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Toyota RAV4 vs. RAV4 Prime: Which Is Better?

If you follow our long-term vehicle evaluation fleet, you know we currently have a 2019 Toyota RAV4 SUV in for a yearlong test. Such tests are great for testing reliability, day-to-day livability, and fuel economy, but there’s always a risk the vehicle line in question may receive major updates while we have one under our care. Fortunately for us, only one major change has hit the RAV4 lineup during that time, and that’s the arrival of the 2021 RAV4 Prime, a plug-in hybrid model. Does it change our outlook on the goodness of the gas-only RAV4?

RAV4 vs. RAV4 Prime: Power

After spending a good amount of time in both SUVs, it’s clear the Prime has a very different personality than our year-long RAV4. (We’ve also examined the regular, non-plug-in RAV4 hybrid versus the Prime.) One big reason for that: The Prime is much more powerful than the standard model. Packed with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder and electric motors, the Prime makes a total system output of 302 hp, compared with the gas RAV4’s 203 hp. The plug-in’s extra weight prevents it from feeling quite as powerful as its horsepower figure would suggest. At 4,300 pounds in top XSE trim, the Prime is a full 785 lbs heavier than our long-termer. That said, the added mass doesn’t affect much beyond perceived sprightliness; both are similar in terms of steering and ride quality.

Our spin in the RAV4 Prime really highlighted the relative lack of refinement displayed by our RAV4’s engine. The plug-in accelerates smoothly in hybrid and electric mode, something we can’t say for the somewhat thrashy conventional inline-four. That said, this probably wouldn’t bother us as much if we hadn’t driven the Prime.

RAV4 vs. RAV4 Prime: Fuel Economy

The regular RAV4 is efficient, maxing out at 30 mpg combined. As expected, the RAV4 Prime takes efficiency to a new level, as it’s able to travel on pure electricity or with the help of the gas engine. It achieves 94 mpge (miles-per-gallon equivalent) on electric and gas power and 38 mpg on regular gas. One of the biggest advantages afforded by the Prime is range. Toyota says it can go 42 miles on an electric charge, which is pretty close to what we got in our short-term loan with the plug-in. With the gas engine engaged, it can travel a claimed total of 600 miles. We’re experiencing less than 400 miles on a tank with the regular RAV4, although that’s not unusual for a gas SUV. And in a previous update, we found that our long-term RAV4 even beat its EPA-estimated highway fuel economy number considerably, which is impressive.

RAV4 vs. RAV4 Prime: Trims/Prices

Prices for the gas-only 2021 RAV4 run the gamut from $27,225 for the base LE trim to $36,955 for the butch-looking TRD Off-Road. The RAV4 Prime is much more expensive, ranging from $39,275 for the SE to $42,600 for the XSE. (Only these two trims are offered for the Prime). Keep in mind the Prime is eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit and other state credits, but those are post-purchase incentives. Also note that the Prime offers a few fancy features the regular RAV4 doesn’t, including a larger 9.0-inch touchscreen and a 10.0-inch color head-up display. Although our long-term RAV4 doesn’t offer these goodies, we don’t particularly miss them. We’re satisfied with the value offered by its interior, which boasts comfortable cloth seats, an efficient cabin layout, and excellent visibility for an affordable price of $31,509. Keep in mind our long-termer is a 2019 model, and prices are a little different for 2021. There’s certainly a place for Prime, but based on the trim and pricing structure, we think most customers will be plenty happy with the standard RAV4.

If you were to ask us which we’d like to spend a weekend in, we’d probably say the RAV4 Prime for its big power and smooth electric operation. But if you were to ask us which one we’d buy, it would be hard to overlook the wide selection and bang for the buck you can get with the traditional RAV4.

Read More About Our Long-Term 2019 Toyota RAV4 XLE:


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