2021 Toyota RAV4 Review

2021 Toyota RAV4 - Leading the pack and adding character with the TRD Off Road model.


When the Toyota RAV4 first came to the North American market back in 1995 it was a unique compact crossover that was offered as a 2-door convertible or a 4-door hard top. The 2-door model competed in a segment with vehicles like the Geo Tracker and Isuzu Amigo... good times! Unfortunately, that trend didn't stick, but the more traditional 4-door version has grown up as a segment leader and is currently the best-selling compact crossover in the US. 2021 models are offered exclusively as a five-passenger compact crossover available with FWD or AWD. The lineup includes a standard gas, hybrid, or plug-in hybrid engine. There are seven trim levels know as LE, XLE, XLE Premium, Adventure, TRD Off Road, XSE, and Limited.  Prices range from $26,150 for a FWD LE model and climb up to $41,425 for the RAV4 Prime XSE. Competition continues to grow in the segment with models such as the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, GMC Terrain, Jeep Cherokee, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-5, Mitsubishi Outlander, Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester and Volkswagen Tiguan.

Toyota offers three main powertrains in the RAV4. Standard gasoline engines get a 2.5L 4-cylinder engine that generates 203 HP and 184 lb-ft of torque. It's mated to an 8-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission that is available with front or all-wheel drive. All RAV4s feature standard multi-terrain select on AWD gas models that include the following modes for enhanced traction: mud & sand, rock & dirt, snow, and normal. For my time in the RAV4, the snow mode was utilized quite often and it handled very well. Combined with the grippier Falken tires on the TRD Off Road model, I never lost traction on the snow-covered roads of Chicago.  

Beyond the multi-terrain modes, Toyota also offers various driving dynamic options such as Eco, Sport and Normal at the touch of a button. There's a notable difference in these modes. The Eco mode struggled to get going (as intended to maximize efficiency) while the Sport mode got the RAV4 moving a bit quicker. Overall, the power was adequate but not overly impressive. The engine had a bit of a whine to it when pushed, but the ride was generally good. Steering was responsive in sport mode but still not best in-class.  The RAV4 is more than capable in everyday driving situations and for the average driver will be sufficient with the 2.5L engine.

Arriving with a full tank of regular grade fuel, the RAV4 TRD Off Road offered a range of nearly 330 miles on a full tank. Fuel economy is rated 25/32/28 MPG city/highway/combined. During my week in the TRD Off Road model I averaged 22 MPG in primarily suburban commuting and with a significant amount of time in AWD snow mode. This was somewhat disappointed as I found myself needing to fill the tank after four days of regular driving... which I'm used to in my 2007 4Runner but didn't expect in the RAV4.

If you're looking for something eco-friendlier with better fuel economy, Toyota offers both a hybrid and a plug-in hybrid model known as the RAV4 Prime. The 2.5 L 4-cylinder RAV4 Hybrid engine produces 219 HP and has an EPA estimated 41/38/40 MPG city/highway/combined which is up significantly from gasoline models. Hybrid models include an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission that lets the engine stay at its most fuel-efficient RPM.

The RAV4 Prime takes fuel efficiency to another level by adding the electric plug-in option. The RAV4 Prime is the most powerful option with a 302 combined net horsepower and AWD standard. A 5.7 second 0-60 time is impressive for the compact crossover. When fully charged, it offers an EPA-estimated 42 miles of EV-only driving and a combined EPA-estimate of 94 MPGe. Toyota also includes a 10-year, 150,000-mile hybrid battery warranty to add piece of mind. RAV4 Prime models also include unique interior/exterior features that separate it from traditional models.

The RAV4 was completely overhauled for the 2019 model year giving it a more rugged and edgy appearance. Toyota took a leap of faith with this design and surely it has paid off as the RAV4 continues as a best-seller. The exterior is a departure for RAV4 owners who were used to something simpler and softer. Up front the RAV4 has a bolder front grille with traditional rectangular headlights that are outlined with an LED signature daytime running light. The lower fascia varies with the trim levels but all of them utilize a variety of materials to give the RAV4 some dimension and angles. The side profile is notably more boxy than previous generations with a squared off wheel arches accented by body cladding. The trendy floating roof design is utilized with a black strip separating the roof line on the C-pillar. Visibility is ok with this design and is amplified by the addition of surround view camera technology.

Around back the taillights protrude from the body and the hatch design is squared off. The LED taillights extend beyond the body lines of the hatch and look great at night with a distinctive lighting signature. Body cladding continues around the back at the bottom of the crossover again giving it a more utility and rugged appearance.  For example, this is a stark contrast to a vehicle like the Mazda CX-5 which has a very rounded, smooth look to it. Toyota also offers a wide variety of wheel options ranging in size from 17" to 19" in finishes like silver, super chrome or black. Love it or hate it, the rugged appearances seem to be catching on as more and more manufactures integrate this vibe into their vehicles and the RAV4 was one of the first in this class following the look of many Subarus.

My test vehicle was the TRD Off Road version which adds an even more rugged appearance to the RAV4. TRD Off Road models offer unique color combinations with a white or black roof. It also adds unique 18-in 6-spoke matte-black TRD formed alloy wheels, black emblems, TRD stamped skid plates, and a power tilt/slide moonroof. Inside you'll get red accents all over, TRD-embossed Softex seats, TRD all-weather floor mats, and options such as heated/cooled seats and heated steering wheel. Under the hood TRD Off Road models add dynamic torque vectoring AWD, TRD-tuned independent MacPherson strut front suspension with stabilizer bar and a multi-link rear suspension with stabilizer bar. While the TRD Off Road model looks the part, it is not equipped with a low-range or locking differentials for serious off-roading.  It does include grippy all-terrain tires and over 8 inches of ground clearance. Multi-Terrain Select is also standard, giving the driver a choice of either Normal, Mud & Sand, Rock & Dirt, or Snow drive modes. Also standard are hill start assist control, trailer sway control, and downhill assist control.  The package is sufficient for those looking to hit some light trails for camping or other outdoor adventures.

Hopping inside the RAV4, drivers will be treated to Toyota level refinement with class appropriate materials that work together seamlessly. Drivers will face a 7" multi-information display behind the steering wheel that can be customized. The digital display will include the speedometer, safety info, alerts, directions, and fuel economy. Sitting atop the dash is a large and easy to use 8" touchscreen. The screen includes actual buttons on the left side for easy navigation between home, menu, audio, and map. Also included is traditional volume knob. The system integrates with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa.  Toyota also offers a USB ports and a Qi Compatible wireless charger conveniently placed at arms reach in front of the traditional gear shifter in the center console. While the RAV4 has a very accommodating interior overall, Toyota did place a row of control buttons below and to the left of the steering wheel that was awkward and something I never got used to. Within this row were controls for automatic headlights, automatic wipers, camera view, heated steering wheel, and the auto liftgate controls. Repeatedly I had to look for the right button as the view was blocked by the steering wheel.

The seats were comfortable with sufficient padding and are offered with an available ventilated/heated system. The heated function on the seats, though, never quite lived up to the expectation. Even with three levels of heat they never came close to heat levels found in many competitors. Dual zone climate controls are included with rear vents for second row passengers. Leg and head room in the second row was good and easily accommodated children and child safety seats. The door openings were small than the Nissan Rogue but still sufficient enough for kids to climb in and out of. Throughout the RAV4, Toyota has included storage trays similar to what is found in the bigger Toyota Highlander. An optional panoramic glass roof will provide an even more open-air cabin.

Cargo capacity is in the top half of the class with a total of 69.8 cu.ft. Behind the rear seats the RAV4 has 37.6 cu. ft. of space with a low load floor and power liftgate to make it very user-friendly. The available hands-free power liftgate senses your smart key fob and will open automatically when you wave your foot under the center of the rear bumper.

All RAV4 models come standard with Toyota Safety Sense 2.0. This includes the following features:

* Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection
* Full-Speed Range Dynamic Radar Cruise Control
* Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist
* Automatic High-Beams
* Lane Tracing Assist
* Road Sign Assist

Beyond these standard features, Toyota also offers front and rear parking assist with automatic braking which audibly warns the driver of stationary objects or vehicles approaching. My test vehicle was equipped with this and it's quite sensitive, especially in Chicago winters where we are surrounded by snow piles. The system can be easily muted at the press of button.  Also available is blind spot monitor with rear-cross traffic alert and eight airbags. The available features are impressive for price point and one that sets the RAV4 above many competitors.

With a category that has an abundance of options, what makes the RAV4 so special? After spending time in a few different vehicles in this class I would narrow it down to three key factors that make the RAV4 stand out; reliability, variety, and value. With a 26-year history, the RAV4 has a proven track record for reliability that will ultimately make consumers feel confident in their purchase. For the 2020 model year, over 400,000 RAV4s were sold which outsold the Honda CR-V (it's closest competitor) by over 100,000 units.  In terms of variety, the RAV4 is offered in seven trim levels, three powertrains (gas, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid), FWD or AWD, and a long list of packages. With this much variety, it's fairly easy to build one to suit your taste, budget and lifestyle. Finally, the value factor... Toyota's in general are known to hold value and run for many years. It's not uncommon to find a RAV4 with well over 100,000 miles and in some cases 200,000 miles that are still considered valuable. A quick search on DriveChicago turned up a 2007 model with 214,486 miles that's lists for just under $5,000.  For 2021, Toyota includes a suite of standard safety features in all models with starting prices range from $26,150 to $41,125 which is competitive in the segment. With a laundry list of models in this category, make sure to spend time driving a few of your favorites. Most of them have high points in specific areas so it's important to experience a variety to see what meets your needs.

Jim OBrill

Jim is Director of Marketing for the Chicago Automobile Trade Association and Chicago Auto Show and a co-host of Drive Chicago Radio on WLS 890 AM Chicago. His passion for cars started young and he’s often referred to as the ‘car-guy’ among family and friends. As a former auto detailer, he has an eye for identifying solid used cars and tags along on many car buying adventures. Early in his career he worked at several car dealerships in various areas of the business. As a co-host on Drive Chicago and member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, Jim has had opportunities to attend track school and drive vehicles on multiple circuits such as Road America and Gingerman Raceway. With a background in photography, taking pictures of vehicles has always been a hobby.

Jim also enjoys the trails and taking trucks like his 4Runner off road. He has a special appreciation for older cars and can often be found spending free time at cruise nights or home washing one his four vehicles. Jim resides in the northwest suburbs with his wife and three kids. Follow Jim on Instagram at @jpcars22 for new vehicle content or @forgotten_survivors.312 for shots of older cars still on the streets of Chicagoland.