What a fitting name. The RAV4 Prime, with its plug-in hybrid powertrain, isn’t just the best within the RAV4 lineup, it’s one of the most practical and efficient vehicles available.
The headlining advantage point for the Prime has over nearly every other vehicle available is its ability to be driven as an EV without a worry of range anxiety. It sounds cliche to use the term but if you’re looking to drive up to the mountains for a camping weekend or want to go skiing on a cold winter day, there will likely be some consideration for how long the trip will be and if there will be available charging. The Prime turns those concerns into simply curiosities.
The Prime is fitted with a larger battery pack that provides about 40 miles of electric driving – enough for most commutes – until the gasoline engine fires up to provide another 560 miles of range.
The more capable battery pack also delivers on the performance front. With EV Mode engaged and the pedal floored, the Prime is excitingly quick (and quiet of course) and 40 mph arrives far faster than expected. Hybrid mode allows the engine to fire up for worry-free overtaking on steep mountain-side highway overpasses. For those keeping score, the Prime is faster to 60 mph than the cherished V6 model of a decade ago.
Lots of power, however, doesn’t suddenly mean it’s become a sports car. The Prime retains its 8+ inches of ground clearance but it’s the additional 600 pounds of weight and soft suspension that cause it to be a downer in the twisties. It tends to understeer at its rather low handling limits and the all-wheel-drive system is limited in its ability to effectively channel the power to the ground – as evident by the ease of which it will spin its front inside tire on onramps and most other curves.
When driven in a much more sensible manner, the added mass grants the Prime with road manners that would feel worthy in a Lexus. It feels better isolated from rough surfaces and road noise, despite the 19-inch wheels. Even the engine is impressively quiet when called to duty.
Wind noise, on the other hand, is still just as intrusive at high speed as in the other RAV4 models, meaning, there’s some noise around the A-pillar area. Another bit of intruding noise is the low-speed EV noise that is artificially generated to warn pedestrians. Other makers developed futuristic sounds while Toyota seems to have purposefully combined the sound of a siren that’s decreasing in pitch and a whistle from a distant train.
The one-pedal driving experience is another big part of driving an EV, however, it is not available in the RAV4 Prime. Instead, the very traditional two-pedal operation is at least very intuitive. The accelerator pedal provides smooth “throttle” tip-in – ideal for heavy stop and go traffic – and the brake feel is also impressive and allows for a smooth stop without overreacting to small pedal modulations which plagues some Hybrid and electric vehicles. Also, the game of maximizing braking regeneration is suddenly so 2010, and the more capable electrical system can recapture all the braking energy expelled during normal or even hard braking efforts.
The larger battery pack does little to intrude on interior space. The cargo volume is marginally affected while the Prime’s cabin space is identical to other RAV4’s which is spacious, but can be restrictive to taller people.
Speaking of restrictive, the added cost of the Prime over the Hybrid may seem steep and this fully loaded XSE model nearly crosses the $50k mark. But, factor in the $300 annual fuel savings (EPA-estimate), the reduced maintenance costs, and the big $7,500 federal tax rebate, and the Prime will quickly pay for the price gap – just as the Hybrid quickly pays for its premium over the gasoline-only model. Forgo the panoramic sunroof, the powerful JBL audio system, and the ventilated seats, and the plug-in version becomes very reasonably priced, especially considering the large gains in everyday drivability.
The 2021 RAV4 Prime arrives on the market at the perfect moment as the automotive industry pushes rapidly towards electric powertrains but the convenience of refueling is still far in the future. The Prime can provide the EV experience when it’s convenient and also provide non-stop long-distance travel. Wrapped in a crossover package with AWD, there are few vehicles available with this much practicality or capability.