Wait a sec. The friendly and familiar RAV4 SUV? A performance vehicle? Yep, and then some.
Toyota has been on a roll lately, and they’ve making fun to drive a big part of their new direction as a brand. Camry, Corolla, Supra, heck, even the Highlander is a lot more fun than it used to be. And where hybrids used to be just for super-efficiency, Toyota is showing that they are also capable of giving real exhilaration. So, let’s go for a thrill ride!
Ok, this hasn’t changed much since the RAV4 was all-new in 2019, but that was a pretty big change. The previous pleasant slab-sided model went to the gym and came out all swole up. Bigger and brawnier, the front end is particularly aggressive, with a sporty grill flanked by frowny LED headlights, vertical LED accent lights, and a large contrasting lower fascia.
The profile is rugged with polygonal motifs in the wheel arches, acting as a perfect frame for the massive 19-inch five-spoke alloy wheels. The RAV sits tall on its suspension giving an off-road cred to the package. Fender flares and scooped-out side panels give a muscular look, while the rear fenders sweep around the back for a squared-off crisp look. Another contrasting lower fascia with dual exhaust pipes promises action.
Topping off our tester was a black roof to give a two-tone design that works handsomely with the rich Supersonic Red exterior. This is pretty heady stuff for a plug-in hybrid, which is called out along the front fenders, for those who want their neighbors to know. This is one tough-looking truck. (Yes, SUV owners like to say truck)
Inside is also relatively unchanged since the re-do in 2019, but that was a huge change and all for the better. The instrument panel is slimmer and more horizontal, giving a spacious feeling as you settle in. It’s a squared-off design that is a departure from the rounded car-like interiors we find in most small SUV’s. It looks tough and capable, and we love it.
Dual analog gauges flank a digital center readout that does the heavy lifting, including speedometer, and a load of menus for calling up everything from drive computer to info-tainment. We like how the outer rim of the speedo changes colors by mode: red for sport, white for normal, and green for eco. Nice. And just so you don’t spend time with your head buried in the dash, the 10-inch, color Heads-up Display also serves up speed, navigation and hybrid system info.
On the info-tainment side, there’s standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, made all the nicer by the large 9-inch touchscreen in the center of the dash. The system also includes navigation and a booming 800-watt, 11-speaker JBL Audio system. It’s also a useful display for the 360-degree overhead bird’s eye view system – a real benefit in an SUV – as behind the tailgate and to the sides can be tough to see, when negotiating a tight parking spot.
That’s the only thing that’s tight, as the interior is exceptionally roomy. The front seat is well shaped and designed to fit even taller folks – a notable improvement from the old model. The center console is huge, and with an electronic parking brake, the center console is a fine control center, with plenty of bins and nooks to store stuff. And if you look closely, they all have trim that echoes the polygonal design from the outside. Nice stuff.
The rear seat is also an improvement, friendly for big folks, and the rear seats fold down easily when you need to carry gear.
So far, what we’ve described is true for just about any 2021 RAV4, and the overall goodness is sure to keep it the #1 selling small SUV. But the PHEV (plug-in hybrid) Prime is something very special.
Toyota has been re-envisioning the Hybrid term to mean not only great fuel economy, but also performance. We saw that in the Avalon, Camry and RAV4 Hybrids recently. Quick and fun. Maybe nothing to swap your BMW in for, but nice.
The RAV4 Prime is not nice. It’s mean. It’s lean. It will surprise and amaze. The 302 horsepower rating should be a clue. It’s a new world, though – the 2.5-liter four cylinder provides 177 horsepower, while like a rich uncle, a pair of electric motors up front kick in 179 hp and 199 lb.-ft of torque. Providing the All to the All-Wheel Drive, there’s also a 53 hp electric motor that drives the rear wheels. The magic of EV plus gas power brings us to 302.
We’re not sure which is the absolute fastest way to accelerate. In full EV mode the RAV4 whooshes and pushes you silently and quickly. With the gas motor kicking in, the sound is more conventional. But you cannot deny the results: -60 is easily under 6 seconds, passing is effortless, and you find yourself hunting down expensive machinery just to embarrass them. And it makes this space age whoosh sound outside to alert pedestrians as you cruise by. So cool!
OK, so Toyota hasn’t forgotten the eco Mr. Hyde side of the Jekyll/Hide. First, you can get an impressive 42 miles of EV-only driving (the highest of any PHEV SUV). And with some restraint you will get 94 MPGe. Gas only you’re estimated at 38 mpg which is actually pretty good considering this is not a light vehicle – batteries add lbs.
But that weight doesn’t deter the rest of the drive. The ride is supple and has the long-legged comfort of an off-road suspension, and with all-wheel drive it is confident, controlled, and easy to wheel around. That electric motor AWD not only makes for better handling but helps in off-road conditions there’s even a driver-selectable Trail mode.
Toyota probably did the right thing. They could have given a stiff Euro-style suspension and made this an all-around Bahn-stormer, but that’s probably not what this buyer wants. Great efficiency with some added oomph is plenty.
You Want Prime, You Pay For Prime
While the RAV4 starts at an affordable $26,050, and there’s a model for just about anyone, you will pay for Prime time. Actually, starting at $41,425 for a RAV4 XSE AWD is not a bad deal, considering the performance. But you’ll have to keep your emotions in check, as a tempting options list can elevate things quickly.
OK, our loaded tester had the Premium Audio package ($1,620), Weather Package – heated seats and the like – ($375), Supersonic Red/Black top ($425), Premium Package ($3,765), add in some accessories, and $1,120 for Delivery, and we rang the bell at $49,776. Gulp!
That said, you could be careful and probably not have to use any gas if your commute is short enough, and there’s a Federal incentive of $7,500 and state incentives that could kick in a couple grand as well. All of sudden that Prime starts to sound much more affordable.
Competitors? We actually like the Kia Niro PHEV at $37,790 before rebates – a very nice and fun to drive vehicle. The world’s best-selling Plug-in Hybrid is the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, and you get a lot in a large, luxurious package for $38,100. But neither takes the PHEV to new heights like the RAV4, so yeah the Toy costs more – but it’s worth it. We’d also recommend looking at the RAV4 Hybrid (no plug-in) starting at just under $34,000. Lots of goodness there, too.
We love the Toyota RAV4 Prime. Storming performance, hybrid frugality, Toyota quality and SUV capability. The fastest 4-door Toyota may also be the best Toyota – period!
Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round — whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, and learning to surf.