Back when they were first conceived some 70 years ago, the idea behind sport utility vehicles was to provide practical, usable transportation that could move things and people around with a modicum of comfort.
Clearly it was a good idea on the part of car manufacturers. SUVs have almost replaced the conventional four-door sedan as the vehicle of choice for families. Sometimes it seems every other vehicle on the road is an SUV of one type of another.
And right in the thick of things is Toyota, which offers six distinct SUVs, with countless variations of each model.
Leading the way is the RAV4, which Toyota offers in 12 variations for 2021. I recently spent some time with the Prime XSE, a plug-in hybrid introduced for the 2021 model year.
Power is delivered by Toyota’s 2.5-litre Atkinson cycle four-cylinder engine mated to the company’s hybrid electric drivetrain. The set-up basically sustains valve lift long enough to get maximum combustion and fuel efficiency, at the cost of engine compression and power. It’s a proven technology used throughout the industry, as is Toyota’s hybrid technology.
In this configuration, it develops 302 horsepower and the powertrain is mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). I’m not a fan of these transmissions but virtually every carmaker uses one and the XSE is a reasonably lively SUV.
It has all-wheel-drive and, among other things, a hill-holder assist, as well as traction control and a trailer stability feature. Until recently, towing a vehicle with a hybrid drivetrain was a non-starter but that seems to have changed.
As you would expect from any Toyota, the RAV4 hybrid is very driver-accessible and immensely driveable.
Inside, you’ll find virtually every modern convenience and accoutrement there is, including around 35 cubic feet (949 litres) of cargo space with the back seat folded down.
A non-hybrid RAV4 will give you slightly more cargo room. The reason for this is because the RAV4 Hybrid has some of its mechanical/electrical components under the rear seat, which doesn’t allow for a full fold-flat back deck.
That’s not a big deal, but if you plan on taking this camping, you won’t be able to sleep in it with comfort. It also interferes with storage, so you have to be thoughtful when loading it with gear.
My usual quibble with Toyota’s RAV4 Hybrid – that unless you keep it in Sport mode you’ll hold up traffic – doesn’t apply with this model. The Prime is lively, with no discernible power lag. There are several power mode choices but I opted for Normal, which is just fine.
The cord stashes neatly under the rear cargo deck and plugged into a conventional household plug, the vehicle takes about 12 hours to fully charge. There’s also a quick-charge option, which cuts that time by three-quarters. If you’re doing a relatively short commute, you may never have to use the internal combustion engine – if the vehicle is fully charged and you drive granny-style.
My test XSE, at just under $40,000 to start, is the priciest of the RAV4 Hybrid line. Is it worth the money?
It’s not difficult to see why Toyota sells so many RAV4s. Like its stablemates, the Prime is comfortable, driveable, reasonably roomy, thrifty and, with Toyota’s hybrid system having proven itself all over the world, reliable.
That, I suspect, is right at the top of the list of most buyers’ must-haves.
2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime XSE
Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder/electric motor
Transmission: continuously variable (CVT)
Fuel economy: 5.7 litres/100 km (city); 6.4 litres/100 km (highway)
Base price: $39,275
Some alternatives: Lexus NX300h, Audi Q5 Hybrid, BMW Activehybrid 3, Kia Niro, Volvo XC90, Mitsubishi Outlander, Hyundai Kona, Ford Escape, Subaru Crosstrek, Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid.
Ted Laturnus writes for Troy Media’s Driver Seat Associate website. An automotive journalist since 1976, he has been named Canadian Automotive Journalist of the Year twice and is past-president of the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).