Toyota's plug-in hybrid RAV4 Prime is a seriously quick compact SUV. But does that make it better?
Speed isn't everything. However, speed, for lack of a better word, is good. Toyota's latest variant of their extremely popular RAV4 line of compact SUVs boasts a 302 horsepower hybrid system to make this one of the fastest new Toyotas you can buy. I'm serious - the only quicker car they sell is the Supra. Economical and speedy? What could possibly go wrong? Unsurprisingly, not much at all. This is a fantastic entry into the segment with its only falter owing to an astronomical* price tag. We'll address that, though.
How much is it?
Er. A lot. My Prime XSE tester was nearly top-tier (the Limited can be a couple thousand more) and boasted a sticker price a hair's-width under $50,000. $49,577 to be exact. For a friggin' Toyota RAV4, are you serious? Afraid so. But, don't get so holed up on the price, because it might seem like a lot, but it actually isn't, for there's a $7,500 federal tax credit available on these plus local rebates. For example, you can get a $1,500 California clean fuel rewards rebate in addition (if you live in the Golden State). So once all is said and done, you'd be looking at a net price closer to $40,000, which is basically the same as a regular RAV4 Hybrid that is now so slow in comparison. I'll be straight with you right now: this car is not worth 50 grand, and that price is beyond silly. But, taken into consideration the ways of reducing that cost, it becomes a decent deal in the end. It's almost like Toyota priced it accordingly with government rebates and tax credits brought into consideration...
Now that we got that pesky price out of the way, let's talk about what makes this RAV4 Prime standout. For one, and it really is the main party trick of this little SUV, there's the aforementioned speed. With 302 combined horsepower from the 2.5L inline-four and a pair of electric motors (one front, one rear), this Toyota scoots to 60 MPH in only 5.5 seconds. I remember the first time I put my foot down, I wasn't ready to believe the hype surrounding that horsepower claim, however, I quickly became a believer. Compared to a standard RAV4's measly 203 horsepower and the 219 horsepower RAV4 Hybrid, this Prime model moves. It's quicker than turbocharged Mazda CX-5 and BMW X3 even. The last RAV4 Hybrid I tested did the 0-60 MPH deed in a relatively glacial 7.3 seconds for comparison.
What's also good in the powertrain department is the normally wheezing and annoying Toyota four banger engine noises have been hushed to a degree, taking on a lower frequency grumble that's far more aurally pleasing. That's actually not the right word choice as it's not pleasing, but rather it's just no longer bad, and you instead can completely ignore it. Transitions from hybrid mode to full-on EV mode are seamless enough to rarely ever notice and the CVT transmission does its diligence to never interfere the way they used to a decade ago. All-wheel drive ensures traction is available at all times and the immediate thrust of the accompanying electric motors make for serious and instant haste.
This powertrain setup promises about 40 miles of electric range, granted you choose to plug it in at home overnight, in which case a regular plug outlet will require roughly 10 hours to fully recharge the 18-kWh battery pack. Or, you can never charge it, of which will turn the RAV4 Prime into operating exactly like the regular RAV4 Hybrid. Driven this way, I averaged 35 MPG during my week with this Supersonic Red example and achieved 36 MPG on a long highway haul to Monterey and back. Both of these numbers are close enough to be considered identical to the last RAV4 Hybrid I tested (34 overall, 36 highway). At least you can choose how you want it to behave. If you have cheap electricity and/or solar, then charging might not cost you anything to enjoy it as a full, silent EV if you so desire. But, make no mistake, it's not very fast in EV mode.
The interior is perfectly fine, but far from anything exciting or having that wow factor. It's definitely not a 50 grand interior - not even close- but, again, it's not technically 50 large as said earlier, so I can kind of let it pass. But still, if the sticker price nears that big 5-0, I would expect some kind of improvement or really anything to separate it from lesser RAV4s besides some basic red stitching. On the flip side, it is a comfortable, spacious, and quiet environment that made 8 hours of driving in one day feel plenty relaxing, though a RAV4 Hybrid accomplishes the same. Toyota's Entune infotainment system resides in the center of the dash and continues to look woefully outdated now (it was already outdated two years ago when the current generation RAV4 launched) and is in desperate need of an update to stay relevant in an otherwise technologically advanced car.
While you can certainly drag race four-cylinder, base Mustangs (and even the Supra 2.0...), the performance enhancements to the RAV4 Prime end there. Handling hasn't been fettled with to turn this into a backroad stormer, a la a pseudo M or AMG. That's not to say that the handling is rubbish, because I have found all RAV4s to drive and corner rather decently and with reassuring steering, but it's disappointing there's not a sharper chassis to match the enthusiastic acceleration. With all that responsive speed on tap now, navigating backroads means you now can have much higher approach/entry speeds to corners, but the RAV4 can't corner any quicker than the lower models. With hundreds of pounds of extra weight to carry from the battery pack, it actually has less grip than regular and Hybrid models...So what you get is what feels like a wallowy old beast, with suspension too soft for that sort of driving. It's not noticeably worse than other RAV4s, but it can be perceived as inferior just because its handling and cornering abilities now don't match the power of the powertrain. This won't be a demerit for likely 98% of people, who will all drive it normally and relish in its strength of merging onto freeways.
Being a Toyota, many active safety systems are included as standard with this XSE adding cross-traffic and parking assist functions. A 10-inch head-up display, huge and pretty panoramic sunroof, 360 degree bird's-eye camera system, and an upgraded 6.6 kW onboard charger are all part of a $3,765 Premium Package. The onboard charger bit means that you can take advantage of 240v chargers to reduce a full charge time to 3 hours. This package also includes a digital rear view mirror, but I horribly disliked that gadget as it gives no perception and reference to space. Maybe it'd be great for, and only for, spying on people behind you in traffic. A further $1,620 premium audio option brings a JBL stereo system that I was quite underwhelmed with personally. All told, a Prime XSE starts at $41,425 and this tester climbed to $49,577 with destination. A lot of options for a Toyota - when did they become the Japanese BMW? A similarly specced Hybrid XSE will run about exactly $10,000 less on the window sticker for what it's worth.
Optimus Prime? Or prime folly.
There's no doubt that this Prime model is the best RAV4 Toyota currently makes. It's also the most expensive, but yet isn't, after incentives are accounted for that is. To be plain and simple, if the rebates and tax credits didn't exist, then there would be no place in this world for the RAV4 Prime at the asking price. I just wish it distinguished itself better from other RAV4s with both sharper handling and a more luxurious interior. While those incentives do exist, the RAV4 Prime is a compelling compact SUV that can embarrass some sports cars at traffic lights and gets great economy. If you buy one yourself, I have no doubt you'll highly enjoy it.
2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime XSE
As-tested price: $49,577
Pros: Laughably quick acceleration; great economy; government incentives
Cons: If you don't charge it, same economy as a regular Hybrid; handling doesn't match the power Verdict: The best RAV4 comes at a price.