RAV4 Prime: All the practicality of Rav4 Hybrid + FUN
The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime is the latest addition to the RAV4 lineup, the best-selling vehicle in the USA that is not a pickup truck. The Prime model adds some sport to go along with the semi-rugged appearance, especially in XSE trim with the trendy black accents and vertical fog light treatment. The emphasis here is not only fuel economy, like the Rav4 Hybrid we reviewed favorably last year, but also some fun with quick acceleration and modest off-road prowess as well.
In terms of crash avoidance, the RAV4 has all the essentials standard. Toyota is the leader for including systems like automatic emergency braking on even the lowest trim levels of almost every model. Some other brands still only include these features on top trim levels and then make you buy a pricey technology package on top of that, making them more expensive if you can even find them on dealer’s lots. Have a problem on the road? Toyota’s Entune 3.0 includes a 3-year subscription to Safety Connect on all trims, allowing for calls for emergencies, roadside assistance, and automatic crash notification in case of airbag deployment.
As for crash safety, the 2020 RAV4 AWD did quite well. It aced every crash test from the IIHS, with “Good” overall and sub-category results in each one, including the newer passenger-side small overlap crash test. Its forward collision warning and autobrake system earned the top “Superior” rating. RAV4 earned a Top Safety Pick Plus award in 2019 and a Top Safety Pick award in 2020. The IIHS now requires headlights to have at least an “Acceptable” rating on ALL trim levels standard to earn the “Plus” award. Only the optional Adaptive Front Headlight system received the IIHS “Good” rating to qualify.
It is not clear if the RAV4 Prime models carryover the same safety ratings, however. (The 2021 Prime has since received a Top Safety Pick rating and the 2022 model received the highest Top Safety Pick+ award due to Good rated headlights being standard on all trims). RAV4 Hybrid received a 5-star overall rating in the NHTSA safety evaluation. The 4-star frontal crash rating is the only blemish there. The RAV4 Prime version has not yet been tested separately.
In terms of carseats, the second row is a big improvement from the previous generation RAV4 (2018 and earlier). There is no longer a significant overlap of seatbelts that made it difficult to use the middle and outboard seats at the same time for car seats. The middle seat is still somewhat narrow, but just wide enough to fit a narrow car seat like a Britax Emblem, Clek Fllo, BubbleBum or Harmony Youth Booster. The seatbelt anchor for the center seat is just behind the buckle stalk of the passenger side seat, so it is technically possible to install adjacent seats that are thin enough to fit properly next to each other. A wider seat like this Graco Nautilus SnugLock installs well in the center but may not leave enough room to the sides for other typical car seats. It does leave barely enough room for passengers to buckle on both sides, though.
Getting three carseats in the back will be possible, but still challenging compared to a wider midsize SUV, minivan, or full-size vehicle. The LATCH anchors are readily accessible, and Toyota does allow borrowing in this vehicle of the innermost anchors from the outboard seats to install a child safety seat in the narrow middle seat, but only if specifically permitted by the child seat manufacturer. Rigid LATCH carseats are not allowed to borrow LATCH for the middle seat in this manner due to the 17.3″ spacing, however. Seatbelt installation in the middle seat avoids any incompatibility concerns along with any possibility of lower anchor attachment straps blocking access to the buckles for each side.
The seatbelt buckle stalks are relatively short and flexible, and the head restraints are removable in all three rear seats. So, almost all carseats should install well in the outboard driver and passenger side rear seats. The seat cushion bolsters and center seat “bump” are not so pronounced to cause issues for most carseats. Toyota does require that the vehicle seat backs for both sides must be reclined to the same setting when installing a car seat in the middle seat. There is a fold-down cupholder and armrest in this spot as well.
As with all compact vehicles, it can be trial and error to find car seats that fit the center seat and are narrow enough to allow the fit of adjacent or three-across carseats. For example, a narrow booster can be used in the center, like a BubbleBum (shown below) that just fits between a Graco 4Ever and a Nuna Pipa Lite. Thinner car seats on each side will make it easier for a younger booster rider to buckle themselves in between.
Limited space in back may reduce front seat legroom for a very tall driver or passenger if you install a larger rear-facing carseat on either side, like most vehicles in this class. I am 5’10” and did have room to spare in a comfortable driving position with a rear-facing-only infant seat behind me. I have the seat adjusted in the highest setting and there should be adequate headroom for all but the tallest people when lowered. A single rear-facing car seat installed in the center of the back seat will give additional legroom up front, of course.
The RAV4 Prime straddles the line nicely between rugged and sporty appearance. When my wife comments favorably on a review vehicle, that is indeed high praise. I agree, Toyota hit the nail on the head with a Lexus-grade interior and an eye-catching exterior that doesn’t look just like most other compact SUVs.
While the Prime’s appearance gives an impression of being able to climb mountain trails, its Electronic On-Demand All-Wheel Drive system is not going to be as capable as true 4WD vehicles. Models like a 4Runner or perhaps even the RAV4 TRD/Adventure trims with dynamic torque vectoring may be more surefooted on some terrains. That type of system can theoretically send more power more quickly to an individual wheel that has traction. Though the Prime has considerable power (302hp) and an impressive amount of low-end torque overall, the rear axle is still rather limited to 53 hp and 89 ft-lbs. of torque supplied by the smaller electric motor that drives it. There is a trail mode that optimizes the traction control braking system to limit wheel slip, plus additional weight distributed toward the rear may help in some situations. I did not have the opportunity to take the RAV4 on snow or trails, but other reviewers like TFLoffroad & Driving Sports found it capable.
The Prime should be more capable in slippery conditions than the 50 mpg Prius AWD-e I reviewed. Fuel economy is still impressive for an AWD vehicle, with an EPA combined 38 mpg (40 city/36 highway) once the drive battery is depleted or if you select the hybrid “HV” mode to conserve battery power for later. In HV mode starting with no charge, I averaged nearly 34.5 mpg at 70-75 mph on a highway trip over 250 miles. The aerodynamics really seem take their toll on fuel economy above 65 or so. After 60 miles around town, I obtained a very commendable 44.5 mpg in HV mode driving with no pre-charge.
With good conditions around 60 degrees in suburban driving with climate control off and speed limits from 25 to 50 mph, I achieved an all-electric range of 48 miles and 3.6 miles per kW*hour in Eco “EV” mode before the gas engine kicked on. That’s a bit higher than the 43 EV miles estimated at full charge, though not as high as others have achieved. This will certainly drop with cold weather, climate control use and more aggressive driving, but it does give you an idea what is possible. The displays are easily customized and thankfully Toyota added a fixed drive-battery gauge to the dash that is notably lacking in the hybrid versions.
As for performance, braking is reliable, and the pedal feel is Toyota-smooth and sets the bar for hybrid vehicles. One downside is grip, even on slightly wet roads where the wheels spin and traction control engages unexpectedly. This is likely due to the OEM tires. The Prime touts a “sport-tuned” suspension. Handling is quite good for a compact SUV, though I can’t say it is much different from the RAV4 Hybrid. Acceleration is definitely there when you need it, too, with 0-60 times officially rated at 5.7 seconds. I can confirm that there is more than enough power and torque to get going from a stop and for merging/passing situations.
The interior is reasonably spacious for the category and we had no comfort issues on our highway drive. The red stitched leather and soft touch surfaces look sharp. There is a real gear shifter with mode selector. There are also adequate storage spaces and five total USB ports with 2.1 Amp current ratings, including two for the rear seat. The optional panoramic sunroof opens halfway at the front.
Quibbles include a sunroof wind deflector that is a little noisy, a passenger seat that lacks all the same adjustments as the driver seat in the premium package, and perhaps my only minor disappointment: paddle shifters that do not seem all that effective for regenerative braking outside of EV mode. Toyota’s press release seemed to indicate the paddles increase regenerative braking in steps. Based on my observations and information in the owner’s manual, they seem to work exactly like putting the shift lever in “S” mode, in that they appear to mimic transmission gear range changes and allow mainly for engine braking (at least in hybrid HV mode).
Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are now standard so you can use other mapping software, rather than the factory system that often gave me unusual trip routing. The optional JBL audio system in the XSE trim is above average for factory audio. I measured the response of the smallish subwoofer in the rear cargo area to put out moderate sound pressure levels down to 40 Hz, but it cuts off rapidly below that. The lack of a subwoofer level control in a premium system is a bit puzzling.
Cargo space is only slightly smaller in the Prime, 63 cubic feet compared to 70 for the hybrid model when the rear seats are folded. The bench seat folds 60/40 but doesn’t go completely flat. A cargo tonneau cover is standard. Top tether anchors are easily located under the fabric on the back of the rear seats. An actual compact spare is under the cargo floor, but this compartment cannot be lowered or accommodate a full-size spare like the hybrid model. That’s still impressive compared to the sealant or inflator often provided with plug-in vehicles.
- IIHS Top Safety Pick
- NHTSA 5-Stars Overall (Hybrid)
- Automatic Braking standard
- Blind Spot/Cross Traffic alert standard
- Good driver position and visibility
- 40+ mile range all-electric EV mode
- Charges overnight with included charger & standard outlet
- Around 40 mpg city on gas/hybrid mode with standard AWD
- Surprisingly quick acceleration and smooth braking response
- Good ride and seat comfort plus solid handling for its class
- Knurled knobs and hard buttons for radio and climate controls
- Styling cues taken from the 4Runner, rather than Toyota sedans
- Decent cargo space for a compact SUV
- Five USB with 2.1 Amp rating
- Hybrid/electric system warranty now 8 years or 100K miles
- Displays and infotainment options relatively easy to use and customize
- Android Auto and Apple CarPlay now standard (wired connection)
- Cabin can be pre-conditioned remotely, handy when plugged-in!
- My wife liked it, and that’s an endorsement for any car
- “Poor” IIHS headlight rating for lower trims with LED projectors
- Rear seat legroom and thigh support limited for tall adults
- Battery indicators and paddle shifters have limited utility in HV mode
- Difficult to find one for sale. May sell for MSRP or more until supplies improve
I could cite the lack of heavy-duty off-road capability as a drawback since there is no way to lock the axles or even a mechanical limited slip differential that pro-actively sends power from side to side. To be honest, if you’re buying a mainstream CUV, then you probably want fuel economy and enough traction to help get going in snow, ice, and slippery conditions. The e-AWD system in the RAV4 Prime provides exactly that plus some off-road capability as well.
It seems that the trend for most fuel-efficient hybrids and electric vehicles is to be sleek and futuristic. The RAV4 Prime bucks the trend with a more rugged appearance while offering over 300 horses, sub 6-second 0-60 acceleration times, 40 miles of all-electric range, 40+ mpg around town, and all that with a competent electronic AWD system providing modest off-road and towing capability. Yeah, this thing can move, from a stop or on a trail. Toyota says it can tow 2500 pounds with their 2-inch hitch receiver available for SE and XSE trims (not compatible with the foot activated liftgate in the Premium package).
In terms of safety, all trims get standard crash avoidance features like automatic emergency braking plus a 3-year subscription to Toyota Safety Connect. What’s all this cost? For value, the SE trim starts under 40 grand and currently qualifies for up to a $7,500 federal tax credit for many buyers. The XSE is a bit sportier and its premium package offers luxury features like ventilated seats, heads-up display, parking assist and automatic rear braking that aren’t all available on some EVs like the Tesla Model Y, VW ID.4 or Ford Mustang Mach-E.
Overall, the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime is a great choice to reduce fuel use and emissions while still being able to get a small family safely to their destination through slippery roads and provide some fun for the driver, too. For both carseats and safety, it is a CarseatBlog Editor’s Pick for the compact crossover segment. In fact, I was impressed enough that it would be a prime choice for myself, especially with a teen driver in the house, but sadly there are none to be found in the Midwest in 2020. If you hear of any, drop me a line!