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Test Drive: There’s More to the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime Than Quick Acceleration

Don’t call it a true performance SUV, but don’t call it unintriguing, either.

Conner GoldenWriterManufacturerPhotographer

Ever wonder what sound a money-printing machine makes? Just mosey on down to your local Toyota dealership and request a test drive of one of the many 2020 RAV4s lined up in a pretty little row. The four-cylinder buzz—no V-6 available since 2012—spitting out of the rear tailpipe is the closest you're going to get to the cutting-room floor of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, considering that even in ever-turbulent 2020, the ultra-bestselling Toyota RAV4 continues its supreme reign at the top of the sales charts. From the looks of the all-new 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid, the Japanese automaker's printing press might clock-in some overtime.

Low (Initial) Expectations

Or, maybe not. According to Toyota, it plans to sell 5,000 units of the RAV4 Prime in 2020, owing to summer delivery and presumably a relatively high base price of $38,100. That's literally around 1-percent of the 448,000 RAV4s sold in 2019; the latter number made the RAV4 overall the best-selling Toyota, best-selling crossover, and best-selling non-truck vehicle for that year in the U.S. But at 5,000 sales, the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime model will only slightly outsell the big, big bro Land Cruiser that is purportedly discontinued in the U.S. in the next few years. Of course, sales will likely increase massively in the foreseeable future, and the RAV4 Prime plays nicely into Toyota's goal of hybrids making up 25 percent of all of its sales by 2025.

Better still, the existing RAV4 Hybrid—munching up 26 percent of total RAV4 sales—outsells the venerable Prius, and Toyota expects the RAV4 Prime to subsequently outsell the Prius Prime. So, things look good for the latest, greatest, EV-est, and most expensive version of the SUV people just can't stop buying.

We already liked the latest incarnation of the RAV4, and our ears perked way, way up when Toyota slapped us with the Prime's headlines in November 2019: a full 302 combined horsepower! Forty-two miles of all-electric range! Zero-to-60-mph in 5.7 seconds! Hey, maybe this whole electrify-everything movement ain't so bad after all.

As Good as You Think

We'll get this out of the way early as we embark on this 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime test drive: If you like the present RAV4's vibe, and are already interested in the hybrid variant, you'll like the Prime even more. Just like all other plug-in hybrids to come before it, the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime drives, acts, and feels much like a RAV4 Hybrid with longer electric legs and a whole lot more dragstrip shove. Sound good to you? Great! Go pick one up when the model hits dealers shortly, in July. It will be every bit the quiet, quick, eco-friendly plug-in hybrid SUV you hope it will be.

We're sure the powers that be at Toyota are rubbing their foreheads at that statement; during the model briefing, engineers and product planners assured us up, down, right, and left that the Prime is absolutely, positively not just a RAV4 Hybrid with a bigger battery. Instead, it's the sporty, enthusiast-focused choice of the RAV4 family, something that will appeal more to the Supra-curious rather than the Prius crowd.

We're unhappy to report after test-driving the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime: If this triggered fever-dreams of a GRMN Gazoo-style rally-ready electro hyper-crossover, keep dreaming. According to Toyota, driving dynamics were a "priority," so the suspension and steering are intended to be "smoother, more refined." Hey, Toyota's words, not ours. In the unending pursuit of a sharp, tactile drive, the Prime carries extra go-fast goodies like laminated front-side windows, additional sound deadening, panoramic sunroof, and the first-ever 19-inch wheels fitted to a RAV4.

A Hot Rod This Isn't

This hardware doesn't exactly sound like stuff that would help tackle Spa Francorchamps' famous Eau Rouge complex, does it? That's because, after test-driving the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime,

its 5.7-second zero-to-60 sprint feels more like a happy byproduct rather than an intended design.

The big 18.1-kWh battery pack provides a fair chunk of juice, so with the wick turned up on the Prime's front motor—note that the motor powering the rear wheels is unchanged compared to the Hybrid—and working in tandem with the 177-hp, 2.5-liter naturally aspirated four-banger under the hood, the Prime feels impressively quick. This is especially true from a low-speed dig, but it's quick in the same way as the O.G. RAV4 V-6 that departed in 2012. It's not a thrilling speed, especially since the car is under-tired and under-braked for the kind of speed 302 hybridized horsepower brings. Think Sunday tequila shots in a library around 10 a.m. when you should be studying for Monday's exam: it's going to be exciting, but perhaps for the wrong reasons.

Like a significant other buying you a gift you for months hinted and hinted at, a test drive of the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime demonstrates how it ends up a little joyless in the end. Don't get it twisted, though: The powertrain lets you feel each of those 302 horses, especially when you mat the right pedal, and the low-grip tires scream and torque steer to an, er, "impressive" degree. We suppose if you're the type of driver who only looks for on-ramp pulls and nothing else, the Prime is as exciting a crossover as you're going to find without a BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, or Alfa badge on the front snout.

Don't Focus on the Acceleration

Ah, but here's the part of our 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime test drive where we say "however." Ahem—however! In every aspect other than driving dynamics, the RAV4 Prime is just as fab as the regular RAV4, only better. Sure, it doesn't dance quite like the Alfa Romeo Stelvio, but like all other RAV4s, the Prime is built on a derivative of Toyota's ever-excellent TNGA platform. In other words, it handles and rides far better than anyone could ever ask of a non-premium SUV, period. Besides, who the hell buys a RAV4 for canyon carving? This car is tuned for the daily drive; it doesn't need to be anything beyond comfortable. We're tickled pink to report, in this regard, it's composed, smooth, extremely quiet, and for daily plods around a very broken and bumpy Los Angeles, it retains fantastic suspension tuning.

Toyota's pitch of the plug-in 2021 RAV4 Prime as the Sporty Spice of the lineup did the Prime dirty. The stuff like laminated glass and extra sound-deadening materials, along with HUD, 9-inch infotainment screen, and those 19-inch wheels, make the Prime a great grand-touring, semi-premium crossover; the fact it goes nose-to-nose with hot hatches in a straight line is just icing on the cake.

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime: Odds and Ends

Ultimately, the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime is good stuff. We know we didn't go into the more granular dork-leaning details, so here's a grab-bag of all of the remaining questions you might have:

If you want the full 42-mile EV-only range—which, by the way, raises the zero-to-60-mph time to 9.2 seconds—you're going to have to charge the sucker. At 120 volts, 12 amps, it will take 12 hours; 4.5 hours at 240 volts and 16 amps; and 2.5 hours on, say, a public charger at 6.6 kW, 240 volts, and 32 amps. Despite the Prime's position at the top of the RAV4 pricing hierarchy with a base price of $38,100, you should have plenty of cash to pay for using public chargers, since the Prime qualifies for the legendary $7,500 tax-credit rebate. With an impressive 94 mpge rating, you'll soon find yourself far from the nearest charger, possibly somewhere off-road. No surprises there, since all-wheel-drive RAV4s pack a host of terrain-management systems, and Toyota says the systems were modified for the Prime but they still function the same.

Sound good? It should. If nothing else, our 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime test drive proved the car is a compelling package. With plenty of power, refined good looks, and an acceleration time that punches multiple classes above its weight, we have no reason to suspect the Prime will be anything short of another record sales success for Toyota.

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime Quick Facts:

  • The first plug-in hybrid RAV4
  • Stellar acceleration, so-so drive
  • Not a performance SUV; think premium semi-luxury
  • Excellent drivetrain with whisper-quiet operation
  • Still can go off-road
2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime Specifications
ON SALE July
PRICE $38,100 (base)
ENGINE 2.5L DOHC 16-valve I-4/177 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 165 lb-ft @ 3,500 rpm

Two permanent magnet synchronous motors, front and rear; 179 hp, 199 lb-ft front; 53 hp, 89 lb-ft rear; 18.1 kWh lithium-ion battery pack

TRANSMISSION Continuously variable automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE  94 MPGe; 42 miles EV-only range, 40/36 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 180.9 x 73.0 x 67.0 in
WHEELBASE 105.9 in
WEIGHT 4,235-4,300 lb
0-60 MPH 5.7 sec
TOP SPEED 120 mph (est)