32 miles is a special number in the world of automobiles. The reason is buried in ABC’s study on commuting, wherein they state that commuters “report an average one-way commute time of 26 minutes (over an average distance of 16 miles).” 32 miles, then, is the average round-trip commute in the United States. Lots of people have shorter commutes and some unfortunate souls have much longer commutes. When I’ve reviewed plug-in hybrid vehicles, one of the key things I consider is whether the EV facet is sufficient to actually power a person’s daily commute without having to charge the car while at work. Most fail, with 28 miles being pretty typical. But one of the many reasons that the 2021 Toyota RAV-4 Prime plug-in hybrid is such a popular new car is because its EV has a range of 42 miles on a full charge, plenty for the commute with a detour to the market or gym en route.
The RAV-4 is one of Toyota’s most popular car lines already, yet another in the endless parade of SUVs and Compact SUVs, also known as CUVs in the industry. I know the segment well since I drive one: A Mazda CX-5, which has almost exactly the same dimensions as the RAV-4. The RAV-4 I drove features the Toyota 2.5L 4-cylinder hybrid EV engine with 302 horsepower and it’s definitely a fun drive. It’s also a very handsome vehicle, as you can see:
Many people refer to the front grill design as the “stormtrooper”, an homage to the ubiquitous Star Wars soldiers, but I suspect that wasn’t really in the design handbook at Toyota while the 2021 updates were being sketched out. Still, coupled with the fierce headlight design, it’s not hard to understand how owners believe their benign compact SUV might be a bit rugged inside. And, indeed, it is. There’s really a lot to like with this RAV-4, particularly the plug-in hybrid system.
What’s odd, though, is that the charging port for the EV charger is on the back left of the vehicle, while the gas cap (as you can see above) is on the rear right of the vehicle. Having the charging port on the rear left is great if you’re parking the car in a garage, but otherwise, I found that I had to reverse it up my driveway to have it be convenient to the power plug. Worth knowing if you’re going to be parking it in a carport, driveway or parking lot with EV charger.
The exterior color is Supersonic Red with a Black interior, (there’s no fancy name for Black in the Toyota design book, apparently) and it’s a very typical Toyota car interior:
Surprisingly, I couldn’t figure out how to get any of the hybrid or EV information on the infotainment system; usually there are fun graphs and images that show power flow, charge levels, and similar. Instead, those are all relegated to the main gauge area behind the steering wheel, as you can see in this closeup:
The display above shows that I have 26 miles remaining on my EV, then a 346-mile range in HV (hybrid vehicle) mode. Since I was still driving in pure EV mode, it shows EV efficiency: 2.8 miles/kWh. Once you switch from EV to HV, it shows aggregate fuel efficiency and the car obviously has fantastic mpg numbers if you’re driving less than a hundred miles or so. Once you get into those long-haul road trips of 300-400 miles you’ll still see 38mpg or better as average fuel efficiency. You can get a sense of just how efficient the Toyota RAV-4 Prime is when you notice that the fuel tank is almost completely full after I’ve driven the vehicle a few hundred miles over the course of a week.
I quite liked the tough, easily gripped knobs of the environmental controls, but it was a bit disconcerting that all the other knobs in the vehicle were far smaller (you can see that in the difference between the A/C control and volume control knobs in the above photo).
One thing that I don’t like in Toyota vehicles is the lack of memory in the computer subsystems. Specifically, you’ll find that you have to turn on Dynamic Radar Cruise Control every time you get back into the RAV-4, and then set preferred follow distance every time too. Why not just have them default to the previous setting like most other vehicles do?
The RAV-4 is also a master class in iconography. To the left and behind the steering wheel, for example, is an entire row of buttons that can definitely leave drivers scratching their heads:
In particular, the “VIEW” button used to just have the icon in earlier Toyota designs and left new drivers befuddled: It lets you step through camera views with the rear camera, birds eye view, etc.
Put the car in reverse, though, and it is pretty fun to see how it stitches together the image from the various cameras on board, offering up a great assist for backing up my driveway to optimize charging port placement:
It takes a bit of getting used to, but the bottom of the stitched overhead view is the direction I’m traveling in reverse, pulling up to my garage door. Definitely better than turning around and guessing as you back up, and rear cameras are a fantastic improvement for anyone who has to parallel park in a tight spot especially!
Worth noting is that the JBL sound system sounds excellent too. The model I drove featured the $1620 premium audio package and if you’re stuck with a long commute, you’re going to really appreciate the full, rich, encompassing sound the upgrade delivers, along with the 9-inch touchscreen and navigational system. Since so many drivers are moving to use Apple CarPlay or Android Auto for navigation (and yes, the RAV-4 supports both) it’s also interesting that the auto manufacturers now bundle the larger screen with the infotainment upgrade.
There’s the usual set of charging features for your phone and other devices too, all stashed behind the gearshift:
Because of Toyota’s open Qi wireless charging design, however, my iPhone 12 Pro rarely was able to charge for more than a few minutes before it would slip just off-center and cause the orange light to flash, indicating it wasn’t making a proper connection. Not sure how you would fix that – maybe some non-slip rubber? – but definitely annoying.
More interesting was the back of the vehicle. Lots of cargo space:
But flip open the back storage area so you can access the EV charging cable and you see the following:
The tools for changing the tire are neatly stowed and, of course, a full-size spare is a nice surprise, but underneath the tire? That white segment? That’s just polystyrene. For that matter, so is the grey circular element inside the wheel. A bit surprising to have that be an element of a $50,000 vehicle, as the material tends not to be particularly strong and durable. I suppose that they aren’t accessed too often, but somehow I expected a bit more upscale materials even behind the proverbial scenes with the RAV-4.
Ultimately, though, there’s no question why this vehicle is so popular. The 2021 Toyota RAV-4 Prime plug-in hybrid is super energy efficient, has that terrific 42mi EV range on a full overnight charge before you need to utilize the hybrid, and is great fun to drive. It’s compact, but still roomy enough for four, five if you squeeze one into the middle seat. Definitely a vehicle to check out if you seek the best of transitional automotive technologies while you wait for the world to go full EV.
CONFIGURATION: 2021 Toyota RAV-4 Prime plug-in hybrid in Supersonic Red / Black. Powered by a 2.5L 4-Cylinder Plug-in Hybrid engine and 3.3kW on-board charger. MSRP :$41,425.00. Options included: Premium Audio, Weather Package, Special Color, Premium Package, Mudguard, Carpet Floor Mats, Door Sill Protector, Rear Bumper Applique, Wheel Lock. AS DRIVEN: $49,461.00
Disclosure: Toyota loaned me the RAV-4 for a week in return for this writeup. Thanks, Toyota!