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2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime: Explaining The Paddles On the Steering Wheel

The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle has paddle shifters on the steering wheel. Here’s what they do, and more importantly, don’t do.

If you are a green vehicle techie like this writer, you are excited about the all-new 2021 RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle (PHEV). The RAV4 Prime is fantastic to drive, safe, and perfectly-sized to hit the heart of the market. The RAV4 Prime has a modern design that rivals electric vehicles for ease of maintenance and promises a very low cost for repairs. And it just so happens to offer 94 MPGe and an all-electric range of 42 miles. But, what do the paddle shifters do?

Related Story - Full Review Of the 2021 RAV4 Prime

RAV4 Prime Paddle Shifters - What They Don’t Do
Sadly, we must report that the RAV4 Prime’s paddle shifters do not allow the driver to manually control the regenerative braking force. Some green vehicles allow the driver to take an active role in the regenerative braking force. It is a fun way to be involved with the energy recapture that makes green vehicles green. But alas, Toyota opted to use the paddles for another task.

RAV4 Prime Paddle Shifters - Not Infotainment Controls
General Motors and other brands now use the paddles in some cases to control audio volume and station selection. We think that is a good use of paddles, but not the best use. Those functions are easy to control using front-mounted steering wheel controls.

Related Story: 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime’s Mysterious All-Wheel Drive System Explained

RAV4 Prime Paddle Shifters - Here’s The Scoop
We reached out to Toyota’s technical team who offered us a generous amount of support in our coverage of the RAV4 Prime. What we learned, in a nutshell, is that the paddles control the rotational speed of the engine. In other words, they control the revolutions per minute or RPMs. Just like in a sports car like a Subaru WRX, or in a supercar like a McLaren.

Toyota calls its system Sequential Shiftmatic Mode. The system is actuated by the paddles. The hybrid transaxle compound gear unit (transmission if you will) electronically controls the gasoline engine’s RPMs within six stages to increase engine braking under lift-throttle conditions and to enhance acceleration response when the accelerator pedal is depressed. A pull on the left paddle initiates the first level. Subsequent pulls initiate the added levels, or more “downshifts.” A pull on the right paddle brings you back one setting (upshifts) and a pull and hold on the right paddle will return the vehicle to the automatic drive mode.

This is how paddle shifters work on almost every modern vehicle. Since the RAV4 Prime uses a form of continusously variable transmission, the engine speeds are not set “gear” ratios, but rather electronically-programmed ranges. Regardless of how an engine gets to its higher RPMs, the result is the same. More power and more torque in the upper ranges. And when decelerating, more engine braking.

The Sequential Shiftmatic Mode mode isn’t designed to increase electrical regeneration. Rather, it is a feature that enhances driver engagement by providing similar characteristics to what drivers would experience when manual shifting a conventional transmission in an old-school ICE vehicle. It is designed to make the RAV4 Prime more fun to drive.

Since the Sequential Shiftmatic Mode takes over control of the engine speed, Sport and ECO modes are suspended when one uses the paddles. This is because those modes act as engine speed controls themselves.

In a nutshell, the paddle shifters in the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime ehnace an already enjoyable driving experience. They allow a driver to be more involved in spirited driving.

Torque News would like to thank Tom Kretschmann, Product Technology Education Planner at Toyota, for his help in explaining this interesting system. We have liberally paraphrased his words in the explanation above. Also, Nathan Kokes, Toyota Product Communications Senior Manager, and Corey Proffitt, Toyota's East Coast Communications Manager, for help in setting up the communication channels. We would also like to tip our hat to Torque News reader/commenter, Dan, for requesting this deep dive story.

John Goreham is a long-time New England Motor Press Association member and recovering engineer. John's focus areas are technology, safety, and green vehicles. In the 1990s, he was part of a team that built a solar-electric vehicle from scratch. His was the role of battery thermal control designer. For 20 years he applied his engineering and sales talents in the high tech world and published numerous articles in technical journals such as Chemical Processing Magazine. In 2008 he retired from that career to chase his dream of being an auto writer. In addition to Torque News, John's work has appeared in print in dozens of American newspapers and he provides reviews to many vehicle shopping sites. You can follow John on Twitter, and view his credentials at Linkedin

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Dan (not verified)    September 8, 2020 - 7:09AM

A sincere thanks for the follow-up! Not what I wanted to hear but at least we all know the truth. Looking forward to more of your informative writing, thanks again.

J (not verified)    January 10, 2021 - 6:25AM

Ah, but what happens when the RAV4 Prime XSE is in full EV mode? Hint: the paddles DO increase/decrease regen. I've experienced this firsthand in my own R4P XSE.

Chris Wirth (not verified)    November 13, 2021 - 4:53AM

All Rav 4 Prime models can shift into a manual mode by moving the shift lever to the left, the XSE just has paddles as an easier way to do it. When the engine is running in hybrid mode you can do simulated downshifts of the CVT to increase your engine RPM and power out of corners better. There also happens to be more deceleration when letting off the throttle due to higher engine rpm's.

When in EV mode you can also push the shifter to the left (or left/right paddles if you have them) and tap down/back to increase regen mode or up/forward to decrease regen mode. The effect is very obvious when you let off the throttle so don't take my word for it and try it yourself. Normal drive mode coasts with very little reduction in speed while the most aggressive regen mode in S1 will significantly reduce speed and show higher average regen which puts power back into your battery.

I've gotten 54 miles of range before my engine kicked in doing 3 days of drives to work plus a visit to the gym. Normally my commute consumes 8 EV miles each way but on 30-55mph roads the use of this feature reduces consumption to only 6 EV miles if I time traffic lights efficiently as I'm barely using the brakes.

As your car travels faster it will auto shift the regen mode to less aggressive modes again since the shifter & paddles can also increases engine RPM when in Hybrid mode. They probably didn't want you to shift the car to 9000 rpm when going 60+ mph if you toggled the EV/Hybrid button to turn the engine on.

paul holterhaus (not verified)    September 4, 2023 - 10:59AM

This is SAD news for Me.........I would have been FAR happier if I could control Regen with the left paddle.........I am 80 and NOT a race car Driver, but would enjoy hitting the regen paddle when light ahead is red.............Paul