If you had told us a decade ago that the Toyota Supra would be built by BMW, we would’ve told you to kick rocks. Had you said that Toyota’s uber-popular RAV4 crossover will be one of the quickest vehicles in Toyota’s portfolio, we would’ve called you crazy. But today’s world is anything but a normal place. It’s a world where the performance of many SUVs now rivals or surpasses that of some sports sedans. And yes, it’s a world where even a RAV4 is quicker in some cases than the new Supra.
Now in its third model year, Toyota’s fifth generation of its bestselling RAV4 gets more electric oomph courtesy of a new plug-in-hybrid variant, the 2021 RAV4 Prime. Beneath its hood, the Prime’s powertrain is similar to that of the plugless RAV4 hybrid model. On the fuel-burning side of its powertrain is a 177-hp 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle inline-four that has been calibrated for Prime duty.
But paired with the internal-combustion engine is Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system. With two permanent-magnet synchronous AC motor-generators that combine to generate 179 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque at the front axle, the system makes substantially more grunt than the RAV4 hybrid’s electric contribution of 118 horses and 149 pound-feet. There’s an additional motor, the same 53-hp, 89-lb-ft rear motor that’s fitted to the RAV4 hybrid, to provide standard all-wheel-drive capability. Electricity to power the system is stored in an 18.1-kWh lithium-ion battery pack. With all the components working in harmony, the RAV4 Prime is rated at a combined 302 horsepower, which is a stout 83 ponies more than the hybrid.
We’ve already put the conventional RAV4 up against the best in its segment during a six-way compact-crossover comparison test, and we’ve vetted the hybrid in separate testing. The Prime tips the scales at a portly 4400 pounds, 579 more than the hybrid. At the test track, however, the additional weight was no match for the added thrust of the Prime’s powertrain. The Prime blasts to 60 mph in just 5.4 seconds and crosses the quarter-mile in 14.0 seconds at 100 mph. Yes, the Supra with its standard 255-hp turbo 2.0-liter four is still quicker—4.7 seconds to 60 mph and 13.3 at 104 mph in the quarter-mile—but the Prime does beat it from five to 60 mph, 30 to 50 mph, and from 50 to 70 mph. It also spanks the RAV4 hybrid to 60 mph by 1.9 seconds and crushes it in the quarter-mile by 2.6 seconds and 9 mph. Those well versed in quick Toyotas will note the Prime is also quicker than the wannabe-racer Camry TRD.
For those not chasing Supras around on Friday nights, the Prime’s efficiency is likely the more interesting element. Toyota has been doing the hybrid thing for quite some time, and its technology is well sorted. The transition from internal-combustion to electric power is seamless, although the Prime could benefit from some additional isolation from the four-cylinder. Once the battery is depleted or the accelerator is pushed to the floor, the 2.5-liter moans and groans a dismal soundtrack. But before those thresholds are breached, the Prime can run for up to 42 miles of EPA-rated electric-only driving, which is more than enough to cover most commutes. It can also sustain EV mode up to 84 mph. At 75 mph, we traveled 32 miles before the powertrain switched from pure electric to hybrid mode. With the electrons depleted, we averaged 32 mpg, which is 6 mpg less than its EPA highway rating.
However, the Prime’s chassis dynamics are far less compelling than its punchy powertrain. Panic stops from 70 mph produce an alarming shuddering sound. And although the Prime has the largest brake rotors available on any RAV4, we recorded a lengthy 195-foot stop. There’s also plenty of body roll at the 0.75-g lateral grip limit. For comparison, the non-plug-in RAV4 hybrid stopped from 70 mph in 182 feet and gripped the skidpad at 0.81 g in our testing. Under more civilized driving conditions, the Prime has a firm brake pedal that lacks any regenerative weirdness, its steering is responsive, and aside from letting a few sharp impacts reverberate through its structure, its ride quality is supple.
Starting at $39,220—some $9750 more than the starter RAV4 hybrid LE—the entry-level Prime SE is modestly equipped with an 8.0-inch infotainment touchscreen, heated and supportive cloth seats, and 18-inch wheels. For another $3345, the XSE model adds a 9.0-inch display, two-tone paint, a wireless charging pad, synthetic leather seats, LED accent lighting, 19-inch wheels, and paddle shifters. While paddle shifters might seem out of place in a RAV4, without the ability to be driven with one pedal or a way to select its degree of regenerative braking, manually downshifting the continuously variable transmission does enable more regen when decelerating and descending grades. Both trims feature Toyota’s lengthy list of safety equipment, including adaptive cruise, lane-keeping assist, and pedestrian detection. The XSE trim adds cross-traffic alerts and parking assist for the front and rear.
Like all fifth-generation RAV4s, the Prime benefits from improved exterior styling with a boxy shape and a masculine curb appeal. The Prime isn’t available in the outdoor-themed Adventure or surprisingly capable TRD trims, though it does feature a Trail mode that loosens up the stability control and will send torque to the wheel with the most traction. The interior is ergonomically friendly with intuitive ergonomics and nifty rubber-trimmed knobs to control the audio volume and HVAC functions. The touchscreens stand proud on the dash, but their resolution looks more 2015 than the otherwise tastefully modern cabin. With the battery packaged beneath the floor, no passenger space is lost versus other RAV4s, and the back seat remains spacious enough to accommodate full-size adults. Cargo volume behind the rear seats (33–34 cubic feet) is slightly penalized, losing four or five cubes compared to the hybrid.
While SE and XSE both come standard with a 3.3-kWh onboard charger, moving up to the XSE unlocks the ability for quicker charging. For $5760, the Premium package ups the charger to 6.6 kWh, while also adding a 120-volt outlet in the cargo area, a panoramic roof, a head-up display, heated outboard seats in the rear, and ventilation for the front chairs. Compared to the standard charger, the more powerful setup reduces charging times by two hours when connected to a 240-volt supply, requiring 2.5 hours by Toyota’s measurement. When connected to a 120-volt outlet, Toyota claims it will take 12 hours to replenish the battery.
Though the initial cost places the RAV4 Prime at the top of the RAV4’s model hierarchy, the Prime currently qualifies for a $7500 federal tax credit from Uncle Sam. With that discount, the Prime becomes a compelling buy, being quicker and less expensive than a loaded RAV4 hybrid Limited model and with significantly more electric range. Indeed, nothing about that seems normal.
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