The perfect answer to a question no one asked, the RAV4 PRIME proves you can have your cake and eat it too
If we learned anything from 2020, it’s that anything can happen. This includes, but is not limited to, RAV4s that are more powerful than Supras. You read that correctly, a RAV4 that is more powerful than the new Supra. Enter the newest addition to the best selling compact-crossover lineup, the RAV4 PRIME. While the six-cylinder Supra is still the king of the Toyota domain, the RAV4 PRIME is more powerful than the 2.0L inline-four variant. Small details right? In addition to the new found muscle, the new PRIME is an actual plug-in hybrid capable of full EV operation. Is the PRIME deserving of such a name? We’d argue yes, here’s why.
Now in its third year, the PRIME is the newest addition to the fifth generation of RAV4. To be clear, before we dive in, Toyota still offers a standard non plug-in hybrid RAV4 and the PRIME PHEV is different from that in a few fundamental ways. On the combustion side of the equation, changes to the 2.5L inline-four Atkinson-Cycle engine borrowed from the hybrid RAV4, bring output to the tune of 177 horsepower. While the gas improvements are admittingly modest, changes to the electric side of the equation throw modesty to the wind. Utilizing Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system, two synchronous A/C motors add a whopping 179 horsepower and 199 ft-lbs of torque to the front axle. At the back, the rear axle is powered by the same 59 horsepower 89 ft-lb electric motor found in the standard RAV4 hybrid. In total, the PRIME is rated at 302 combined horsepower, funneled through a CVT transmission. 302 all-wheel drive horsepower from a RAV4, what a time to be alive.
Although the PRIME’s added muscle is impressive, as reflected by its acceleration figures, overall performance is a point of contention. On one hand, the PRIME is a straight line hero. Despite a curb weight of 4400lbs, it barrels to 60mph in just five and a half seconds and 100mph in just over fourteen seconds at 14.1. Both figures are significantly better than the standard RAV4 hybrid. You will be hard pressed to find another compact-crossover that will throw you back in your seat like the PRIME on launch. It’s an absolute riot, and would surprise most boy racers should you find yourself next to one at a stoplight.
Despite the sledgehammer acceleration, the performance stops there. In nearly all lateral acceleration situations the PRIME is an uncomposed mess, be it a tight hairpin over a mountain pass or a sweeping interstate cloverleaf. Inconsistent body roll, inert steering feel, and a heavily front biased torque split inspire little confidence to actually explore the PRIME’s limits. Braking is acceptable for emergency stops, though not overly impressive. But that’s okay, right? After all, it’s a RAV4. Under normal driving conditions the PRIME’s chassis is as supple as you’d expect for a pseudo sports compact-crossover. The dampers handle road imperfections well and it takes a lot to unsettle the chassis, resulting in a comfortable ride. Despite the lack of steering feedback, it is sharp and offers a neutral weight not often found on modern electric steering systems. Overall the Prime is a fun car to drive, and that is a tribe of vehicles that is slowly disappearing.
While the PRIME brings boast worthy horsepower and acceleration numbers to the table, more notable is the 42 miles of range in pure EV mode from a single charge. The impressive range can be attributed to the massive 18.4kWh battery pack stored under the rear seats. Despite adding almost 600lbs to the PRIME’s curb weight, rear cargo space and seating position remain largely unchanged, sacrificing just 5 cubic feet of rear storage. Those who commute on interstate will be pleased that the PRIME is capable of full EV operation up to 84mph before returning to hybrid duty. Also impressive was the PRIME’s regenerative braking capability. A quick blast up a local mountain pass put our charge at about 70%, by the time we returned to the bottom, the PRIME’s high voltage battery was back to 100%.
Putting around town or on the highway in full EV mode offers little drama, acceleration is sufficient for passing and is coupled with easy throttle modulation. Despite these praises, some of the noises the electric drive system makes are a bit unnerving. If this is the future, we might have a few comments about anxiety inducing noises.
Multiple options are available for 240v charging speed with the PRIME. The SE and XSE come standard with a 3.3kW onboard charger, while the Premium bumps that up to a 6.6kW charger. A full charge through a 240V plug takes 4.5 hours, while the Premium nearly chops that in half to 2.5 hours. Charging through a standard 120V wall outlet will take roughly 12 hours to get back to 100% from zero charge, fine for normal daily use.
Spending time in the PRIME is anything but a chore. The cabin layout is ergonomical with a no nonsense dash and driver focused gauges. Synthetic leather with red accents is plentiful throughout, while neat and tidy aircon and heating controls are dominated by two large knobs with rubber bezels that feel almost bespoke. The dash is a hybrid (ironic?) of analog and digital gauges; fuel range, charge, and power usage for the former, while speed and everything else are left to the latter. It’s easy to see what’s going on in the PRIME.
Our XSE spec’d PRIME, a $3,354 option, came with a 9.0” infotainment system that is easy to navigate, though probably ready for an update sooner than later as it is a bit more pixelated than some of its rivals. Other XSE interior goodies include heated synthetic leather seats, ambient LED lighting, a wireless phone charging station, front and rear parking assist, and paddle shifters.
I know, paddle shifters on a CVT RAV4? Yes, but not for traditional reasons. In the PRIME’s case they offer the option to “downshift” to improve regenerative charging while also acting as a gear limiter to keep the combustion engine’s revs up when needed. We found this very useful on our mountain pass stint, though not entirely necessary. Our PRIME also came equipped with the $5,760 Premium package, which included both heated and cooled seats, panoramic roof, a 120V plug in the rear cargo area, JBL sound system, and heads-up display that is a nifty touch. The standard SE offers a slightly smaller 8.0” infotainment system and heated cloth seats.
During an era of over designed vehicles that don’t necessarily look good, the PRIME is a refreshingly nice car to look at. The exterior styling is masculine and almost eager to show off its new muscle. Sporting more aggressive bumpers and skirts, the PRIME does an excellent job of threading the needle between unnecessary flash and added aggression. While the SE is fitted with 18” wheels as standard, opting for the XSE gives you bespoke 19” wheels and two tone paint that further adds to the aggro masculine look. We welcome this design philosophy from Toyota going forward.
The PRIME is an interesting car that shows Toyota still likes to have fun. Akio Toyoda, Toyota’s CEO since 2009 has been adamant that they still want to produce sporty cars that are driver focused while maintaining an eco responsibility. He actually raced the new Supra at the Nurburgring 24 Hours under a fake name, as if the resurrection of the Supra itself and offerings like the RAV4 PRIME weren’t enough evidence that Toyota hasn’t thrown in the towel on making fun cars just yet. At $39,220 the base SE is already in the upper pricing echelon of the RAV4 lineup, with XSE and Premium options pushing that close to fifty grand. This is a little bit deceptive however, as all PRIMEs qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit, making it less than than a fully equipped Hybrid LE, which is slower and has less EV range. Meaner, greener, and in some cases, cheaper, the RAV4 PRIME is the perfect answer to a question no one asked. Given the way this decade has started off, it’s par for the course.