The most efficient compact crossover thanks to hybrid technology.
Compact SUVs are the new family vehicle. With room for five, they’re ideal for small families.
The Toyota RAV4 fits this category perfectly, by offering gas, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid variants of this popular model. Indeed, the RAV4 is so popular it has displaced the Camry sedan as Toyota’s best-selling model. We drove a RAV4 Hybrid, finding it handsome, strong, and efficient. With its 40 mpg average fuel efficiency, it’s also a leader in a crowded segment.
2021 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Review
Toyota prices the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid from $28,500 to $37,030, plus a $1,175 destination charge. Also available is the RAV4 Prime, a plug-in hybrid. This model is marketed separately and is priced from $38,110, plus destination. It also carries a federal tax credit of $7,500 for eligible buyers.
The RAV4 Hybrid is an all-wheel-drive compact crossover utility vehicle. For this review, we’ll examine the hybrid primarily, making reference to the standard and PHEV variants when necessary. Available in five trims, the 2021 RAV4 Hybrid is powered by a gas engine with a pair of electric motors also supplying power. A continuously variable transmission routes power to the wheels.
New this year is the XLE Premium grade. This trim brings in special sport alloy wheels, a power moonroof, imitation leather seats, and other features.
We’ve driven quite a few RAV4s in our day and have owned three along the way. We’re as familiar with this vehicle as we are with anything else on the road.
You have to go back to the 1990s to find the first RAV4. The original was small, even smaller than the Toyota C-HR that slots beneath the current RAV4. Over the years, the RAV4 has grown, added a V6 engine and an available third-row for a time, before moving to an all-four-cylinder fleet with room for five and hybrid variants to boot.
The current iteration is the sportiest and most sophisticated RAV4 yet. We’re not sure if it is the rectangular wheel wells or the big grille that gives it so much personality or other features such as LED accent lights, a high beltline, or the alloy wheels. This RAV4 has more squared-off edges than before and serves as a decent complement to the 4Runner SUV. Thus, while the Highlander is the midsize three-row crossover for Toyota, its exterior features are simply softer.
With five trims to consider – LE, XLE, XLE Premium, XSE, and Limited — the RAV4 Hybrid comes decked out in different ways, just as the gas-powered model does. The list of standard features begins with multi-LED headlights, LED daytime running lights, and LED taillights. You’ll also find 17-inch alloy wheels, power outside mirrors with a folding feature, black roof rails, and dual chrome exhaust tips. Again, this is the standard equipment and we’re impressed with what you get.
But Toyota knows customers oftentimes want the upgrades. Depending on the trim, you’ll find such features as LED projector headlights, integrated fog lights, 18-inch alloy wheels, and an adaptive front headlight system (the latter a Limited trim exclusive).
Other features available include a two-tone exterior color, heated side mirrors, puddle lights (Limited), a power tilt-and-slide moonroof, a panoramic glass roof, roof rack cross bars, a power liftgate, and front and rear mudguards.
You can seat five inside the RAV4 without much effort. Four, though, is the ideal as the center armrest yields a pair of cupholders.
Given that we’ve driven various RAV4s through the years, we’re familiar with how they look and feel. Some of the earlier models had front seats with average support and that’s not good enough for some drivers, including this one. Our test XSE model had comfortable seats with driver adjustment and lumbar support at the ready.
We like how Toyota designed the current model with its two-tier dashboard separated by brightwork trim. The open pocket below the dash but above the glovebox is a welcome edition – it debuted in the previous edition Highlander. Unlike the Highlander, it doesn’t have a passthrough to USB ports. But it does have a skid pad bottom and that’s useful for holding a pair of smartphones.
The center stack is clean and orderly with the touch-screen display bolted on the top followed by a pair of vents underneath. Beneath that are a pair of big circular dials for managing the climate control system. Switches manage more aspects of the climate control system with heated seats also available. At the base of the center stack is a wide-open area, ideal for holding your cell phone. Our test model included the much-desirable Qi-compatible charging pad.
Between the armrest and cup holders and the open area is the transmission shifter and parking brake. You’ll also find a dial for normal and sport driving modes, a trail switch for light-duty off-roading, and an EV mode. We kept this crossover in normal mode nearly the entire time.
The list of standard interior features is equally as impressive as what suits the exterior. The RAV4 Hybrid comes with full power accessories, dual-zone climate control, fabric-trimmed seats, manual-adjusted front seats, a 60/40 split fold-down rear seat, front reading lights, illuminated vanity mirrors, an overhead console, and a generous amount of soft-touch materials throughout.
Work your way up the trim range and the improvements are many. Imitation leather seats, a power driver’s seat with lumbar support, heated and ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, and accent upgrades including double-stitched blue or brown accents add verve.
Other upgrades include a cargo area tonneau cover or cargo net, ambient lighting, and a digital rearview mirror.
As for storage space, there is 37.6 cubic feet of standard cargo room and 69.8 cubic feet with the rear seat folded. The RAV4 is on the upper end of cargo-carrying room for this segment.
The hybrid’s standard tech includes a 7-inch touch-screen display and a 6-speaker audio system. Other features include a USB port, Bluetooth, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and Amazon Alexa compatibility, connected services, satellite radio, and Wi-Fi connect.
Move up to the new XLE Premium trim and this model has four USB charge ports. Beginning with the XSE trim, the RAV4 Hybrid features an 8-inch touch-screen display. Choose the Limited trim and Toyota swaps out the standard audio package for an 11-speaker JBL system. A Qi-compatible wireless smartphone and mobile device charging pad is available as is an integrated panoramic backup camera with dynamic gridlines.
In all, the RAV4 Hybrid’s tech offerings are compatible with what you’d find in competing models.
All trims come with the Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 bundle of driver-assist features. This package includes automatic high beams, a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with steering assist, lane tracing assist, full-speed adaptive cruise control with stop and go, and road sign assist.
The only features not included as standard equipment is blind-spot monitoring and front and rear parking assist with automated braking. The first choice is optional with the base LE trim, but standard beginning with the XLE. As for the second choice, it’s standard with the Limited, but available with the XLE Premium and the XSE trims.
On the safety ratings front, the Toyota RAV4 garnered the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s (IIHS) Top Safety Pick award. From the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the RAV4 earned a 5-star rating.
All trims also come with an anti-theft system with an engine immobilizer. An alarm is available on all but the base trims.
The RAV4 Hybrid isn’t your everyday hybrid, even by Toyota’s traditional standards. This one makes use of two electric motors: the first one joins with the transmission to send power to the front wheels. The second one turns the rear wheels when it receives a signal from the crossover’s computer to do so. Thus, the gas engine still works with an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission to help turn the front wheels (along with the first electric motor), while the rear wheels kick in without any connection to the engine (thanks to the second motor). The result is a more efficient all-wheel-drive vehicle: this one earns an EPA-estimated 40 mpg combined.
Because of this unique engineering arrangement, every RAV4 Hybrid is all-wheel drive. Power is sent to the rear wheels when the computer detects slippage, unless you press a separate button to activate the rear wheel manually. In effect, it’s a part-time all-wheel-drive system that maximizes traction and fuel efficiency.
The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is a familiar one to Toyota faithful. This one is tuned to run on the efficient Atkinson cycle, producing 176 horsepower and 163 pound-feet of torque. That’s down from the 203 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque this engine runs on the Otto cycle that motivates the gas-powered RAV4.
The beauty of all this is that the output of the electric motor when layered on the gas engine to yield a combined 219 horsepower, bettering the gas model. But keep this in mind if a hybrid interests you: the plug-in RAV4 Prime hybrid delivers a combined 302 horsepower. Either way, the electrified RAV4s have more kick to them than the gas-powered model. Not only do you benefit from a more efficient crossover, but you have a performance edge too for a true win-win scenario.
We could have played around with the RAV4 Hybrid off-road, but we kept it on firm pavement nearly the entire time, save for a few times crossing gravelly expanses. In our earlier review of the off-road TRD gas model, we found that model was not up to the usual off-road standards as there were no steel kickplates to protect the undercarriage. Figure that you’ll do no more than light-duty off-roading with the RAV4 Hybrid.
Activate the ignition and you’ll be met with virtual silence save for a low hum that kicks in once you switch the transmission to drive. If you’re crawling around looking for a new parking space, hit the EV switch to allow the electric power to take you there. But once you press the gas pedal to move forward with authority, the gas engine activates to propel this crossover. Its instantaneous too with no lag in power.
Our drive around town and on the highways revealed a crossover easily up to the task. The driver control mode dial can be switched between Eco and Sport or deactivated for Normal. Go with the first option to maximize economy, the second one for full power, and the third to find a happy medium between the two. The instrument panel display changes color when selecting either of the first two choices: green for Eco and red for Sport. Know that leaving the hybrid in sport mode all the time will reduce its efficiency accordingly. But at least you have the option to get more power when you need it, such as when you’re towing – that’s right, this hybrid is rated to tow with a trailering capacity of 1,750 pounds.
Because Toyota has been deeply involved in hybrid technology longer than its competitors (Honda isn’t as deeply invested as its rival), this automaker has found ways to improve the driving experience. Thus, the steering feels more connected than before and it handles rather well too. In effect, Toyota has improved driver feedback tremendously over the years.
One other area where the improvements are quite noticeable is in braking. Gone is the squishy feeling these brakes produce when coming to a stop. With hybrids, braking is not only important for bringing the vehicle to a safe stop, but to harness kinetic energy to help replenish the battery. Yes, both the gas engine and brakes send power to the electric motor, but Toyota has improved the brake feel to greatly reduce the weird feeling that most hybrids have when coming to a stop.
In all, the 2021 RAV4 Hybrid is a stellar example of Toyota’s prowess in the field of electrification. With nearly every Toyota model offering a hybrid variant, the reasons to avoid one have little to do with performance and even less so to do with price (a matter we address at the end of this article).
Hybrid models come and go, leaving the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid with few competitors. Before we consider the other models, take a look at the Toyota Venza, a hybrid-only model reviewed here.
Direct competitors include just two models right now: the Honda CR-V Hybrid and the Ford Escape Hybrid. Other competitors have joined in from time to time, including Nissan, but none have the staying power to compete.
Should you purchase a hybrid? The reasons for not doing so continue to fall away. Hybrids, as in the case of the RAV4 Hybrid, are more powerful and fuel-efficient than their gas counterparts. Also, the price differential continues to narrow – when comparing a RAV4 with all-wheel drive to any hybrid variant, the difference is typically $1,050 ($625 with the XLE). Of course, these differences are wider still if you want a front-wheel-drive RAV4, but with the kind of all-wheel-drive system in place with the hybrid, you still retain a 10 mpg edge over any gas model.
Our pick is the XLE Premium, the newest trim on the block. For under $34,000 it bridges the XLE and XSE trims with many of the amenities customers want for a reasonable price.
2021 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Specifications
|Toyota||2021 RAV4 Hybrid|
|Price Range||From $28,500 to $37,030|
|Standard Engine||2.5-liter, I4 (Atkinson Cycle)|
|Horsepower||176 hp @ 5,700 rpm (219 net hp)|
|Torque (lb.-ft.)||163 lb.-ft. @ 3,600 to 5,200 rpm|
|Curb Weight (pounds)||3,690 to 3,780|
|Headroom (f,r…inches)||37.7, 39.5|
|Legroom (f,r…inches)||41.0, 37.8|
|Shoulder room (f,r…inches)||57.8, 56.4|
|Hip room (f,r…inches)||54.3, 47.7|
|Storage (cubic feet)||37.6/69.8|
|Gross vehicle weight (pounds)||4,920|
|Payload (pounds)||1,140 to 1,230|
|Fuel Tank (gallons)||14.5|
|EPA Fuel MPG (city/highway/combined)||41/38/40|
|Manufacturing Plant||Ontario, Canada|
See Also — The Fifth-Generation Toyota RAV4 Evaluated
Toyota RAV4 Hybrid photos copyright Auto Trends Magazine. All rights reserved.