. Nearly forty grand, then consider the Venza or RAV4 Hybrid XSE (but ask yourself if it's worth it over that CR-V Hybrid Touring). But, for well over forty, the Highlander Hybrid makes more sense to me. If you care less about mileage, then Mazda's CX-5 Signature Turbo is ripe for the picking. Is the RAV4 better than the old model? Heavens yes, but it's only caught up to the back of the field dynamically and retains the personality of the accountants from Parks and Recreation. The playing-it-safe antics do make it likeable on the larger scale it seems on virtue of Toyota's reliable and dependable background. And for the 400,000+ plus people buying a RAV4 each year, that's enough to sway them.
2021 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Limited
The Road Beat Rating: 3.5/5
Price as-tested: $42,486
Pros: Stellar economy, but...
Cons: Fails to meet economy expectations; Expensive. Boring.
Verdict: Overpriced and not enough class for this ambitious price bracket; Get the XSE instead.