Toyota has solved the dilemma for environmentally-minded drivers who also enjoy moderate off-road driving in the outdoors. And its answer — the plug-in hybrid 2021 RAV4 Prime — is also an excellent daily driver for families in wet-weather climates.
Until now, those who enjoy the outdoor recreation but worry about climate change faced a challenge. With a few exceptions, almost anything capable of driving a back country trail requires an all-wheel-drive system propelled by a gas engine that doesn't get great mileage. The few hybrid crossovers are better, but not nearly as environmental conscious as an all-electric vehicle. But all EVs with AWD that have enough range for weekend outings are very expensive.
But now Toyota has introduced a bridge with the affordable 2021 RAV4 Prime. It is a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) crossover SUV that gets over 40 miles on a full charge of electricity before switching over to a conventional fuel-efficient gas/electric system that gets 40 miles per gallon in town and 36 on the highway. And it is all-wheel-drive because a second electric motor drives the rear wheels. A push-button Trail mode shifts power between the wheels when needed for the best traction.
To better explain what a breakthrough vehicle the RAV4 Prime is, most plug-in hybrids only get around 20 miles on electricity alone and few offer AWD. Most of those that do are expensive luxury crossovers.
But the RAV4 Prime won't break the bank. Far from it. The base model starts at under $40,000 and qualifies for a federal tax credit of up to $7,500 and an Oregon rebate of up to $5,000. Our fully loaded — and I mean fully loaded — XSE test version cost less than $50,000 before the incentives.
That might not mean much if the RAV4 was a subcompact with limited interior space and ground clearance. But, although classified as a compact, it is a good-sized two-row SUV with ample space in the front and rear seats and plenty of cargo capacity, even before the rear row is folded down.
Ground clearance is also respectable at 8.1 inches, as our tester proved when it participated in the 2021 Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year competition hosted by the Pacific Northwest Automotive Writers Association. It easily handled the moderate off-road course that included water hazards, moguls, and stacks of slippery logs.
In fact, it won the Subcompact and Compact Family category at the event, commonly known as Mudfest.
In truth, like most family-oriented crossover with AWD, the RAV4 isn't designed for serious off-roading. Despite the rugged good looks of the current generation, it can handle muddy trails with few obstacles. But the AWD system also provides greatly improved traction on the poorly maintained streets in my neighborhood, and during the increasingly frequent heavy rain and snow storms.
And did I say the RAV4 Prime is actually fast? Several reviewers with track access have reported it is the second-fastest current Toyota available. Together, the 2.5-liter gas engine and dual electric motors in the RAV4 produce 302 horsepower. Their results show it behind the new Supra sports car with a turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 that produces 382 horsepower and ahead of the Camry TRD with a normally aspirated 3.5-liter V6 that pumps out 301 horsepower.
I can't confirm their results and haven't tested the Supra yet. But I've driven the Camry TRD and it felt faster to me. That could be because I sat much lower to the ground and the TRD exhaust was much louder during heavy acceleration, however.
On the road, the RAV4 prime is incredibly smooth and quiet when running on electricity alone. It's not much noisier when the gas engine kicks in because the cabin is so well insulated. But in a week of normal day-to-day driving, it hardly did. I just plugged it in every night and kept driving mostly on electricity.
The interior was also very comfortable. My XSE had a full leather and leather-like interior, including heated and cooled front bucket seats, and a 9-inch infotainment screen mounted high on the dash where it was easy to see and featured manual knobs for both the volumes and channels on the premium audio system. It also included the Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 active safety system, which features just about every advanced warning and collision avoidance device.
It's surprising that no other manufacturer has yet matched Toyota for the all-electric range, practicality and affordability of the 2021 RAV4 Prime. But that just makes it an easy choice for the environmentally conscious who enjoy the outdoors and saving money.
2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime
Base price: $38,350 (base SE)
Price as tested: $49,776 (XSE)
Type: Compact Crossover SUV
Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder with plug-in hybrid electric motors (302 net hp, 165/199/89 lbs-ft)
Transmission: Continuously Variable Transmission
EV range: 42 miles
EPA estimated mileage: 40/36 (94 MPGe)
Overall length: 180.9 inches
Curb weight: 4,300 pounds
Final assembly: Obu, Aichi, Japan
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