A battle of crossover siblings, and a complicated family affair of rationality.
2023 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid compared to the RAV4 Prime
Words and photos by Mitchell Weitzman
What are they?
Compact SUVs, or crossovers, made for the mainstream and rational person. If you take trucks out of the equation, the RAV4 has been the best-selling vehicle in the United States multiple years on the trot. The Hybrid model combines a gasoline engine with a small dose of electricity for increased efficiency and headlining MPG claims, while the rival Prime model ups the energy with a larger battery pack and a trio of increasingly potent electric motors for monumental performance gains and a 40 mile electric-only driving range. But, the Prime costs a large chunk of change more, retailing at a nearly $8,500 premium over the Hybrid I tested. So the question then: is it worth it? The premier choice, and what is right for you, is wholly subject to application as we'll discover. For apples to apples, too, both RAV4s I tried were AWD XSE trims for an optimal matchup.
This might be what most are interested in when choosing either. The RAV4 Hybrid XSE with AWD averaged 36 MPG during our week together. This was a mix of mostly freeway driving with some city thrown in. It falls four MPG of the window sticker's estimate, but 36 is mighty still for a spacious crossover. I tested the Prime version about a month later, and driving the exact same routes, I averaged a disappointing 30 MPG, some way short of the 38 MPG EPA estimate. Now, I did purposely drive the RAV4 Prime without any charge to see how it would fare as just a hybrid vehicle for comparison, and when driven this way, efficiency does pale next to the regular RAV4 Hybrid. The story changes, though, if you charge your RAV4 Prime, and after spending time with one, that's really the only way this powertrain makes sense. If you do plug it in to charge the 18 kWh battery pack (will take about 12 hours from naught if you use a standard electrical outlet at home with the provided cable), you can expect about 40 miles of electric driving without using a drop of gasoline if you desired, tipping the scales decisively to the expensive Prime. So, my take is this: if you have no interest in charging a car, the RAV4 Prime makes no sense for you unless you just want the added performance (more on that later and why it's mostly irrelevant). Otherwise, to just put in gas and go, the cheaper RAV4 Hybrid is unmatched here and somewhat more convenient.
Where the RAV4 Prime XSE categorically dominates is when it comes to performance, thanks to its towering 302 horsepower which dwarfs the modest 219 from the Hybrid XSE. This should come as little surprise given an 83-horsepower advantage. What is a surprise, however, is by just how wide of a margin, with the 7.5 second 0-60 MPH sprint of the Hybrid dropping to a startling 5.5 seconds. As a result, the RAV4 Prime is definitely capable of speeds that casual Toyotas of the past were not equipped to do, except it's still not quite equipped as such or meant for speed. What do I mean? Well simply put, the RAV4 Prime might have boatloads of extra punch, but nothing else has been tuned or changed to match; The performance gains begin and end with the horsepower. The brakes? Poor pedal feel certainly doesn't help here (something both suffer from), nor does the lacking braking performance in general. Mechanical grip in the corners hasn't changed, either, and it has the same cushioned ride quality that helps for comfort, but limits overall ability as it starts to wallow around. So, while the RAV4 Prime certainly has speed when going straight, the handling and braking abilities are not upgraded to match this newfound velocity; Don't go thinking this some kind of RAV4 AMG in other words.
A real world example would be if you're in a hurry on a winding backroad in a RAV4 Prime, be careful to not overcook it in the corners and braking points out of misjudgment. Yes, it's faster, but it's not useful anywhere except when merging onto a tricky freeway or something similar. I think most owners are not trying to drive quickly or drag race onto highways in their RAV4 anyways, so the power aspect can almost be seen as negligible just in the case of the prospective buyer's needs. I happen to think the RAV4 Hybrid is too slow, but I don't think existing RAV4 Hybrid owners necessarily think the same nor actively complain about it. Power is compelling, sure, but it's not as worthwhile as one might think.
Well, both RAV4 Hybrid and Prime drive pretty identically; They're simple and effective modes of transportation. The steering in each has benefitted greatly from Toyota's new focus on making better driving vehicles, with direct responses that give confidence on most roads. They drive arrow straight on the freeway, too, are reasonably quiet, and have a nice and comfortable ride. For traveling one place to the next, any RAV4 makes a compelling case, as basic transit is what Toyota has done so well for so long. It just so happens that by now, fortunately, the cars are actually decent to drive on your commutes. These positive attributes are limited to normal motoring, though, with rival cars like the Mazda CX-50 being the benchmark when it comes to driving dynamics and handling. As highlighted above, the RAV4 Hybrid is perfectly competent in basic citizenry, and even holds some composure when more is asked, but once you try a Mazda, it just doesn't come close. It's the RAV4 Prime that falls shorter here, not because it's worse, but rather because it's not any better. Despite all that extra performance, there's no more braking nor cornering ability than the much slower, 'lesser' RAV4s. With the available speed, you might just expect more of the RAV4 Prime.
Inside, these are basically genetic-copies of one another, made more certain by the fact both are XSE trim levels. One of the only ways to spot any difference is one has some blue stitching while the other a sort or orange color. While stopping short of some niceties that the top-level Limited models have, both these crossovers have well-made interiors even if they do fall shy in terms of some cheap plastics here and there and an outdated infotainment screen with large bezels. The knobs for the climate temperature have a tactile feel to them and are large for a nice grasp, so I did enjoy that. There were also no rattles in either vehicle so, while maybe some cheap components, it's at least assembled well. I do, however, much prefer Toyota's own Venza, based on the RAV4, when it comes in and out style with a cabin fashioned to a higher standard. The unfortunate reality is that neither interior backs up their respective retail prices of $42,296 and especially $50,731; They're nice for a RAV4, but are missing the premium build and materials that ought to be expected now. The competition has moved further on, like the huge updates and upgrades in Honda's new CR-V, in ways that legitimately question where the money is going here, not to the mention the gorgeous cabins of Mazda's CX-5 and CX-50. Luckily, comfortable seats are common place in all RAV4s, as are spacious rear seats and cargo holds. Over the years, the RAV4 has grown considerably, and unless you need a vehicle with three rows of seating, you really might question why anyone could need a larger car than this.
A place where the RAV4 Hybrid was weirdly and distinctly worse when it comes to interior quality was the inclusion of the nastiest seat warmer rocker switches in any new car. Located under the HVAC controls, the buttons are large and somewhat stiff to press, feel like cheap plastic, and make a loud, and I mean loud, click and clack when pressed. They don't match anything else in the car so it gives the impression they were almost forgotten about at the last minute. The RAV4 Prime, also an XSE was much more pleasant when it came to seat warmer operation. Remember, even this RAV4 Hybrid is an over-$42,000 vehicle - crap buttons like this don't cut it.
Both do have all the safety systems one would expect now from a modern car in this class, and both these XSE trims had the large panoramic sunroofs. There is a lane/steering assist that you can activate, but I found it woeful and seemed to want to actually leave your lane rather than stay in it. Hyundai leads the way here when it comes to lane/steering assists at this price bracket.
A few niggles I noticed were present in both cars and seem to be traits not isolated to just these Toyotas. There were several times where I had to squeeze the tailgate release three or four times for it to open and I'm not sure why there isn't a button to both close and lock it at the same time, too, as many other vehicles now have this.
I already mentioned the dated center entertainment, but I also do not like the overly and overtly busy nature of the digital instrument cluster, with far too much information that takes away from your key elements; A barrage of numbers, colors, and shapes that add nothing and only detract. Further, I found both cars to have too many beeps and bongs for things like simply just starting the car, and the cruise control consistently would not maintain the speed I chose. Often the car would be traveling 1 MPH under my set speed even on level ground, and this is only noticeable and annoying because when you glance down at the gauges, you're now seeing two different numbers next to one another.
A weird and recurring problem with these and some other Toyota hybrids is the vastly inaccurate fuel gauges. While simple math of the MPG multiplied by the fuel tank's capacity should yield driving ranges of around 500 miles in either model, both of them struggled to forecast even 400 miles. It's one thing to be conservative, but to be off by 100 miles is just ridiculous. Doesn't Toyota want their customers to be confident in how far their car can travel?
Value and a (previously) unfair advantage
This is where the tricky gets trickier. The RAV4 Prime, with its absurd price tag, is just that: absurd. When talking about the interiors above, this is where the RAV4 Prime really gets slaughtered: nowhere in any vicinity does this resemble a car that costs over 50 grand. it's the same RAV4 interior and quality that you get for 40-large, just inflated by 25%. I'm sorry, but this just isn't a fifty-thousand dollar vehicle; There might be a price gap between the two, yet there is no quality gap.
But, this is where an unfair advantage used to take shape: in the United States, a RAV4 Prime used to qualify for a whopping $7,500 federal tax credit, markedly closing the price difference between the two. At that point, for only a thousand dollars extra, why wouldn't you have gone for the faster one that can also do electric driving? If you plan on actually charging it and utilizing that aspect, then it'd be a no-brainer. If you don't, then I think most will be totally content with the Hybrid and its better gas-only MPG. However, that federal tax credit no longer exists as the RAV4 Prime (and every plug-in and EV Toyota is made in Japan and therefore fails to meet the established criteria. Because the RAV4 Prime no longer gains that unfair advantage, there is now no reason to splurge that much extra over the RAV4 Hybrid; It's just not worth it.
A verdict of confusion
If the Federal Tax Credit comes back, it might change the outcome. It's also not my position to speculate on government subsidies that may or may not even exist in the first. Right now and for the forseeable future, the RAV4 Hybrid is the better buy due to its substantially cheaper price tag and, apart from the straight-line speed aspect, is basically the same car (apart from those horrid seat warmer switches). For that reason, I'm declaring the RAV4 Hybrid the winner in this matchup because the Prime does not do enough to justify the price increase.
Also, be sure to check your local dealers for pesky markups, as the relative rarity of the Prime might incur large and disappointing markups, another external factor that may ultimate influence your decision.
Other choices you may want to consider are the Mazda CX-50, a fabulous machine inside and out that leaves every other alternative in the dust when it comes to driving dynamics and fun, not to mention a thoroughly upscale interior. Only problem is, the MPG isn't very good without a hybrid option. Honda has a new and stylish CR-V Hybrid that has their top-spec Sport Touring hybrid model at under $40,000, making for excellent value, though it also has notably worse economy than the RAV4 Hybrid in my own testing (think an average of 30 vs 36). Hyundai also has their own Tucson Hybrid with love-it-or-hate-it styling.
2023 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid XSE
As-tested price: $42,296
2023 Toyota RAV4 Prime XSE
As-tested price: $50,731