This has been a great era to track vehicle evolution as we have rather rapidly moved from inefficient internal combustion engines (“ICE”, in industry nomenclature) powered by gasoline to hybrids, fully electric vehicles (“EV”s), plug-in hybrids (“PHEV”), even experimentation with hydrogen-powered engines. Given the speed of development with all of these technologies, it’s hard to prognosticate where things will be in another decade or two. EVs are of great interest to me, but I’m reticent to consider upgrading to a full-EV car because of the usual concerns about mid-day charging speed and long drive logistics.
The intersection of all these technologies that I find most appealing is the plug-in hybrid PHEV design. As the second generation of these is being released, it’s common for the vehicle to offer 30-40 miles of pure EV driving (without tapping the gasoline engine at all) from a 110V overnight charge, followed by becoming a standard hybrid that uses electric if the batteries charge up or gas if the batteries are kaput. How do these batteries charge? Typically through what’s known as regenerative charging where it taps into the energy from braking to charge up the batteries. Drive up and down hills, slowly brake to a stop at red lights, and your hybrid can do pretty well balancing E and G.
My personal vehicle is a 2017 Mazda CX-5 which I really like. It’s a great size, has lots of advanced tech (some of which still haven’t made it into the 2022 Toyota), and is plenty big enough for my typical 1-2 passengers. But no PHEV, though Mazda finally introduced a CX-9 PHEV (known as the CX-90) for the 2024 model year, though it’s a three-row SUV, so it’s bigger than I want for an upgrade. Rumor has it that a PHEV CX-5 is coming next but no official release date has yet been announced.
Suffice it to say, since the Toyota RAV4 was the other vehicle I looked at very closely before buying the Mazda, I was very, very interested in driving the 2022 Toyota RAV4 Prime XSE AWD SUV. Prime = PHEV, in Toyota lingo, so it was essentially a chance to drive a plug-in hybrid with the exact form factor of what I’d like as my next vehicle. Might I buy a RAV4 Prime and step back from Mazda to Toyota? I’ll get back to that at the end of this article. Let’s check out the Blueprint/Midnight B RAV4 Prime first…
Toyota hasn’t done much to change the exterior of the RAV4 in the last few years, but it’s a solid if somewhat boxy compact SUV with a very attractive front grill design featuring side air scoops to make the nose seem a bit narrower. It included the Toyota roof rack, an optional upgrade that I expect the vast majority of owners choose.
The engine is a 2.5L 4-cylinder with plug-in hybrid featuring both EV and HV modes, delivering a decent 302 combined horsepower. Utilizing the excellent Toyota Continuously Variable Transmission, there’s plenty of power for a quick rabbit start from a red light. Interestingly, though, when I pushed the pedal to the floor on a straightaway, it got me up to about 40mph with vim and enthusiasm, but then sort of topped out, offering a much more modest acceleration to higher speeds after that. Plenty of oomph for everyday driving and passing on the highway (thanks to that hybrid EV engine) but it’s not going to win any quarter-miles against a Tesla Plaid or even a Dodge Challenger.
As suits a technologically advanced vehicle, the dashboard is loaded with buttons and options, though Toyota drivers will find most everything in their usual spots (especially on the steering wheel crossbar). The navigational display is an upgraded 10-inch model (a $3350 upgrade) that still felt rather small after driving premium vehicles like the top-end Toyota Tundra with its much bigger display. I liked the fact that Toyota engineers have tried to make different knobs have different sizes or textures to help drivers control the vehicle while in motion.
Looking more closely at the main gauge display, it’s definitely straight outta sci-fi:
This is the first vehicle I can recall where it shows both speed in mph (I’m going about 12mph) and in km/h, along with a rather bewildering array of other data. You can see (possibly) I’m in EV mode, with Auto EV/MV enabled, in ECO driving mode, and something or other is “READY” too, though I don’t know what. The left gauge shows where the power is coming from currently: In ECO, just a little tapping of the batteries (below the CHG line it would be utilizing regenerative braking to feed the batteries). If I really pushed the engine, that would swing up into PWR which is code for “now you’ve done it! you’re using the darn gas engine!”.
The real fun is the hybrid display showing that in the 11 minutes I’ve been driving, I have utilized 100% EV power, so have not needed to burn a single drop of gasoline. Nice! The lower right display shows battery status and you can see that I still have about 90% battery capacity. That overnight plugged-in 110V charging is definitely the winner here!
I also really liked the climate controls with the big knobs, along with the straightforward seat heater/cooler controls. Here’s what’s weird, though: See that unused spot on the right? You would think that’s not a bad place to put the steering wheel heater control so it’s all logically clustered. Or, better, move the traction control button to the right and have the steering wheel heater control on the left (closer to the steering wheel). But.. nope. Just like the Tundra I reviewed earlier, the RAV4 has the steering wheel heater control tucked away on a strip of buttons by the driver’s left knee:
Owners get used to the layout pretty quickly, but as someone who drives dozens of cars each year, it’s really interesting to see where design works, and where it shows its rough edges. In other words, Toyota fans, don’t flame me in the comments! 🙂
The center console design was better:
Note the TRAIL mode. I would guess that just as most SUV owners don’t off-road, the vast majority of RAV4 owners never push this button either. Trail mode, if you’re curious, helps with traction control, particularly if your wheels are on differing surfaces (mud or gravel vs asphalt, for example). You can switch EV modes but AUTO is probably the best choice. Note that there are three driving modes too: Eco, Normal, and Sport. I didn’t find that there was too much difference between them other than from a stop, where Sport allowed you to exploit your engine power a bit more to bump up to speed. And, yes, I really liked the feel of the shifter. Buttons, levers, stems, I really prefer a car with a simple gearshift like this. Maybe it’s a bit retro, but it sure feels good when driving.
Stepping out of the car, the rear legroom is okay, but it’s a compact SUV so if you have a tall driver or front passenger, the back seat passengers definitely take the brunt of the “compact” designation, kinda like those annoying plane flights where the person in front has their seat tilted all the way back:
As with my Mazda, I found that I tended to move my seat up a few inches when I had a passenger sitting behind me for their comfort. Short drivers will find that their passengers have plenty of legroom, needless to say!
The rear seats fold down in a typical 60/40 configuration, offering a decent amount of cargo and storage space:
You won’t be tossing a few bicycles in, but groceries, a step ladder, and a bookcase from IKEA will all fit in pretty neatly, as would lacrosse gear or camping equipment.
As I’ve already mentioned, the drive experience was really good, the RAV4 Prime is a fun drive, with decent performance along the entire speed range and nice pickup from a stop. It’s a bit hard to gauge fuel efficiency because so many people drive 15-20 miles/day, which would mean that they could theoretically stick with the EV feature set and never tap the gas engine. I know that I drove all over the place, including one notable day of driving from Boulder to Fort Collins to south Denver and home. All in all, about 160 miles, with an overnight recharge between legs. That plus all of my regular daily driving used a fair amount of electricity, but the gas tank was still at 3/4 full after at least 250 miles, all told. This suggests that with my daily jaunts and occasional longer in-state drives, I’d have to fill up the tank about monthly!
But am I going to upgrade from my Mazda CX-5 to the Toyota RAV4 Prime? While there are a lot of similarities, not the least of which is that they’re just about exactly the same size and interior dimensions, there are still a number of design elements in the Mazda and tech – even in my 2017 – that aren’t available on the Toyota. For example, auto-dimming brights, a feature I find very helpful when driving on back roads where there are no streetlights. The RAV4 is more expensive too, about 20% higher than the comparably configured CX5 (tho, again, there is no hybrid or PHEV option as of yet). The RAV4 is still a terrific little compact SUV with lots going for it, however. Love your own RAV4? Tell me why!
[Update: A friend who owns a RAV4 Prime tells me that the vehicle does include auto-dimming brights, a feature that can be enabled or disabled via the leftmost of the buttons located by the driver’s left knee]
2022 Toyota RAV4 Prime XSE AWD SUV with 2.5L 4-Cylinder PHEV engine system. BASE PRICE: $43,125.00. Options included: Premium Audio, Weather Package, Premium Package, Roof Rack, Cargo/Floor Mats, Door Sill Protector, Rear Bumper Applique (this isn’t free?), Mudguard and Wheel Lock. AS DRIVEN: $50,731.00.
Disclosure: Toyota loaned me the RAV4 Prime for a week in return for this candid review. Thanks, Toyota!