2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime First Drive Review: Plug-In Power

North America's crossover gets plugged in.

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime First Drive Review: Plug-In Power

The RAV4 is now the de facto face of Toyota’s hybrid movement—and the Prime is the best electrified vehicle it’s made yet.

Toyota’s compact crossover was its best-selling model in Canada and the USA last year. Not counting pickups, it was also the chart-topper for passenger vehicles on both sides of the border. The hybrid version has overtaken the Prius as the top-selling electrified model in the Japanese automaker’s lineup too, and Toyota is bolstering its success with a new range-topper for 2021, this here RAV4 Prime.

The Prime adds a plug to the hybrid crossover recipe, with the twin benefits of more power and better fuel efficiency. It pushes the price of the compact crossover even further up, but if you can swing the extra cash—and can find one, given its relative rarity—the Prime is the RAV4 to have.

Have your cake and charge it too

So what separates the Prime from the regular hybrid? It uses the familiar 2.5-liter four cylinder gas component as its lesser siblings, though in a Prime-unique state of tune. Toyota then bolsters it with three electric motors—up from two—with the rear item providing on-demand all-wheel drive. Out goes the old nickel-metal hydride battery pack, with a larger 18.1-kWh now taking up residence under the cabin floor.

This revised setup allows for much longer EV-only driving time than the regular hybrid. Toyota quotes 42 miles (68 km), but on my test drive route around scenic Prince Edward County in Ontario, I pulled off just shy of 47 (75 km). That was split roughly 50/50 between highway and country roads. Had I stuck to city streets where I could pick up more regen, or even turned off the (strong) A/C, I’m sure I could’ve eked out more. Nonetheless, I beat Toyota’s estimate without trying, so that’s good.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Toyota Camry TRD Review

The new setup also provides new driving mode buttons to fiddle with. Drivers can force the RAV4 Prime into EV-only mode (which it defaults to on start-up), but can also switch to hybrid power at the press of a button. What’s more, holding that button down for three seconds activates charge mode. Here, just as in the Prius Prime, the gas engine will work to recharge the battery quicker than if left in plain HV mode.

Charging can take as long as half a day on a regular ol’ 120-volt outlet, or 4.5 hours with a 240-volt outlet. There’s an even faster 6.6-kW, 240-volt onboard charger available, which cuts full-charge time to just 2.5 hours. It’s part of the $3,765 XSE Premium Package in the US, though all Primes will come with it as standard in Canada.

Toyota quotes the same 38 mpg (6.0 L/100 km) for the RAV4 Prime as the Hybrid when, well, driven like the hybrid. Factor in the EV-only mode, though, and that jumps to 94 mpg-equivalent (2.5 Le/100km). You’re also looking at a range of over 600 miles (979 km).

Prime means power

Alright, we’ve talked about the parsimony of the Prime; now, let’s tackle power. Toyota is proud of the RAV4 Prime’s 302 horsepower, and that it’s the second-quickest model in the entire family. Only the GR Supra sports car can top the Prime’s 5.7-second dash to 60 mph, though how they go about getting there couldn’t be more different.

The RAV4 certainly feels fleeter than the humble Hybrid, but not necessarily 300-ponies fast. That’s because in its transition to PHEV, the RAV4’s packed on more weight than Ryan Gosling did for The Lovely Bones. At 4,300 pounds in top XSE trim, the Prime is a full 500 lb more than a loaded RAV4 Hybrid Limited. That’s a lot of melted ice cream.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Review: The Dependable One

The added poundage does have its perks, though. For starters, the battery now sits lower in the chassis, giving the Prime a better center of gravity. It also rides with a greater sense of calm than the last RAV4 Hybrid I drove, which was the one my colleague Kshitij had earlier in the month. Unrelated to weight, I also found the brake pedal in the Prime preferable to the Hybrid’s, feeling more natural when applying light pressure.

The Prime is punchier when using all its power, and it’s also pretty handy in near-silent EV mode. It will happily run over 83 mph (135 km/h) before requesting dino juice backup. When the gas engine does wake up, it does so with the same dull roar as in other RAV4s. Running in HV Charge mode in particular creates quite a drone, though that’s the price for charging up that battery.

The 19-inch wheels of the XSE model and its more aggressive bodykit makes it clear the Prime is geared to on-tarmac performance. The steering wheel features a decent amount of weight and the nose goes where you tell it with minimal fuss. You won’t confuse it with a sports SUV, but it’s tidy and quicker than anything else in the mainstream segment.

Still the same practical package

Over half a million people bought a RAV4 in Canada and the US last year. So this will be a very familiar interior for a lot of folks. Thankfully, it’s a good place to be, with a well-designed, logical layout. All the high-traffic touch points are soft-touch, and the SofTex seats are both comfortable and highly adjustable. Red stitching provides a much-needed jolt of color to the black interior. This higher-spec tester also includes the larger panoramic sunroof, which bathes the whole cabin in more natural light.

Toyota’s mid-pack infotainment system is present in the Prime. It’s looked dated pretty much since it debuted, but it’s quick to respond and now comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and Alexa support. You’ll be able to charge everyone’s devices too, with five USB ports plus a wireless pad. Screen size is now 9.0 inches in the XSE (an 8.0-incher is standard), so at least there’s more real estate to poke and prod. A full-color head-up display is also part of the XSE’s Premium pack, along with ventilated front seats and a trick digital rearview mirror. The JBL sound system, also part of the same pack, earns high marks for its power and clarity.

The reality of housing the plug-in hybrid gubbins means trunk space is slightly down to 33.5 cubic feet (949 liters), from 37.5 (1,059). You can still drop the rear thrones too, nearly doubling the available cubes for when it’s needed. That’s still more than it’s prime (ha!) rival, the Ford Escape PHEV. XSE Tech models get a hands-free tailgate with adjustable height.

Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 is standard across the RAV4 lineup, including automated emergency braking, lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control, road-sign recognition and rear cross-traffic alert. They all work as expected, though I maintain the cruise control is a little too eager to leave big gaps ahead. Then again, I’d rather that than the opposite.

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Verdict: 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime First Drive Review

The RAV4 Prime was one of my most anticipated vehicles of 2020. I’ve called the current RAV4 Hybrid the ultimate Venn diagram for most people, and the Prime moves that ever closer to a perfect circle. Especially when government incentives enter the picture.

Prices begin at $39,375 for the SE in the US, and $46,830 in Canada, including destination. Jump up to a loaded XSE Tech and you’re up to $48,360 ($58,830). That’s a thick stack of cash for a mainstream compact crossover, no doubt, but factor in federal tax credits—$7,500 in America, and five grand in Canada—plus any state/province bonuses, and the gap between Hybrid and Prime becomes smaller. In some cases, like in Quebec, the Prime SE will actually end up cheaper.

Add it all up then, and the Prime is an easy favorite in the RAV4 lineup. It’s quick, efficient, and practical. If you can swing that additional cost, don’t even look at the rest of the range: this is the best RAV4 you can buy.

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