Addition of plug-in hybrid keynotes 2021 Toyota RAV4 changes

By CarPreview staff

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid

What changes will make the 2021 Toyota RAV4 different?

Addition of a plug-in hybrid as the most powerful version of this popular compact crossover. Packing 302 horsepower, capable of traveling 39 miles on electricity alone before going into hybrid mode, and with all-wheel drive standard, the 2021 RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid is the new flagship for Toyota’s best-selling vehicle.

Introduction of the plug-in continues to expand the lineup of a RAV4 that was fully redesigned for model-year 2019 and gained an off-road edition for model-year 2020. The ’21 roster will again include gas-only and conventional gas/electric-hybrid models and constitute one of the broadest selections in a class that also includes the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, Chevrolet Equinox, and Ford Escape.

Now in its fifth design generation, this roomy five-seater outsells every vehicle in the U.S. except the Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado full-size pickup trucks. The RAV4 helped launch the crossover market in 1994 when Toyota introduced the original “Recreational Activity Vehicle with 4-wheel drive” as an SUV that utilized car-type unibody construction instead of truck-like body-on-frame engineering. 

Should I wait for the 2021 RAV4 or buy the 2020?

2020 RAV4 Adventure

Wait for the ’21 if the idea of a plug-in-hybrid version intrigues you. It’s the most fuel-efficient RAV4 ever, but Toyota touts it as the highest performing, saying only its Supra sports car accelerates quicker. The ’21 RAV4 Prime comes only in sporty SE and XSE trim with a handling-tuned suspension. It’s the first RAV4 with steering-wheel-paddle transmission shifters. And it’s the priciest RAV4 grade, the SE starting at an estimated $33,700, the XSE at around $40,000.   

If a plug-in doesn’t spark your interest or fit your budget buy a 2020 RAV4. Except for the plug-in, it’ll mirror the 2021 lineup, but without the inevitable year-over-year price inflation. And with significant changes not likely before a model-year 2023 refresh, buying a ’20 means your RAV4 won’t look or feel outdated for some time.

The balance of the 2021 RAV4 lineup should return virtually unchanged from 2020. It’ll feature gas-only LE, XLE, XLE Premium, Adventure, and Limited models, plus the TRD Off-Road, the first RAV4 truly at home away from pavement. Also returning with be the conventional Hybrid model in LE, XLE, XSE, and Limited form. AWD will be standard on the Adventure, the TRD Off-Road, and all the gas-electric models and optional on the other ’21 RAV4s.

Will the styling be different?

2020 RAV4 TRD Off-Road

No change for the returning models, except for a new color choice or two, one a rich hue called “Supersonic Red.” The SE is a new trim level, introduced for the RAV4 Prime, and it has its own lattice grille insert and unique front spoiler. With the XSE Prime and the conventional-hybrid RAV4 it shares blue Toyota logos and an exclusive lower fascia and wheels. The plug-ins also have a second fuel-filler-type door, this one on the right-rear fender for the plug-in port.

All ’21 RAV4s will otherwise retain the overall look that came with the 2019 redesign. It helped usher in a new styling direction for Toyota crossovers, supplanting smooth, car-like lines with sharper angles and a more traditional SUV attitude.

Aside from exclusive touches for the Adventure, TRD, and gas-electric models, visual differences between 2021 RAV4 trim levels will again consist mostly of details such as color-keyed accents. Every model will have LED headlamps and all but the LE will come with foglights. Vertical LED accent lights give the XSEs a distinct look, while the optional Adaptive Front Lighting System (AFS) with headlamp auto-leveling partially aims the beams into turns as the driver steers.

2021 RAV4 XSE Prime

In addition to some blacked-out trim, the ’21 Adventure and TRD will again have a unique split-bar upper grille. The TRD builds on the Adventure but gets its own gray finish on the lower fascia, flared wheel arches, and chunky tires on black TRD wheels. The Adventure/TRD and the XSE Prime will offer optional two-tone paint.

All ’21 RAVs will again come with alloy wheels that differ slightly in design and size. Expect 17-inch wheels and tires for LE and XLE versions; 18s for the TRD, SE, and the XSE, and Limited Hybrids; and 19s for the XLE Premium, Adventure, XSE Prime, and the gas Limited.

Cabin materials in all models will again be a praiseworthy mix of soft-touch surfaces and solid-feeling grained plastic panels. The Adventure, TRD, and Limiteds will return with digital instrumentation versus the other models’ analog gauges; gas-electrics get specific range and state-of-charge readouts.

Instead of cloth upholstery, expect the Adventure, the TRD, the Limiteds, and the XSEs to have SofTex, Toyota’s convincing imitation leather. The ’21 Adventure will have orange interior accents, the SE some red stitching, and the TRD a black-themed cabin with TRD logos and red stitching on dash, doors, and seats. The Limiteds will again be distinguished by upscale-looking dark brown decor.

All 2021 RAV4 models will return with a cockpit-like driving environment, with a tall center console anchoring a center stack dominated by two, large climate-control knobs. Above that will again be a tablet-like infotainment screen, a new 9-inch display on the XSE Prime, a 7-inch unit on the LE, XLE, SE, and XLE Premium, an 8-incher on the others. The display is crisp and bright. We’d hold out hope for an update to Toyota’s aging Entune software by model-year ’21. But you’ll again be able to overcome some of its shortfalls by using Apple CarPlay or Google Android Auto, both of which will be standard on all models.

Passenger comfort, if not rear-seat room, will remain a strong point. Expect the front seats to again have   lateral support that’s effective without making those of wider girth feel confined. The tall roofline will continue to provide excellent headroom. Front-seat legroom would continue to run with the compact-crossover pack, but rear seaters get slightly less legroom here than in rivals such as the CR-V and Volkswagen Tiguan.

A power liftgate should again be optional on the Adventure and XLE grades and standard on all other ’21 RAV4s, except the LE. Hands-free opening should return as an option for the Limiteds and the XSE Prime. At 37 cubic feet (37.6 for Limited models with the optional panoramic moonroof), cargo volume with the rear seatbacks up will again be above the class average. Fold them and you’ll again open 69.8 cubic feet. That’s a little below par for the segment, but still plenty of space.

Hats off to Toyota engineers for packaging the battery pack of both the conventional hybrid and the plug-in Prime to avoid cutting into the load space, so cargo volume is the same as on gas-only RAV4s.

Any mechanical changes?

Toyota RAV4 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine

Yes, but only because of the plug-in hybrid. It’ll get its own version of the 2.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine found in the gas-only and conventional-hybrid 2021 RAV4s. In both hybrid types, the gas engine is supplemented two electric motors, one to assist with acceleration, the other to achieve AWD by powering the rear wheels.

The gas-only models will continue to account for the bulk of 2021 RAV4 sales. They’ll return with 203 horsepower, 184 pound-feet of torque, and an eight-speed automatic transmission. On paper, that output should again be at the upper end of the competitive set. On the road, gas-only 2021 RAV4s will probably continue to feel a little lazy. Most of the blame falls to the transmission. In the interest of boosting fuel economy, it’s programmed to shift into the higher gears as soon as possible. Pulling away from a stop with anything resembling quickness requires mashing the throttle, even with the drive-mode selector in Sport.

That need to pour on the gas exposes this drivetrain’s other shortfall: lack of refinement. The engine sounds coarse and loud during acceleration, though it does settle down once you reach cruising speeds. Toyota would benefit 2021 RAV4 buyers by tweaking the transmission’s software, along with adding extra sound-deadening material to this structure.

2021 RAV4 Prime

Expect much more sprightly performance from a ’21 RAV4 Hybrid and, if Toyota’s claims are credible, robust acceleration from the Prime plug-in hybrid. Combined output of the gas and electric systems is 219 horsepower for the conventional hybrid and 302 with the Prime plug-in; Toyota does not specify a torque figure for these models.

A RAV4 Prime was not made available to test in time for this review. But our tests of the RAV4 Hybrid reveal it to be smoother and quicker off the line than gas-only RAV4s. It also has much stronger response during high-speed passing and merging. The automaker says the conventional hybrid does 0-60 mph in 7.8 seconds, the Prime in 5.8. (The gas-only RAV does it in about 8.0 seconds and, if you’re wondering, the quickest-Toyota Supra in about 3.8.)

Both RAV4 hybrid types employ two electric motors, one to assist with acceleration and, battery-charge permitting, for electric-only driving. The second electric motor provides all-wheel drive by automatically powering the rear wheels if the front tires slip. Their sole transmission is a continuously variable automatic (CVT).

The difference between the two hybrids is mostly in their electric-only range. The conventional hybrid model can’t travel on battery power alone for more than a mile or two. The plug-in can tap a commercial or residential outlet for enough initial battery charge to travel on electric power alone. In addition to its modified gas engine, it has more powerful motor-generators and employs a Lithium-Ion battery with more capacity than the conventional hybrid’s nickel-metal-hydride battery. Toyota pegs its electric-only range at 39 miles, which is says is the highest electric-only range of any plug-in-hybrid SUV or crossover on the market.

When not running on battery power, the Prime acts like the conventional RAV4 Hybrid. Sensors automatically choose engine power or battery assist to optimize performance or fuel economy and the battery pack recharges by capturing energy otherwise lost during braking and coasting. The plug-in gets a button that allows the driver to choose when to employ electric-only propulsion. And the XSE Prime adds paddle shifters that enable “downshifting” on demand, using the gas engine’s brake torque to ramp up energy regeneration.

2020 RAV4 Adventure

On both hybrid types, the low placement of the battery pack helps reduce the vehicle’s center of gravity, making it feel more stable and planted while cornering that gas-only RAV4s. Still, no ’21 RAV4 is apt to match the athletic road manners of the Honda CR-V or Mazda CX-5, not even the sporty XSE Hybrid.

With the Adventure grade emphasizing go-anywhere styling, it’ll fall to the ’21 RAV4 TRD Off-Road to challenge, if not quite equal, the off-pavement prowess of the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk and Subaru Forester. Although the TRD Off-Road model will again boast an off-road-optimized suspension and tires with fairly aggressive all-terrain tread, it’ll share the same basic AWD system as other 2021 AWD RAV4s.

The system defaults to front-wheel drive and automatically shuffles power fore and aft to quell tire slip. It’s primarily an extra measure of traction in snow and in light-duty off-pavement excursions. The standard console-mounted terrain-selector switch alters powertrain and other hardware to suit conditions, with settings for mud and sand, rock and dirt, and snow. Ground clearance is a modest 8.1 inches on the hybrids and 8.4 inches on the LE and XLE and ranges to a competitive 8.6 inches on the other models.

Will fuel economy improve?

2021 RAV4 Prime

Not likely for returning models. Their EPA ratings should be unchanged from 2020, leaving them among the more fuel-efficient compact crossovers. Gas-only 2021 RAV4s with front-wheel drive should again rate 26/35/30 mpg city/highway/combined. With AWD, the 2021 RAV4 LE should again rate 27/34/30 mpg, the other models 25/33/28.

EPA ratings for the RAV4 TRD Off-Road were not released in time for this review, but don’t be surprised if its all-terrain tires cost the ’21 version a mile per gallon or two in one or more categories. Our Adventure review sample returned 28.9 mpg in our suburban test loop.

The 2021 RAV4 Hybrid and especially the plug-in, are leading candidates for best-in-class economy.

Look for the 2021 RAV4 Hybrid to continue at 41/30/38 mpg city/highway/combined. EPA ratings for the Prime plug-in were not released in time for this review, but Toyota estimates it at 90 mpg-e on electricity alone. Mpg-e is the EPA’s calculation of an electric vehicle’s miles-per-gallon of gasoline equivalent. Running as a conventional hybrid, figure EPA ratings close to those of the conventional hybrid. The ’21 RAV4 plug-in hybrid may also qualify as a high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lane approved single-occupant vehicle in some states such as California and New Jersey.

All 2021 RAV4 models will be tuned to run on regular-grade 87 octane gas.

Will there be new features?

Unlikely, aside from technical items associated with the new plug-in. The ’21 RAV will carryover additions made for model-year 2020, the most welcome being Android Auto, which, along with satellite radio, became standard on all models. The power sunroof that was standard on the 2019 XLE and XLE Hybrid became an option for 2020, although a power driver’s seat joined those models’ standard-equipment list.

Laudably, all ’21 RAV4s will again come standard with an array of driver-assists as part of the Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 (TSS 2.0) system. This comprises autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning, automatic high-beam headlight control, and adaptive radar cruise control that can maintain a set following distance from traffic ahead. Blind-spot alert with rear cross-traffic detection would probably remain standard on the SE and on XLE and higher models, though it wouldn’t surprise us to see Toyota add it to LE grades for ’21.

Otherwise, the LE would offer standard LED headlights, CarPlay, Android Auto, and built-in WiFi hotspot capability. XLE grades would see various exterior and interior trim upgrades over the LE, dual-zone automatic climate control, power driver’s seat and rear liftgate, keyless access, pushbutton engine start, fog lights, cargo cover, and four additional USB power points including two for rear-seat occupants.

XLE Premium would replace the XLE’s cloth upholstery and 17-inch alloy wheels with Toyota’s SofTex leatherette and 19s, respectively. Adventure grades would continue to include off-road-themed exterior and interior details and 8-inch touchscreen infotainment in place of the 7-inch display on LE, XLE, and XLE Premium. The Limited would have its own exterior styling touches, power sunroof, JBL audio, and heated front seats. The TRD Off-Road returns with unique suspension tuning, wheels, blackout exterior trim, and black interior with red contrast stitching throughout.

Hybrid models largely mirror their gas-only counterparts for standard equipment. The Prime SE is largely commensurate with the gas XLE and the Prime XSE with the Hybrid  XSE.

Will 2021 prices be different?

Count on an increase for carryover models and for the XSE Prime to be the most expensive RAV4 ever. That means the ‘21 RAV4 lineup will likely remain among the costliest in the class. Given its sales leadership, that speaks well of the value-for-money buyers associate with the Toyota brand and with the RAV4 in particular.

Estimated base prices here include Toyota’s destination fee; figure around $1,045 for model-year ’21.

Among gas-only models, expect base prices for front-wheel-drive versions of $27,500 for the LE, $29,400 for the XLE, $31,500 for the XLE Premium, and $35,600 for the Limited. To these, add about $1,400 for AWD. For ’21 RAV4s with AWD standard, estimated base prices are $35,000 for the Adventure and $40,000 for the TRD Off-Road.

Estimated base prices for the ’21 RAV4 Hybrid, which comes standard with AWD, are $29,800 for the LE, $31,500 for the XLE, $35,800 for the XSE, and $37,800 for the Limited. For the 2021 RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid, also with AWD standard, projected base prices are $33,700 for the SE and $40,000 for the XSE.

Several option packages will likely return and, depending on trim level selection, could include equipment such as steering-linked headlights, programmable power rear liftgate, imbedded GPS navigation, heated and ventilated front seats, heated outboard rear seats, heated steering wheel, wireless smartphone charging pad, rain-sensing windshield wipers, and surround-view camera.

Most RAV4 buyers will again choose a gas-only model. At a projected sticker price of around $33,500, a gas-powered XLE with AWD, upgraded infotainment, and heated front seats and steering wheel will likely be the most popular 2021 RAV4 configuration.

If you’re interested in one of the gas-electric models, note that Toyota recently extended the battery warranty to 10 years or 150,000 miles (whichever comes first) from the industry-typical 8 years/100,000 miles. The coverage is transferable from the original owner to subsequent owners.

When does it come out?

2020 RAV4 XLE

Look for a 2021 Toyota RAV4 release date in summer 2020.

Best competitors

Chevrolet Equinox and Trailblazer, Ford Escape, GMC Terrain, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Jeep Cherokee, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-5, Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester, Volkswagen Tiguan

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]