2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime
- Summer 2020
What to expect
- 39 miles of pure electric range
- Has 83 more horsepower, is 2 seconds quicker to 60 mph than a RAV4 Hybrid
- Only built in sporty SE and XSE grades with all-wheel drive
- Hybrid battery warranty is now 10 years/150,000 miles
What is it?
When the word "Prime" is tagged onto the Toyota Prius, as in Toyota Prius Prime, the result doesn't exactly get your blood boiling. That plug-in hybrid (PHEV) version of the Prius has a slightly higher price and a somewhat bigger battery that enables 25 miles of electric driving before the engine comes to life. It's sensible, if you can plug it in nightly, but that's about all. The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime may share that nondescript suffix, but in fact the RAV4 Prime is a much more interesting and more compelling plug-in hybrid than the Prius Prime ever was.
This boils down to two points. The RAV4 Prime's battery is significantly bigger, and that gives this compact SUV an estimated all-electric range of 39 miles. Thirty-nine miles is a truly useful number that will cover most daily commutes — especially when you know you can safely run it to zero and let the gasoline engine seamlessly keep the party moving. On top of that, the RAV4 Prime has bigger electric motors that make it significantly quicker than the RAV4 Hybrid on which it's based. This isn't the case with the Prius Prime, which isn't any more powerful than a garden-variety Prius.
And so the RAV4 Prime can bring 302 horses to bear, which, according to Toyota, will launch this family-friendly all-wheel-drive SUV to 60 mph in just 5.8 seconds. The carmaker says this time makes the RAV4 Prime the second-quickest vehicle in its lineup — behind, presumably, the Toyota Supra. Meanwhile, the regular RAV4 Hybrid generates 219 horsepower and trundles to 60 mph in a still respectable 7.8 seconds. Both share the same gasoline engine, so the credit for the Prime's 83-hp surplus and 2-second acceleration beatdown goes to its bigger electric motors.
This significant uptick in oomph explains why the Prime is only being offered in the SE and XSE trim levels. These are Toyota's sporty grade designations that come paired with sport-tuned suspensions and more-aggressive styling details, both of which are present here. In fact, the RAV4 Prime looks more sporty than sensible, even though it most definitely ticks both boxes. Inside, the RAV4 Prime benefits from a few changes that were just introduced for 2020. Chief among these is support for Android Auto, which joins the previously introduced Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa integration.
What about the battery, charging and efficiency?
Specific details regarding the battery's size and recharge time were not available at press time. But we know it takes a good-size lithium-ion battery pack to enable 39 miles of range in something like a compact all-wheel-drive SUV. Our back-of-envelope estimation suggests that 16 kWh should just about do it, and that just happens to be the minimum size necessary to qualify for the full federal tax credit of $7,500.
A battery of that size is best served by an onboard charger of 6.6 kW or more. These assumptions add up to an estimated zero-to-full recharge time of around two hours or so using 240-volt equipment, the same amount of time it takes to refill the 16-kWh battery in a Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid minivan.
Of course, gasoline fuel economy still matters in plug-in hybrids because they can wander beyond their electric range and go on cross-country road trips using gasoline. Toyota has not yet revealed the RAV4 Prime's rated gasoline-mode efficiency. But as a fully functioning hybrid, it should come close to the regular RAV4 Hybrid's rating of 40 mpg combined (41 city/38 highway). A drop of 1 or 2 mpg wouldn't surprise us due to the added battery weight. But even if it settled at 38 mpg combined, it would be a huge boost over the 28 mpg combined rating of a lowly non-hybrid RAV4 with all-wheel drive.
Can it still wander off-road?
The RAV4 Prime's all-wheel-drive system is laid out similarly to that of the RAV4 Hybrid. The front is powered by a combination of electric motors and, when battery power wanes, the gasoline engine. The rear is powered solely by a separate electric motor.
What this means is the rear-drive unit isn't built to run 100% of the time. It's instead meant to provide strategic bursts of assistance during launches — when accelerating on loose or snowy surfaces — and to provide stabilization when traversing slippery patches. This ability may well prove to be sufficient on typical maintained dirt roads of the sort crossover SUVs can traverse. And the drive mode selector does indeed have a Trail mode to help push through in cases where one wheel is unweighted and wants to spin.
The bigger issue may be clearance. The underhanging battery reduces ground clearance somewhat. And the SE and XSE front bumper treatment includes a prominent chin spoiler that gives the Prime a sporty scowl, resulting in a less favorable approach angle. But let's get real. If you want to buy a RAV4 that's best suited to dirt-road use, consider the Adventure or, better yet, the recently introduced TRD Off-Road model.
Why does it matter?
Electrification is coming fast. And those who have sampled plug-in hybrids and pure EVs know that they offer drivability and convenience benefits that are appealing once you take that first step. But Toyota hasn't previously offered a truly useful plug-in hybrid. The Prius Prime always lacked enough EV range to be a distinct alternative to a regular hybrid, and it didn't give young families the space and flexibility they needed for daily life.
The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime, on the other hand, has enough punch on the electric side to make it more engaging. And its bigger battery gives it enough electric range potential to make it truly credible as a part-time EV. Considering the popularity of the RAV4 Hybrid, the RAV4 Prime might just take the PHEV market to the next level.
What does it compete with?
There aren't many plug-in hybrids that are bona fide five-passenger SUVs, particularly in the sub-$40,000 price neighborhood. And none of them come close to the RAV4 Prime's 39 miles of electric range, not to mention its impressive output of 302 hp and the robust acceleration that goes with it. If you're looking for competitors that match up directly, there aren't any.
The main player in the space is the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, an aging vehicle that's in need of a refresh. Its electric range of 22 miles isn't particularly useful. And when the electrons inevitably run out, the Mitsu chugs gas at a very unhybrid-like 25 mpg. The Mini Cooper S E Countryman All4 is cuter and better built. However, it's designed more to add performance than efficiency and only returns a paltry 12-mile electric range and similarly lackluster fuel economy of 27 mpg. The Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid scores better at 26 miles of range and an impressive 46 mpg on gasoline. It seems decent at face value, but it's really just a two-wheel-drive wagon masquerading as an SUV. Don't fall for it.
The strongest SUV alternative might just be the Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid, which, despite the name, is a plug-in hybrid like the Prime. This one has real off-road chops and a unique stance that's really appealing. But it, too, isn't a very well-developed plug-in hybrid, with just 17 miles of electric range and sluggish performance. Its 35 mpg rating at the pump is decent enough, though.
The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime surprised us with 39 miles of electric range and the power and the style to make it a viable and desirable plug-hybrid SUV. The RAV4 Prime has our full attention, and we'll be keeping a close watch as more details emerge ahead of its release next summer.