As America moves solidly into green crossover SUVs for their family and utility vehicle needs, one previously overlooked advantage of plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs) like the new Toyota RAV4 Prime is becoming apparent. Particularly when compared to battery-electric crossovers like Tesla’s Model Y. That advantage is towing practicality.
BEV vs. PHEV Range
Battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) like the popular Tesla Model Y have a more limited range than plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. For example, the most recently released “base” trim of the Model Y has a range rating of 244 miles. By contrast, the similarly-sized Toyota RAV4 Prime PHEV has a range of 600 miles. However, both of these ranges relate to normal, non-towing situations.
Related Story: Woman Tows Tiny House Cross-Country With Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV
Range Reductions When Towing
Torque News asked an expert on towing how much a vehicle’s energy consumption (MPG or range) is reduced when towing a trailer. Our own editor, Patrick Rall, doesn’t just tow in his personal life, he tests new vehicles while towing loads. We asked Patrick what his general experience has been with regard to energy consumption when towing and he told us, “My current truck when towing on the highway gets about half of the mpg that it does without the trailer. I've seen a similar drop with test vehicles.”
It only makes sense that range drops dramatically when towing. Vehicles like the Toyota RAV4 Prime can tow loads up to 2,500 pounds. That is about two-thirds of the vehicle’s own weight. So, obviously, energy consumption goes up dramatically when a vehicle tows a load. How much will depend primarily on the weight of the load and the driving conditions. The video above goes into great detail on the mathematics proving why battery-electric vehicles, particularly crossovers, are not well suited to towing.
Cold Weather Range Reductions of BEVs vs. PHEVs
A second disadvantage that battery-electric vehicles have is cold weather range. Due to the nature of the batteries used in battery-electric vehicles like Teslas, the range is reduced in cold weather. AAA conducted a study of battery-electric vehicles and measured how much less range they had when the weather was cold. In the case of the Tesla vehicle, the range was reduced by 38%. Tesla has since made some design changes to help offset that, but the fact remains that battery-electric vehicles see range drops in cold weather.
Of course, range drops apply to all vehicles in cold weather to a degree. In the case of the RAV4 Prime, its 42 miles of EV range would be reduced. To its credit, the RAV4 Prime does use the most modern HVAC system, a heat pump, to minimize that drop. Without its EV battery offering any range assistance, the RAV4 Prime still has a gasoline hybrid-electric range of 498 miles. Double the best-case scenario for a Tesla Model Y of similar cost.
Range Drop Calculations For Cold Weather Towing- Model Y vs. RAV4 Prime
Let’s do some quick math and be very favorable to the Tesla Model Y. We will assign a 20% range drop due to cold weather and a 30% drop due to the trailer load. Let’s assume we are towing a snowmobile trailer to the trailhead in winter.
Starting Range = 244 miles
Range after weather adjustment = 195.2 miles
Range after load adjustment - 136.6 miles.
Here is how a much pricier Tesla Model Y Dual Motor AWD Trim would compare:
Starting range = 326 Miles
Range after weather adjustment = 260.8 miles
Range after load adjustment = 182.6 miles
Now let’s do the same with the Toyota RAV4 Prime. We will assign a higher 30% cold-weather reduction of the traction battery’s range, dropping that to 29.4 miles. Next, we will reduce the hybrid-electric range by 20%, which is more than we think such a vehicle would drop by a factor of 2X. We will then apply a 50% drop in range due to the load. Again, 20% more than we applied to the Tesla BEV. In every case we are assigning a much higher drop to the RAV4 Prime than the Tesla, but being conservative since we are making the point that the PHEV is better suited to winter towing.
Here’s the math:
Starting range = 42 x. 7 plus 498 x .8 = 29.4 + 398.4 = 427.8 miles
Next, we apply the load drop multiplier.
427.8 x 0.5 = 213.9 miles.
As we have demonstrated, a RAV4 Prime has a very conservative real-world snowmobile towing range in winter of about 213.9 miles compared to a Tesla Model Y of equivalent cost’s range of about 136 Miles. So what happens if we need to add energy and range miles during the trip? As it turns out, the Toyota RAV4 Prime’s second advantage now comes into play.
Charging and Fueling Practicality BEVs vs. PHEVs
How does one add energy in a practical way to a Tesla towing a snowmobile trailer? Would a crowded Supercharger be an option? Not without uncoupling the trailer or having it stick out into the parking lot or lane. The same is true at a public charger. We asked towing expert Tim Esterdahl of Pickuptrucktalk.com if this is a real scenario. Tim has been examining battery-electric pickup truck market development. Tim told us, “Charging a BEV with a trailer is a big concern I've seen raised several times. The charging stations make it a bit of a challenge. The charging system was designed for electric cars (without trailers). I don't see any logical way to do any extensive towing with a BEV.” As we have seen, "extensive" in the case of a base Tesla Model Y can be anything beyond 136 miles. Round trip.
By comparison, a Toyota RAV4 Prime can be pulled into any gas station and fueled up. In a matter of a few moments, the vehicle can add back another 200 or more miles of driving range. And you can fill up the snowmobiles as well. You need not uncouple the trailer. A quick stop on any street corner or off almost any exit in America and you can add back three hours of winter highway towing time in minutes.
Spare Tires When Towing
There is one more reason that the Toyota RAV4 Prime we are using in our example is more practical for towing. Every trim of the RAV4 Prime (or Hybrid, or any other RAV4 trim for that matter) has a spare tire. No trim of any Tesla model has a spare tire. How will the Tesla owner deal with a flat tire on the highway or at the trailhead in the woods when towing a trailer?
Another popular towing activity where I live is taking home improvement debris, trash, or brush to the town transfer station on a small trailer. Unfortunately, there are a lot of flat-tire hazards at these places. How will the Tesla owner deal with a flat tire in this scenario? Without a spare tire for the vehicle, options become very limited in winter. When AAA arrives, what then happens with the trailer? As you can see, a Model Y is not a “utility” vehicle in some ways by comparison to the RAV4 Prime example.
Related Video: Tesla Model Y Recalled Over Towing Issue
Real Owners of PHEVs Tow
In our recent research, Torque News found that some RAV4 Prime owners are also current or former Tesla owners. We also did a deep dive on why one owner purchased a RAV4 Prime instead of a Tesla Model Y or Honda CR-V Hybrid. Owners pointed to real-world towing practicality as one of the reasons they opted not to buy a BEV Tesla. One owner wrote, “ “Backcountry camping with tow capability was an extra plus. I do 99% of in-town miles in EV. Nice to do everything with one car.” Real-world green vehicle shoppers are aware of the limitations of BEVs when it comes to towing. Another RAV4 owner who previously owned a Tesla Model X, Jim Klafeh, told Torque News, "My RAV4 Prime is an excellent towing vehicle. It’s like the trailer isn’t even there. Plenty of torque and you’re not limited on range like with an EV." Jim also owns a second-generation Toyota RAV4 EV, with which he has towed.
Hybrids like Toyota’s AWD Sienna, AWD Venza, and AWD Highlander as well as the AWD Lexus RX and Lexus NC also work great for towing by comparison to BEVs. They have no meaningful range limitations, are easy to refuel on the road with a trailer connected, and they all are available with spare tires.
Those looking for a green crossover utility vehicle who might tow, particularly in winter, should give careful thought to the type of vehicle they choose. As we have demonstrated, battery-electric vehicles have three major flaws when it comes to real-world towing.
Top of page image courtesy of RAV4 Prime owner Johan Sivlér.
Camper image courtesy of RAV4 Prime owner David Hrivnak.
RAV4 Prime towing boat from water image courtesy of Christopher Davis.
RAV4 Prime towing trailer with a couch on it image courtesy of Jim Klafehn.
RAV4 Prime spare tire image by John Goreham.
John Goreham is a long-time New England Motor Press Association member and recovering engineer. Following his engineering program, John also completed a marketing program at Northeastern University and worked with automotive component manufacturers. 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