2021-2022 Toyota RAV4 Prime Review Update #2: Snow and Ice Driving, Pros & Cons
In my RAV4 Prime Review, I focused mainly on child passenger and vehicle safety. I expanded the review with some likes and dislikes after a few months of driving in the previous long-term update. In this update, I will discuss some of my favorite and least favorite things after 7 months, mainly regarding my winter driving experience. Full disclosure, I replaced the OEM Yokohama Avid GT rubber for Michelin CrossClimate2 all-weather tires with the 3 Peak Mountain Snow Flake rating. So far, I’ve had no issues with grip in rain, snow or on icy roads.
To be fair, the worst I’ve encountered is an unplowed gravel road with a few inches of snow, paved roads covered with packed snow and driveways/roads coated with glare ice. The antilock braking and traction control systems make a little more noise than my Highlander Hybrid but seem to be pretty effective. Best I can tell from the on-screen power flow meters, the rear motor always seems to be powering the rear axle at launch and seems to work consistently in low traction conditions. The ground clearance is officially listed as 8.3″ and I measure over 9.5″ of clearance down the centerline of the vehicle at 37 psi with stock size P235/55R19 tires. Toyota recommends against using standard tire chains with this tire size, however.
The RAV4 Prime is competent in slippery conditions. In fact, there are some Youtubers with videos showing pretty amazing performance both off-road and on snowy roads. Even so, like the RAV4 Hybrid, the Prime’s Electronic On-Demand AWD system is dependent upon traction control to send power from one wheel to another on the same axle. This type of reactive system is relatively limited compared to vehicles that can send more power (and send it more quickly) from side-to-side on at least one axle, like RAV4 Adventure/TRD and other Toyota models with Dynamic Torque Vectoring. On the plus side, the Prime does have a small electric rear motor that can produce a respectable 90 ft-lb. of torque, even at low speeds or from a stop. This eliminates the need for a center differential/transaxle and puts instant power right at the rear wheels.
Even a 53 HP rear motor feels more than sufficient for low traction conditions like moderate snow and ice, as well as some light off-road prowess. There is also a “Trail” mode that appears to allow the gas engine to turn on more readily and also allows wheels to spin more, avoiding the traction control braking & throttle reduction from kicking in too early. This may be handy in a few types of low traction situations, especially if you need to “dig” or “rock” the vehicle back and forth with wheelspin to regain traction. Of course, you can also disable traction control entirely in any mode with a button in the center stack. For most on-road inclement weather conditions, avoid “Trail” mode and leave the traction control system enabled.
I use the default EV mode over 75% of the time, then switch to HV mode if I want more power or require extra cabin heat from the gas engine, especially when I’m on the highway. This summer, I was able to get over 3000 miles on one tank of gas over a few months, when overnight charging for 50+ miles of EV range was enough to cover most of my daily driving. We also took advantage of the gas engine on a couple long road trips, where we managed 31-35 mpg in HV mode at highway speeds around 70 mph. Around town in mild weather, it’s pretty easy to get over 40 mpg using only gas in hybrid HV mode. Of course, fuel efficiency and EV range will be much less when temperatures are extreme and require constant AC or heat usage.
Now that I’m well over 5000 miles with some winter driving experience, I have narrowed my pros and cons down to the just main ones.
- Drivetrain. This is why to buy it. Range, power, flexibility. I peaked at 3.5 mi/kwHr and 55 miles estimated EV range in ideal summer conditions with conservative driving. Since then, more aggressive driving and below freezing temperatures have dropped that to a still respectable 3.0 mi/kwHr and 43 EV miles.
- EV mode is almost always EV. Other PHEVs I’ve driven seem to engage the internal combustion engine much more frequently than I’d expect. The R4P maintains EV mode pretty well down to below 20 degrees. The gas engine may come on from time to time, but not regularly.
- Reliability/Quality. Zero problems.
- Blind Spot and Rear Cross Traffic Alerts. Still really liking these, especially if you have inexperienced teen drivers!
- Auto parking brake, Heads Up Display and birds-eye view camera have been surprisingly useful
- Heated steering wheel works well for me, but buyers should note that it is only heated on the sides, not the top and bottom.
- Over the summer, the air conditioning was quite effective, even on very hot/humid days.
- Style. I admit, I really like the XSE trim wheels and accent lights. They look sharp and stand out from the numerous other RAV4 trims.
- Seat ventilation and heating. These work, but are “Just OK”, even on the maximum settings. Better than nothing for sure, but not nearly as effective as any other vehicle I have driven recently.
- Heat Pump Noise. Below 40F degrees or so, it makes a very loud foghorn noise for a few seconds when starting. I understand a software fix is already available in other countries for something related to the refrigerant fluid condenser. Honestly, it’s not a big deal.
- Lane keep assist works well but it takes some learning to avoid fighting its “ping-pong” behavior of swaying between the lines instead of holding the center, like other systems.
- Gas tank reads completely empty with 4 gallons of gas remaining.
- Button array on the lower left of the dash could be more visible or easy to access, especially the rear hatch button that I wish had filled the blank under the HVAC controls in the center stack.
- Android Auto disconnects randomly. I am not yet sure if this is a vehicle issue, but I don’t have this problem in our other car.
- Android App. Has varied from insufficient to broken and back for months. Recent updates in late 2021 appear to have resolved most of the key issues and added remote lock/unlock to the Android version. I am happy to say that remote start for climate control now works most of the time.
- Mediocre heat in EV mode. This is the tradeoff for efficiency and EV operation in cold weather, by keeping the gas engine off as much as possible. The energy efficient heat pump can’t keep up once it’s well below freezing. Fortunately, around 14 F (-10 C), the gas engine may start in order to warm the cabin (though not using remote start). Once you are in the car with it running, you can also try to force engine heating by using the front defroster or with the HV or HV/CHG hold mode. This provides reasonable warmth, like a hybrid or regular gas vehicle. (See below for tips)
- Door and ceiling switches. The lack of backlights is a bigger nuisance than I expected. So much so with the driver side door that I bought a drop-in replacement with backlights on Amazon. Toyota puts such backlights in many other economy and midrange vehicles, so this was just cheap. Apparently some door and overhead switches will be backlit for 2022 models that otherwise have minimal updates.
- Constant warning chimes can be annoying, like the icy road warning that can’t be disabled and goes off anytime it is cold even if there is no trace of snow or ice.
These annoyances are nitpicking, I know, but perhaps helpful to other buyers. The advantages far outweigh these relatively minor disadvantages, at least to me. The android app was by far my biggest complaint but even that is now tolerable due to recent improvements. I really enjoy owning and driving the RAV4 Prime and have no regrets adding it to our fleet. Plus, the seat configuration reflects one of the most common vehicles and is typical of many popular compact SUVs when it comes to child safety seat demonstrations. Power, efficiency, AWD and cargo space make the R4P very practical and also a reasonable value at MSRP, with the incremental cost of the great powertrain nearly offset by the full federal EV tax credit.
I know they continue to be hard to find and many dealers are charging well above sticker price with the industry-wide supply chain issues. Top level trims have many luxury level features, but it’s definitely not a luxury class PHEV at this price. Buyers should note that the $7500 federal tax credit for Toyota may phase out by the end of 2022 and bill proposals in Congress could reduce it (possibly to $4000) if passed into law.
Update: Many owners have complained about poor or barely adequate heat in various online communities. I’m copying some of my tips for very cold weather from the comments below:
- If equipped, use remote climate control to pre-start the vehicle as often as possible, set to Max Heat (85F). It may not warm the car as much as you expect, but it will help. This can also help internally defrost the heat exchanger.
- For maximum efficiency to run in EV mode as much as possible, dress in layers, using seat and steering wheel heaters if equipped
- For more cabin heat and to defrost outside of windshield:
*Set temperature to Hi
*Turn ON front & rear defrost
*Turn OFF Eco drive mode
*Turn OFF Eco heat/cool mode
*Max fan speed
*Turn ON recirculated air mode
- For defrosting inside of windshield, make sure A/C is ON and recirculated air mode is off
- If you need heat beyond what the energy efficient heat pump can provide in EV mode, turning ON the front defrost may force the gas engine to run. The best way to engage the gas engine is to press the EV/HV mode button on the center console to switch to HV mode for hybrid operation. To force the gas engine to be on constantly in HV mode, press and hold the EV/HV mode to put it into CHG mode. There will be a large fuel efficiency penalty in this mode, of course, so once the cabin is warm enough, go back to HV mode.
In response to some of the online comments you may see, I wanted to add that the RAV4 Prime is designed for efficiency. It’s simply not going to match vehicles designed for deep snow on hills or rocky off-road trails. For ultimate traction, there is no substitute for snow tires or off-road tires, plus an advanced AWD/4WD system that can send significant power to an individual wheel that has traction.
If you have OEM low rolling resistance tires, worse traction is a given, all else equal. All-weather (with 3PMS rating) or dedicated snow tires will improve winter performance on snow and ice. Many vehicles that are marketed for off-road or inclement weather (rather than fuel economy) come with all-season tires that tend to have better grip than low rolling resistance tires that are common on hybrids, plug-ins and economy cars. Some rugged and trail packages may even come with more aggressive off-road treads that are even better.
Second, like most vehicles in the segment, R4P has open differentials front and rear. So, it relies upon a relatively slow and reactive traction control braking system to send a limited amount of power from one side to the other, once slip is detected. Some premium AWD systems feature mechanical slip-limiting differentials that can send more power, more quickly to an individual wheel with traction. RAV4 Adventure/TRD/Limited comes with a slip-limiting rear differential system, for example. Models marketed with AWD for off-road capability may have center, front and rear slip-limiting differentials, or a true 4WD system with lo and locking features. The RAV4 Prime is generally not going to have the traction capability of such vehicles.
Third, the R4P is limited in the total amount of power and torque at the rear axle, due to the relatively small electric motor there. The Toyota hybrid AWD systems in general are designed for efficiency, rather than AWD prowess. That’s usually not an issue for typical slippery roads, but will be a factor in other situations. A number of other models in the segment can send from 50% up to nearly all available power to the rear axle as needed, depending on the capabilities of the center differential.
Finally, every manufacturer’s AWD software is different. For example, some will be quicker to engage traction control or cut throttle. I have found that normal/EV mode with traction control enabled gave me the best results on ice and packed snow, possibly because it results in the most even power split by not engaging the ICE. As they say, your mileage may vary. You can also try trail mode to allow for a bit more wheel slip or turn off traction control, especially if you want to intentionally spin the wheels to dig or rock the wheels in some conditions.
My One Year Update is here: https://safedad.com/toyota-rav4-prime-one-year-owner-update/
My 2021 RAV4 Prime SE does not warm up/provide heat at all in ev mode, if the outdoor temp is 20 F or less it seems to start the gas engine automatically even if fully charged, and even then it takes 15 minutes to even begin to defrost my front windshield. I can’t drive it to heat it up faster because I can’t see without a clear windshield, and I had enough of a layer of frost/ice that I couldn’t scrape it. I never had a car take so long warm up with the engine running, and yes, I had full blast defroster at highest heat setting trying to clear the glass. Is this typical? I live in the Adirondacks where we get serious winter, and so far this heating issue is my biggest concern with this vehicle.
I can’t say if it is typical, but it is not uncommon. Most reviewers missed this issue, not having had their Prime for a week in temperatures well below freezing. There are many reports from social media and forums about insufficient heat, especially in EV mode, but also some with the gas engine running. There are also reports of excellent heating performance, even in very cold climates.
I suspect the reason for the variations runs from those who can’t find any wrong with their new vehicle to those who had grossly unrealistic expectations of an energy efficient heat pump system. Varying subjective perceptions of what is quick or warm and experiences with past vehicles also may play a part. There is also the possibility of a defect or poor quality control for some owners. Ultimately, Toyota doesn’t use a resistive heater or an advanced heat pump like some full EV vehicles, because the RAV4 Prime has a gas engine for extra heat in extreme cold.
I find the heating system in the Prime to be close to our Toyota and Honda hybrids once the gas engine is running. Not quite as robust perhaps, but decent enough. In EV mode, however, I can see where it will disappoint many owners. The flip side is that other plug-in hybrid vehicles turn on the gas engine far more frequently for heat and other reasons, so many Prime owners appreciate being able to stay in EV mode as much as possible by default. Some tips for climate control:
1) If equipped, use remote climate control to pre-start the vehicle as often as possible to max heat. It may not warm the car as much as you expect, but it will help. This can also help internally defrost the heat exchanger.
2) For maximum efficiency to run in EV mode as much as possible, dress in layers, use seat and steering wheel heaters if equipped
3) For more cabin heat and defrost outside of windshield, set temperature to Hi, turn on front and rear defrost, turn off Eco drive mode, turn OFF Eco heat/cool mode, max fan speed, turn ON recirculated air mode (light on).
4) For defrosting inside of windshield, make sure A/C is ON and recirculated air mode is off (light off)
5) If you need heat beyond what the energy efficient heat pump can provide in EV mode, then the best way to engage the gas engine is to press the EV/HV mode button on the center console to switch to HV mode for hybrid operation. A second way is to turn ON the front defrost.
To force gas the engine to be on constantly in HV mode, press and hold the EV/HV mode to put it into CHG mode. There will be a large fuel efficiency penalty in this mode, of course, so once the cabin is warm enough, go back to HV mode.
I have invented a working remote start that completely solves the poor winter heat issue. Any aftermarket remote start on it’s own is NOT GOOD ENOUGH on a rav4prime. Find me on Facebook. Carey Treesh, engineering technician.
Hey Charles, I’ve actually noticed that when switching from EV to HV mode on the highway using the button the instantaneous mpg bar (in white next to the trip mpg bar in blue) stays completely full even with the ICE running which makes me think that the car continues using the battery and warms up the engine while using it to charge the battery.
I’m not sure if the same thing happens when the battery is depleted but even if it doesn’t I think you could start the HV mode immediately prior to running out so the car can warm up without you having to stop.
Thanks for the info, especially the foghorn noise and the door switches drop-in lighted replacement. I am, as an engineering type, not thrilled with the idea of a dead cold engine going to highway RPMs (at 65-75 mph) in an instant when the traction battery is depleted. Assume that the 16 weight oil is part of the solution, but I have been known to pull over and warm the engine in the HV mode for a minute when I have the last mile left on the EV gauge. Love my SE, particularly when I feel the need to accelerate briskly next to a sports car. Surprises them.