2021 Toyota RAV4 Review

2021 Toyota RAV4 - Zapped with electrification, the RAV4 is even better.


Now in its third year since completely being overhauled in 2019, the RAV4 evolves in 2021 by adding the Prime to its model lineup. The RAV4 Prime is a plug-in hybrid that also happens to be the most powerful and quickest RAV4 ever in addition to being the most fuel-efficient. The Prime is available in two trim levels, SE or XSE.  SE models start at $38,350 and include features such as an 8" multimedia display that integrates with Amazon Alexa, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, 18" machined/painted alloy wheels, Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, LED headlights, AWD, heated front seats, blind spot monitoring, a 7" multi-information display and more.  XSE models start at $41,675 and include everything on the SE with some upgrades such as a 9" multimedia display, SofTex-trimmed synthetic leather seats, moonroof, steering wheel mounted paddle shifters, wireless smartphone charging, vertical LED accent lights on the front fascia, 19" five-spoke alloys, standard two-tone exterior, and more. Both models have a much sportier flare to them in comparison to other RAV4 models. Competition in the plug-in hybrid segment of the compact crossovers is much more limited and includes vehicles such as the Ford Escape, Kia Niro, Hyundai Tucson, and Mitsubishi Outlander.

Earlier this year I reviewed the RAV4 TRD Off Road and commended Toyota for maintaining such a variety of RAV4 models which is only further justified with the latest addition of Prime. With an electric only range of 42+ miles, I rarely utilized gas and had fun while driving it.  The Prime was a much more engaging drive with crisper handling and better acceleration. The styling remains relevant and in line with the trends of more rugged, off-road looks. Technology is also among the best with features such as head-up display, adaptive front lighting, and a bird's eye view monitor. Add in its historically valuable reputation and there are little disadvantages to find. After a week in the RAV4 Prime, there were many things that stood out as positive attributes and only a couple drawbacks that I could find.

Performance (+)

Right out of the gate, it's obvious the Prime is pumped with more power as it offers up 302 horsepower which is a big jump from the 219-horsepower available in the traditional hybrid or the 203 horsepower in the base 2.5L 4-cylinder internal combustion engine. The power comes from the 2.5L 4-cylinder paired with an electric motor and a continuously variable automatic transmission. Punch the gas pedal, and the Prime will go from 0-60 MPH in around 5.8 seconds. At higher speeds on the highway, it provides the same effortless passing power with smooth shifting. This was a big improvement over the TRD Off Road model which felt sluggish and overworked in comparison.  

The transition from gas to electric was unnoticeable as the CVT functions with ease. The ride quality was comfortable and quiet as it rolled over road imperfections. It always felt grounded with minimal bounce or body lean when pushed, making it a very easy vehicle to drive. It includes an electronic on-demand all-wheel drive in which a separate rear-mounted electric motor powers the rear wheels when needed.  The system provides enhanced stability and includes a driver-selectable trail mode to aid on uneven terrains. There is no low-range for extreme off-roading as this one's ideal terrain is smooth pavement. While it is not as dynamically engaging as a Mazda CX-5, the Prime is certainly among the most fun to drive compact crossovers I've had the chance to drive.  

Range / Fuel Economy (+)

When the RAV4 Prime arrived with a full tank and full charge, it offered around 400 miles of range with an estimated 42 of those miles being electric. 330 miles of driving later, it still had 343 miles of range left... meaning I hardly utilized the gas after a week of routine driving. EPA estimates are 90MPe combined and after each night of charging in a standard 120V outlet I woke up to around 45 miles of electric range for use which was plenty for my 25-mile commute to the office. I am fortunate enough to plug-in at work so by the end of the work day I had sufficient range to get home. As expected, this is a significant difference from the gas-only RAV4 which I found the fuel economy to be disappointing. I like this option because it eliminates range anxiety for longer trips, but the 40-45 miles of electric range was the perfect amount for an average work commute that allows drivers to save at the gas pump.

Interior Materials (+)

The inside utilizes materials that are a step up and include unique elements such as red stitching in the dash, seats, steering wheel, and gear selector that give it a sportier vibe. Climate controls are operated with buttons and two large dials with rubber trim around them, a nice rugged touch. Silver accents are appropriately splashed around the center console and dash to give it the sporty industrial look. Opt for the panoramic moonroof for an even more open-air cabin feel as the glass stretches to the back seats with the front half opening.

The seats in the Prime are also a step up from other models. My test vehicle was equipped with the black SofTex seats with red stitching. They were soft to the touch and looked very sporty. The material also proved to be very durable and easy to wipe clean. The seats were comfortable with plenty of support and could be adjusted via eight-way power adjustable buttons. There was sufficient head and leg room up front and in the back seats. Entry and exit is also easy thanks to larger door openings and appropriate seat positions.

Interior Functionality (+/-)

Generally, the Prime is a vehicle that is easy to operate with a more functional design. Either an 8 or 9-inch infotainment screen prominently sits atop the dash and integrates with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.  On the passenger side of the dash, a built-in ledge with an anti-slip tray is very useful in providing a place for mobile devices, sunglasses or anything else. Standard ambient lighting provides a calming mood and options in the premium package such as wireless device charging, heated steering wheel, JBL audio system, and a head up display all give the Prime a more premium status.

Heated and ventilated seats are available; however, these didn't operate at levels I'd expect and never really got hot or cold. There is also a row of buttons awkwardly placed below and to the left of the steering wheel out of sight to the driver, these controls are for the automatic lights, rear windshield washer, heated steering wheel and rear liftgate operation. Overall, the layout is functional, feels premium, and is easy to get acquainted with.

Cargo (+)

The Toyota RAV4 Prime has 33.5 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats and 63.2 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down. These numbers are average for the class but access was easy with the shape of the rear hatch. A power liftgate is standard and the opening is large compared to others in the segment. Toyota also includes a durable cover for the rear that is easy to lock into place for added security to hide your belongings.

Exterior Styling (+)

I'm not sure if it was the Supersonic Red paired with the black roof or the 19-inch five spoke two-tone alloys, but the RAV4 Prime looks great in person.  All Prime models are either the SE or XSE which are the two sportiest trim levels in the lineup. Up front it has a bold grille with traditional rectangular headlights that are outlined with an LED signature daytime running light. XSE models add an additional LED vertical light embedded in the front bumper. The black mesh grille is outlined in chrome and there's an additional chrome strip on the lower valance to create more dimension.

The side profile features squared off wheel arches accented in piano black which are filled nicely with 19-inch wheels.  The floating roof design is utilized with a black strip separating the roof line on the C-pillar that is further pronounced with the two-tone paint on the XSE models. Around back the taillights protrude from the body and extend into the hatch. The LED taillights look great at night are very distinctive. The two-tone paint carries around on the lower portion of the rear bumper and available roof racks finish off the overall look. All Primes will feature the Toyota emblem highlighted in blue and have specific badging on the front fenders. The quality of the build is a huge improvement over past generations with solid doors, minimal gaps, and high gloss paint.

Safety Features (+)

All Prime models come standard with Toyota Safety Sense 2.0. This includes 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, and Road Sign Assist. The XSE premium package adds rear cross traffic braking and front and rear parking assist with automatic braking.  The front and rear parking assist will audibly warn you when it detects stationary objects or vehicles approaching from the rear.  Also available is blind spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, eight airbags, and a no cost maintenance plan for 2 years or 25,000 miles.  Finally, when backing up in the Prime, Toyota has built in a very futuristic chime to alert pedestrians of the otherwise silent RAV4.

Pricing (-)

The RAV4 Prime checks positive in nearly every single aspect, there's not much negativity to be found. The one aspect that raised an eyebrow was the pricing which can get steep for a RAV4.  The base SE PRIME starts at $38,350 and the XSE model at $41,425, but when you start adding in options it can nearly reach the $50,000 mark for one such as my test vehicle. Despite loving everything about the Prime, I struggle with a $50,000 price tag which is at luxury car level pricing and more than the Kia Telluride SX we purchased. The saving grace on pricing is that it does still qualify for the $7,500 federal tax credit as of this writing.

Availability (-)

As with most new cars right now, availability is limited. It's even worse for models such as the RAV4 Prime which had a slower nationwide roll out.  Currently, Toyota's website won't even let you build one due to extremely limited inventory in my area (as stated on their website). While it's likely worth the wait if this is the vehicle you want, it will be a test of your patience.

Final Statement (+)

The RAV4 is already a class leader and it only gets better in the Prime version. Everything about this model is of a higher quality from performance to the dash materials. Fuel economy is beyond impressive with one of the highest ranges among plug-in hybrid crossovers. Prices can get steep, but think of it as an investment in a vehicle that will run for a very, very long time.

First Impression Summary:

Test Vehicle: 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime
Exterior Color:
Supersonic Red / Black two-tone
Interior Color: Black Softex Seats
Notable Options: Premium Audio ($1,620), Weather Package ($375), Special Color ($425), Premium Package ($3,765), Roof Rack Cross Bars ($315)
MSRP as tested: $49,578 (with destination)

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.