4 fast facts about the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid

The police officers stopped where I was parked on the sidewalk in front of one of Chicago’s landmark attractions. I hustled to get one last picture of the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid, and told them I’d be on my way.  

“Is that the electric one?” One officer asked. 

I explained it was a plug-in hybrid with a gas engine and two electric motors. 

“So it’s electric?” the other officer asked, getting out of his car. You could plug it in for electric power or fill it up for gas power, I said.  

“It’s nice,” he said, and followed me on a walk around. “I got the 2019 gas model. Love it.”

He is not alone. A hit for 25 years, the Toyota RAV4 crossover SUV is the best-selling passenger vehicle that is not a truck in the U.S. It also comes as a hybrid, and the RAV4 Hybrid’s EPA-rated 40 mpg combined helped it to become the best-selling hybrid in 2019, easily outselling the Toyota Prius. 

But the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid is the new star in Toyota’s family and should shine bright for shoppers seeking an efficient crossover SUV with plenty of electric range for the commute. 

The most powerful and most efficient RAV4 crossover SUV to date bridges the gap between gas and electric vehicles and provides the best of both worlds.

I spent a weekend driving an early XSE model in and around the collar counties of Chicago, on the interstates, through the suburbs, and stop and go in city streets. Here’s where it shined the most.  

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

Functional range

The large 18.1-kwh battery pack in the 2021 RAV4 Prime provides up to 42 miles of all-electric range, good for most commutes. It charged from zero to full in my garage on a standard 120-volt AC outlet overnight, or after about 12 hours. There’s no need to install a 240-volt Level 2 charger in your garage, but if you do, it can charge to full in just 4.5 hours with a 3.3-kw onboard charger; the available 6.6-kw charger will cut that time to 2.5 hours, according to Green Car Reports.  

The only learning curve is to remember to plug it in, which I forgot to do, and drove the next day on gas and guilt. 

Functionally, its efficiency depends on the driving conditions. A seven-mile jaunt through Chicago ate nine miles of range. Heavy on the throttle, running the air conditioner, exceeding interstate speed limits will diminish efficiency, same as a gas engine. In EV mode, speed is capped at 84 mph. On a typical trip toting family gear and totaling 97 miles at an average speed of 34 mph, I used all 35 miles of electric range that remained from the previous drive for an efficiency of 3.1 miles per kwh, which is near top of the class for plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles. Put another way, the RAV4 Prime gets the equivalent of 94 mpg running on electricity alone, according to the EPA. 

On the interstates, at speeds where the gas engine is most efficient, I kept the Prime in EV Hold mode to preserve battery power. Running the gas engine only and saving electric juice for before the on-ramp and after the off-ramp is ideal for commuters who have equal parts highway and around-town shuttles. 

On the way from downtown back to the burbs, there was no electric range left but the RAV4 Prime still averaged more than 53 mpg as a conventional hybrid. Operation was seamless, and the switch from electric to gas could only be detected with the radio off or if you were looking for it. The engine thrums from the footwell but passengers didn’t notice. 

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

Functional power

From a stop, the electric motors provide instant torque to all four wheels for a punchy burst of speed that makes electric vehicles so fun. Otherwise, the rear motor remains off until the system detects a need for more traction. In EV mode, the RAV4 Prime tapers off into the kind of plodding slog typical of crossover SUVs, with a 0-60 mph time of 9.2 seconds. 

But in Hybrid mode, the 2021 RAV4 Prime is downright powerful. The 2.5-liter inline-4 takes the lead and, supplemented by the two electric motors, makes 302 horsepower, which is good enough to hit 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds, according to Toyota. That’s the most powerful Toyota around aside from the Supra sports coupe. It feels like it too, the engine thrumming to make effortless passing moves. 

It almost makes the other RAV4s feel underpowered. The RAV4 makes 203 hp, and the hybrid makes 219 hp, but the RAV4 Prime weighs considerably more at about 4,300 pounds compared to 3,800 for the hybrid and 3,500 for the gas-only model. It moves considerably quicker, too. This is one reason why Toyota is only selling it in its sportier SE and XSE trims. 

One function I didn’t get to test was the Trail mode. It’s meant for off-roading, which is not something I’d do in a regular RAV4. When one wheel is spinning free with no grip, the all-wheel-drive system brakes the loose wheel to send torque to the wheel with grip. 

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

Functional utility

With the 18.1-kwh battery pack mounted under the floor between the axles, the RAV4 Prime handles with more balanced assurance. It doesn’t have that top-heavy feel of most crossover SUVs. 

The higher cargo floor creates only a marginal loss of interior space, from 37.6 cubic feet in the RAV4 Hybrid to 33.5 cubes in the RAV4 Prime. Fold down the rear seats and it’s 63.2 cubic feet. There’s plenty of room for rear seat passengers.  

Functional confusion?

My interaction with the officers in Chicago’s Museum Campus wasn’t unique. Several people who asked about the RAV4 Prime weren’t clear on the difference between a hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or electric vehicle. This still is an industry-wide problem

Fortunately, Toyota addresses this with an extensive warranty beyond 3-years/36,000-miles: the powertrain gets an additional 5-year/60,000-mile warranty; the hybrid components get an 8-year/100,000-mile guarantee; and the hybrid battery is covered for 10 years or 150,000 miles. 

Still, doubts persist. The officer who owned the 2019 RAV4 challenged who was qualified to work on the RAV4 Prime and added, “How much more are they going to charge for an hour of labor?”

He had a point. But there were similar doubts when the Prius launched 20 years ago, and it became the best-selling hybrid in the world. It’s too early to forecast a similar fate for the RAV4 Prime, but it has the range, capability, and power to make believers.

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