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2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime XSE Review - Toyota Sets A New Standard For Green Crossovers

The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime XSE plug-in hybrid electric vehicle is impressive on so many levels it is hard to know where to begin. We will try to do the vehicle justice in this full review.

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Toyota’s new 2021 RAV4 Prime is its third generation of RAV4s with plugs. Unlike the prior two generations, one of which was a collaborative effort with Tesla, the new RAV4 Prime is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, not battery-only. Which is one of the reasons we love it. This is a green vehicle with zero compromises that with every available option will cost a buyer about $39K new in EV-Target states after incentives. This vehicle sets a new standard in many ways.

Related Story: Toyota RAV4 Prime vs. Tesla Model Y Maintenance Cost Analysis - A Surprising Outcome

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV) - What is it?
The RAV4 is a two-row crossover available in many trims and styles. It is usually the top-selling non-pickup truck model in America each month. The RAV4 Prime is a green version of the RAV4 crossover that uses a hybrid drivetrain with both a gasoline engine and also electric motors that draw their power from a plug and by generating power from braking. There are two RAV4 Prime trims, SE and XSE. Both come standard with all-wheel drive and have the same drivetrains.

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime - What Does It Cost?
With green vehicles, the purchase price is always accompanied by information on tax breaks, state rebates, and other incentives. The Toyota RAV4 Prime is no exception. There are two trims. The SE trim starts at $39,275. The XSE trim starts at $42,600. We have included the $1,175 destination charge in both of those figures. Before you click away thinking this vehicle is too pricey, read just a smidge further, please.

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The RAV4 Prime qualifies for a $7,500 federal tax deduction. We think it is fair to say that most folks or families who are buying a new crossover priced in the $30Ks will have a tax bill large enough to take full advantage of the deduction. If you have any doubts, call your tax preparer. The RAV4 Prime also qualifies for incentives such as cash rebates in the states that support green vehicle adoption. There are about 15 such states, and they include California and many of the New England states. Here in Massachusetts, our rebate is $1,500 for the RAV4 Prime. Thus, if my family were to buy a RAV4 Prime SE base model it would cost us about $30,275. That is well within the norm for two-row crossovers.

We tested the top-trim XSE with the $5,760 Premium Package that adds a lot of great luxury items such as ventilated seats, adaptive front headlights that swing to the side you turn into, a quicker charging system, and a head-up display. By our calculation, this vehicle would cost a buyer in Massachusetts around $39,000. Its sticker price with the destination charge included is $48,060.

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime - What Makes It Special
We will dive deeper on some of these points, but here is what we think makes the RAV4 Prime special in bullet points:
-This is the two-row crossover with the single-best drivetrain available in the world for under $49K. It is also unusually powerful, with 302 horsepower.
-The vehicle earns a 94 MPGe rating from the EPA. It will save you thousands on energy compared to any other conventionally-powered crossover its size. And its cost per mile for energy rivals battery-electric vehicles.
-The RAV4 Prime is designed to be very inexpensive to maintain. The 100K mile maintenance costs related to the gas engine can be as low as $600.
--The RAV4 is a Top Safety Pick
The RAV4 Prime XSE has features you will not find in any EV, including Tesla’s Model Y.
-This vehicle is a blast to drive
-Its range is over 500 miles when full. And it can get most commuters to and from the office without using any gasoline.

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime - Drivetrain
The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime has a plug-in hybrid electric drive system. It uses a very special gasoline engine, a unique transmission, and two electric motors. It has all-wheel drive in both trims. The rear wheels use their own electric motor, a technology that Toyota pioneered and has perfected.

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

Most owners will charge their RAV4 Prime at night at home, and when they start off in the morning they will have an all-EV range of 42 miles. That means no gas is needed for that many miles. Zero. So, it is sort of like a Chevy Volt in that regard if you are familiar with the now-discontinued Volt. Many Volt owners report using almost no gas during the ownership of their vehicles.

The RAV4 Prime also has the ability to operate without the battery charged. When it does so, it is a super-efficient hybrid. The vehicle never reverts to being a conventional gas-burner. When operated as a hybrid, its fuel economy is 38 MPG Combined according to the EPA. In our testing, we got 45.7 MPG when we used the vehicle as a hybrid.

Our Results - Living Electric
Our RAV4 Prime’s range miles promised matched up exactly to the miles traveled. This is unusual. Most EVs we test will display a range, but then when you drive, you actually cover meaningfully fewer miles. We used the AC constantly during our test and we never babied the vehicle. We drove it like it was any other up-powered premium crossover. With the RAV4 Prime, we found that the vehicle lived up to or exceeded its EPA energy efficiency estimates.

When the electric charge was depleted, the vehicle returned a rating of 45.7 MPG. This was mostly rural back roads and highway driving. Which is exactly when an owner of a RAV4 Prime might operate the vehicle without using electricity. The EV charge is perfect for cities, and the hybrid drive is ideal for uninterrupted cruising. Note that like all hybrids, the RAV4 Prime never actually uses up all of its battery. The vehicle retains what it needs to operate as a hybrid and can regenerate electricity during braking. Thus, even with zero EV range miles left, the vehicle does still operate in EV mode occasionally while acting as a hybrid and the AWD system never fails to function.

There is a third option. One can use “Automatic” and let the RAV4 Prime decide based on your driving habits how to apportion the energy and drivetrain options. Do so and you are rewarded with an ultra-smooth, very satisfying driving experience. This is also the fastest mode. Floor the RAV4 Prime in hybrid or Auto mode and it is able to sprint to 60 MPH in under 6 seconds. That feels very fast in a crossover. Frankly, unless you want a dedicated performance machine (like a Jaguar iPace crossover), the RAV4 Prime has more speed, torque, and power than you will ever need in any situation. This is a crossover that feels faster than a Mazda CX-5 Signature with the 2.5-turbo. More power would be window dressing in this vehicle. Just as it is in many performance vehicles.

Toyota RAV4 Prime Image By John Goreham

Charging is simple. You plug the RAV4 Prime into a 115 Volt outlet when you get home at night. When you wake up for work, it is fully charged with 42 miles of range. It takes about 12 hours to charge to full using the least powerful outlet. You can charge to full in about 4.5 hours if you get a home charger that uses 240 Volt power, or when charging at a public charger. The XSE also has an optional charger that can cut that charge time to 2.5 hours if you opt for the Premium Package. Having tested the vehicle, we would not worry about that at all. It seems strictly for those few owners who will charge in public nearly all the time.

How Does The RAV4 Prime Feel When Driven
The RAV4 Prime has such a unique feel that not only does the driver notice it right away, but the passengers do as well. It is silent upon startup, like all green vehicles. Opt for Auto mode and let the RAV4 Prime manage the power delivery and the RAV4 has outstanding starting torque and it also has instant power and torque delivery at all speeds and in all situations. It drives like a premium electric vehicle. Because it is.

Stoplight take-offs can be fun. Floor the RAV4 Prime and it shoots forward with zero hesitation and zero lag. The electric motors begin the process and the 2.5-liter Dynamic Force gasoline engine comes in with no noticeable step in power. It makes only subtle sounds when doing so.

Start off normally, but briskly, and the RAV4 Prime does not use its gas engine, but just its two electric motors, and you are rewarded with the electric driving experience that so many reviewers speak fondly of. It is very addictive. You will not want to drive a gas-only vehicle again. When in EV-only mode the RAV4 Prime has more than enough torque and power to briskly glide you around. Toyota picked the perfect level of performance for a two-row crossover.

On rural roads, the RAV4 Prime XSE Premium has such a smooth drivetrain that it feels like a screaming bargain for a crossover that’s costs is under $40K. It feels like it should cost 50% more. On the highway, it is one of the quietest vehicles we have ever driven. Even when the gasoline engine is doing the work it is whisper-quiet.

Related: 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime - What Do The Paddles On the Steering Wheel Do?

The gasoline engine in this special RAV4 is not a “normal” 2.5-liter engine. There are many differences between Toyota’s engine and the one in say, a Rogue, or CR-V, or Forester. It feels most like the 2.5-liter non-turbo in the CX-5. Smooth, nearly silent, and rich in its operation. Very satisfying.

We never once felt any torque steer in the RAV4 Prime, something we did feel in the CX-5 Signature with its torquey turbo engine. This leads us to believe that Toyota has balanced the all-wheel drive system perfectly. Furthermore, in our testing on a steep sand and gravel hill in rural New Hampshire, the RAV4 Prime never spun a wheel when operated in an adult fashion. If you want to induce wheelspin, you can. Just like you can in any all-wheel drive crossover.

Ride Comfort and Handling - Toyota RAV4 Prime XSE
One thing almost every electric vehicle has as an advantage is its weight. Yes, we know weight is always the enemy in any vehicle, right? Wrong. A heavier vehicle with firm springs and soft dampers can feel wonderful on bumpy roads. The added mass helps make the ride more comfortable if all other aspects of the vehicle are properly tuned. And with the RAV4 Prime, they are.

On washboard dirt roads, the RAV4 Prime was as good as a Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring crossover we had as a comparison vehicle. Comfort was outstanding, and there is no noticeable lack of steering response or handling. We found that when driven “normally” or in the way that one would on a loose surface, the RAV4 Prime had zero wheelspin. Check out our deep dive on the RAV4 Prime’s AWD system for more details.

On paved twisty mountain roads, the RAV Prime is a joy to drive. It glides silently from turn to turn with little body lean and great steering response. Brakes are nearly ideal. There is no regenerative braking feel at all. Highway comfort is equally impressive. This is the perfect long-haul road trip vehicle.

Toyota RAV4 Prime Infotainment
At Torque News, we are not shy about reporting Toyota’s lagging infotainment technology. (Here is an example). However, in recent years, Toyota has smartened up, and the RAV4 Prime offered an excellent infotainment experience. We used both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay with zero fuss to stream Pandora and Amazon Music. Concurrently, we ran Google Maps for turn-by-turn directions and Waze for police and other alerts. If a front passenger phone was not plugged in, the Qi wireless phone charger kept it at 100%.

The screen in the RAV4 Prime was ideal. It features a very large touch-tablet in the center of the dash. Along the sides are the most common touches and menu options. Below, the large climate control knobs allow for easy tactile-only fine-tuning as you travel. The only knobs in the RAV are those you will want.

In keeping with the distraction-free operation afforded by Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and outstanding HVAC controls, the multi-color, multi-information head-up display gives you needed information while keeping your eyes on the road ahead. Toyota hit the ball out of the part with the RAV4 Prime XSE’s infotainment package.

Features Of The RAV4 Prime XSE
There are features in the RAV4 Prime you cannot find in other electric vehicles. For example a spare tire. We’ve never seen one in an EV. The RAV4’s is in under the cargo floor, and there is extra space there for emergency kits. Does the Tesla Model Y have a spare tire? If not, it is really a crossover you would trust on trails? Is towing the vehicle due to a flat tire even a reasonable back-up plan in the era of social distancing? Not in our experience.

Heated and cooled seats along with a heated steering wheel are the trifecta of vehicle comfort in hot or cold conditions. You would be shocked at how few “luxury” crossovers we test that have all three. The RAV4 Prime has them all. As well as heat-pump-based heating and cooling system for efficiency and no need for a belt-driven AC compressor!

Adaptive headlights that swing from side to side are one of the coolest features of Mazda and Subaru crossovers. The RAV4 Prime combines these with perfectly-tuned automatic high beams.

Speaking of perfectly-tuned, the RAV4 Prime’s lane-centering driver-assist feature steers the vehicle perfectly on highways. Of course, you still need to hold the wheel and add some inputs here and there, but the vehicle stays perfectly centered with no bouncing off the lane markers as we have felt in some much more expensive vehicles.

2021 Toyota RAV4 Ownership Experience
Like all Toyotas, the RAV4 Prime comes with two years of included maintenance. Couple that with a very low-cost to maintain design and the RAV4 Prime rivals EVs for a low cost of ownership. With hundreds of dollars per year in energy savings, the RAV4 Prime is an easy vehicle to call affordable compared to many crossovers with a slightly lower purchase price. Last, Toyota has the longest legacy of reliability, durability, and quality in the industry.

Toyota RAV4 Prime Image By John Goreham2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime Conclusion
It is hard to convey in a review how game-changing some vehicles feel when driven. The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime is clearly the new standard for crossovers of any type in its $30K- $40K cost range. Even without its federal and state incentives, the RAV4 Prime would be an attractive value. With them, there is simply nothing even close to its level of performance, value, and low cost of ownership.

The 2021 Toyota RAV4 is now in the hands of owners who are snatching them up as soon as they arrive at dealerships. Toyota’s initial inventory allotment is headed to EV-target states, but a Toyota representative we spoke to told Torque News that Toyota plans to continue to ramp production over the coming months and years to satisfy the very high customer demand for this new plug-in hybrid electric crossover.

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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Jane (not verified)    August 27, 2020 - 5:09PM

The fact that it is a quiet car, and has a spare are 2 of the must haves in my next vehicle. And it looks great on the stone bridge!

Dan (not verified)    August 28, 2020 - 12:17PM

Very lucky to have gotten my hands on a XSE Premium at MSRP. I'm blown away by it. Never had a vehicle that absolutely exceeded my expectations in every way!

Dan (not verified)    August 29, 2020 - 7:29AM

Believe it or not Wisconsin. I lucked out and was able to make a corporate connection that made it happen for me. Any chance you can do a deep dive on the paddle shifters? The manual is vague on how it really works. Wondering how or if it increases regeneration and what components it utilizes. I enjoy your writing, thanks.

John Goreham    September 2, 2020 - 9:50AM

In reply to by Dan (not verified)

I agree. At first, I thought it was increasing regen braking. However, I now think that it simply acts like paddles on any CVT-equipped gasoline-powered engine and puts the gas engine into its higher rev band based on the left paddle pulls. I could find no place in the manual that mentioned regen braking force increases. I will reach out to Toyota.

Dan (not verified)    September 2, 2020 - 8:58PM

In reply to by John Goreham

Thanks for checking on that. Wondering if the engine has to be running to provide engine braking, because the paddles still work in EV. Any chance it's only the planetary system just downshifting? Trying to figure out best way to regen and it might end up being use the brake pedal. Thanks for the reply and please keep up the informative articles.

Art (not verified)    September 2, 2020 - 1:50AM

Great review. Thank you. You stated that you got 45.7 MPG when you drove it in Hybrid mode. Did you have a full battery when you started? Or did you deplete the battery first, and subsequently got 45.7 MPG? Did you do a similar loop in the regular Hybrid (non plugin) RAV4? If so, what MPG did you get then?

John Goreham    September 2, 2020 - 9:45AM

In reply to by Art (not verified)

Thank you, Art, and thank you for your question. The 45.7 MPG was recorded after the vehicle's traction battery was run down to "zero" charge. In other words, the 45.7 MPG did not include any EV-Mode miles other than what one gets in hybrid mode. I actually checked with Toyota to be sure I knew what the display meant. The product managers verified that the MPG shown does not factor in the EV miles from EV Mode, which would artificially boost the MPG reading. Although I had no way to prove the numbers true, my fill-ups at the pump were so small in terms of gallons added and my estimates of how many miles I covered in hybrid mode that I believe the MPG readout to be accurate or close to accurate. The RAV4 Prime is impressively efficient in every mode. Although I did not do a similar loop in a conventional (non-hybrid) RAV4, I have done this loop in both a Mazda CX-5 and Subaru Forester, and the mileage is typically around 30 MPG to 32 MPG. Therefore, the RAV4 Prime is roughly 50% more fuel-efficient than the mainstream crossovers its size in my estimation when operated in hybrid mode. In addition, I recently tested a Hona CR-V Hybrid (great vehicle, but no spare). I did not do the exact loop, but similar ones and I recorded 39 MPG in the CR-V Hybrid. Also impressive in my opinion. The real difference is in performance. The RAV4 Prime feels abundantly more powerful and refined than any of the vehicles I mentioned.

Connie (not verified)    December 13, 2020 - 1:21PM

Was lucky enough to get my RAV4 Prime SE at the end of August. After driving it for more than 3 months, I can say that this review of the RAV4 Prime is spot on. No exaggeration--it's the most fun car I've ever driven, it feels solid, drives great, and the acceleration is outstanding.

Now if it only lasts as long as my 2010 Prius, which has 205K miles on it, and is still going strong with regular standard maintenance visits. Virtually trouble free.