Being bland used to be a pretty solid way to ensure a car’s popularity. Bland may not inspire, but it won’t offend, either. That sure seemed like Toyota’s playbook for decades, but things have changed (in the marketplace and with Toyota), and nowhere is that more evident than the 2021 Toyota RAV4. Rather than being vanilla enough to appeal equally to as many people as possible, it instead offers an unmatched selection of flavors to cater more specifically to a wide variety different people and purposes. There are regular, sporty and off-road-oriented RAV4s. There’s a regular gas engine and two hybrid choices, including the new 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid (pictured above). There are vibrant colors, two-tone roofs and flashy styling flourishes available along with more traditional, subdued choices. Again, something for everyone.
Yet, underlying all those different flavors is a base vehicle that generally nails the basic fundamentals demanded of a compact SUV, regardless of whether you’re getting a simple RAV4 LE, a sporty XSE Hybrid or the TRD Off-Road. It has more passenger and cargo space than most, as well as more ground clearance. Its infotainment system is easy to use and amply contented, if not the flashiest or rapid in response. It’s fuel efficient, especially the two hybrid choices. It’s surprisingly responsive to drive. Finally, its resale value and maintenance costs should continue to be excellent. Now, there are rivals that match or better the RAV4 in these regards, especially the Honda CR-V, but few do them all as well and none offer the same variety as the RAV4.
What’s new for 2021?
The RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid model debuts. It boasts as much as 42 miles of all-electric range, which is more than most PHEVs manage and is enough to cover the typical commute of most Americans. It is only available in sporty SE and XSE trim levels, and although its price is hefty for a compact SUV, it’s eligible for government tax credits that counter the added cost.
There are some other minor updates for 2021. The XLE Premium trim level can now be had with the RAV4 Hybrid, while the TRD Off-Road gains a stainless steel front skid plate.
What’s the RAV4 interior and in-car technology like?
Interior materials and finishes are above average for the RAV4’s compact crossover class, and much better than past generations. That said, the RAV4 never achieves the near-luxury vibe of a top trim level Honda CR-V or Mazda CX-5. Genuine leather is not available, and the SofTex vinyl that comes on up-level models isn’t a convincing substitute. This could certainly be a problem on pricier trim levels, especially the Prime that can approach $50,000 with options. Nevertheless, we like the use of colorful trim pieces that differentiate the various models, preferring them to unconvincing fake wood or metal trim of rival SUVs. And if you are going for a more premium vibe, the new Toyota Venza is basically just a fancier RAV4 Hybrid.
There are three sizes of touchscreen available: 7, 8 or 9 inches depending on trim level. They all sit high atop the dash, making them easy to see and reach, and run the same basic, easy-to-operate user interface. It’s not the most modern in appearance or quickest to operate, but many should appreciate its simplicity. Contributing to that is the inclusion of physical knobs and menu buttons.
In-car storage is better than most with large and versatile cupholders, an easily accessed spot to store and charge your phone, an under-armrest bin and unique shelves built into the dash. In the cargo area, the floor is double sided (one carpet, one easy-to-clean plastic) and the cargo cover can be hidden away below it. Neither is included with the RAV4 Prime, but we do like that it provides a spot for the cumbersome portable charge cord: it cleverly can be wrapped around a foam doughnut within the spare tire. Usually a plug-in vehicle resorts to a small briefcase-like bag that takes up cargo space.
We dive deeper into the RAV4 interior in this driveway test review.
How big is the RAV4?
The current RAV4 sacrifices a few inches here and some cubic-feet there compared to its drab predecessor and uber-sensible rivals like the Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester. It does so to achieve the more distinctive style and greater model variety described earlier. The roof is lower and passengers may find things a little confining as a result, especially with the optional sunroof (the RAV4 now feels an awful lot like a miniature 4Runner). Rear seat legroom is basically mid-pack, but full-sized adults and rear-facing child seats still fit comfortably enough. The car seat LATCH anchors are very easily accessed, but are only located in the outboard positions. The CR-V has one in the center.
Cargo volume of 37.5 cubic feet with the back seats raised or 69.8 cubic feet with them folded is bigger and better than most compact crossovers, but also less than the CR-V. This is largely the result of that lower roof and a more raked tailgate area — essentially space up in the greenhouse where you typically don’t store stuff. As a result, we found the two crossovers could basically hold the same amount of stuff. Now, it should be noted that the RAV4 Prime’s large battery pack raises the floor and reduces cargo space as a result (you can see the difference in the two photos above), but it’s a minor loss and many will not notice the difference.
We would also be remiss if we didn’t mention the RAV4’s ample ground clearance, especially in the Adventure and TRD Off-Road trim levels, which contributes to it being one of the more capable compact SUVs off the beaten path. Only the Subaru Forester and Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk have greater clearance than the off-road-oriented RAV4s, and even the lowest RAV4 — the XSE Hybrid — still clears 8 inches. The old model was in the low 6 range.
What are the performance and fuel economy?
If the RAV4 you’re looking at isn’t a hybrid, then it has a 2.5-liter four-cylinder good for 203 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. No other base engine in the segment comes close to that horsepower, and a run from 0-60 mph takes an estimated 8.1 seconds.
An eight-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive are standard, while two all-wheel-drive systems are optional depending on trim level. The first is a basic reactive system that sends power to the rear wheels in the event of slippage, whereas the second available on the Adventure, TRD Off-Road and Limited trim levels more actively sends power around, including between the rear wheels to improve wet weather traction as well as dry road handling. It also includes off-road vehicle settings for “Mud & Sand,” “Rock & Dirt” and “Snow.”
Fuel economy estimates for a base, front-wheel-drive RAV4 are 28 miles per gallon city, 35 mpg highway and 30 mpg combined. They’re effectively the same with the LE and XLE’s basic all-wheel drive system. The Adventure and TRD Off-Road only go down to 28 mpg combined and we managed 31.3 mpg during a 700-mile road trip in the TRD Off-Road.
The RAV4 Hybrid gets a different 2.5-liter engine along with three electric motors that combine to offer up 219 horsepower. The electric motor at the rear effectively gives the Hybrid standard all-wheel drive. Its 0-60 estimate is 7.8 seconds, meaning the Hybrid is not only a more fuel-efficient choice, but a higher performance one too (albeit barely). Fuel economy for every Hybrid trim level is 41 mpg city, 38 mpg highway and 40 mpg combined. That’s exceptional for a compact SUV, but it’s also basically equal to what you’d get in the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V and Toyota Venza hybrids.
Finally, there’s the new RAV4 Plug-In Hybrid that has more powerful motors and a higher capacity battery pack. When fully charged, it yields 302 total system horsepower, a 0-60 time of 5.8 seconds and an EPA-estimated range of 42 miles (more than most other PHEVs). Should you exhaust the all-electric range, it basically operates like the regular hybrid and returns similar fuel economy. So, the more you use its all-electric range, the more efficient it is.
What’s the RAV4 like to drive?
The RAV4 isn’t the boring, anonymous crossover it once was. It may not engage like a Mazda CX-5, but there is still an eagerness to its turn-in and a commendable poise through corners without sacrificing ride quality. The handling capability and steering feel of the various models also isn’t vast, though the sport-tuned XSE Hybrid and the RAV4 Prime models are certainly more adept at tackling a winding mountain road. Even the TRD Off-Road (pictured above) is a capable handler, although its all-terrain tires do create a lot of road noise.
Really, the biggest difference comes down to powertrain choice. The base four-cylinder looks good on paper, but in practice, it’s merely acceptable for the segment and we found it a bit loud and buzzy. The Hybrid actually improves this, as it adds that initial kick of electric power to smooth things out. Still, prolonged acceleration reveals the typical Toyota hybrid drone. Ultimately, both of these engines are about providing good fuel economy without a penalty for drivability (there’s no throttle lag or unusual transmission programming, for instance). They succeed, but if you want more guts, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
For 2021, that place could be the RAV4 Prime. It has 302 horsepower when the battery is fully charged and its acceleration is a strong and inspiring as its 0-60 time of 5.8 seconds would indicate. It genuinely feels like an electric car. However, that changes when that all-electric range is exhausted. Acceleration goes from inspiring to unremarkable. So, whether you’re talking performance or fuel economy, it’s best to keep the Prime charged.
What more can I read about the RAV4?
The plug-in hybrid powertrain makes for a better RAV4, but a RAV4 also makes for a better plug-in hybrid. Our first review.
We review the most off-roady version of the RAV4 on a 700-mile road trip to western Canada.
We dive deep into the RAV4’s interior storage, quality and technology.
We know the numbers say the CR-V is a bit bigger, but we put the numbers to the test with actual luggage.
We try out the automotive equivalent of trail-running shoes. We take a look at their interior, their specs and what they’re like to drive. We found the Forester’s space and value compelling, but also thought the RAV4 Adventure’s style could prove to be decisive for many.
“For everyone put off by the new direction, we’re wagering many more will be attracted to the more characterful approach. Toyota may have messed with a good thing, but it didn’t mess it up.”
Our review of the off-road-oriented Adventure trim level, which boasts additional ground clearance and chunky good looks that we prefer over the standard version.
Our Quick Spin review of the RAV4 Hybrid, which we found is very nice to drive despite its intended role as the fuel-sipping option.
What features are available and what’s the price?
Pricing starts at $27,255 for the base LE, including the $1,175 destination charge. All-wheel drive is $1,400 on gas-only trim levels where it’s an option.
Given the number of trim levels and available equipment, we’ll forgo the usual laundry list of features and direct you instead here on Autoblog to find a full breakdown of trim level features, specs and local pricing.
XLE Premium: $31,225
Adventure: $34,330 (AWD standard)
TRD Off-Road: $36,955 (AWD standard)
Hybrid LE: $29,675 (AWD standard on all hybrids)
Hybrid XLE: $$30,970
Hybrid XLE Premium: $33,675
Hybrid XSE: $35,625
Hybrid Limited: $38,205
Prime SE: $39,275
Prime XSE: $42,600
Note that the Prime is eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit as well as possible state credits.
What are its safety equipment and crash ratings?
Every RAV4 comes with a comprehensive array of standard safety equipment beyond the expected and government-mandated items, including a driver knee airbag, a front passenger under-seat airbag, forward collision warning with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking, and a lane-keeping assist system. Blind-spot and rear cross-traffic warning systems are optional on the LE trim level and standard on all others. A rear cross-traffic automatic braking system is standard on the Limited and optional on all trims but the LE.
In government crash testing, the RAV4 received five out of five stars for overall and side crash protection. It got four stars for frontal protection. The Toyota RAV4 was named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for its best-possible performance in all crash tests and collision avoidance technology tests. Its headlights drew ratings of “Poor,” “Marginal” and “Good” depending on trim level. You can find out which ones on the IIHS ratings page.