Crossover & Midsize

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime vs. RAV4: The Gas-Powered Model Is the Smarter Buy

There’s no denying that eco-friendly vehicles are the future. However, plug-in hybrids and EVs can be quite expensive when compared to their gas-powered counterparts. This assessment rings true for those debating between the 2021 Toyota RAV4 vs. RAV4 Prime.

The 2021 RAV4 Prime is one of Toyota’s newest plug-in hybrid vehicles. It’s undoubtedly innovative, well-equipped, and powerful. However, it’s tough to justify its exorbitant price tag, which begins at an MSRP of $39,275 (including fees). Meanwhile, the entry-level trim of the gas-powered 2021 RAV4 has a starting MSRP of just $27,225 (including fees). Plus, that leaves a whole lot of wiggle room for extra bells and whistles, should you be willing to shell out a few more dollars.

Are long-term fuel savings worth paying more upfront? That’s a decision shoppers will have to make as we take a deep dive into the differences between these compact SUVs.

PHEV vs. gas-powered performance

A blue 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime facing away while parked in the middle of a city.
The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime on display | Photo via Toyota

Plug-in hybrids incentivize drivers with ultimate versatility. You can drive within its all-electric range without spending a dime at the fuel pumps, or you can roam as far as your gas tank will take you with its traditional engine.

The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime provides stellar performance with both its powerplants. Underneath the hood lies a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motors that combine to produce 302 net hp. Plus, it utilizes an electronic on-demand all-wheel-drive system. According to Toyota, this plug-in hybrid can drive up to 42 miles on a full battery and gets 94 MPGe city/highway combined.

Meanwhile, the gas-powered 2021 RAV4 features a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that kicks out 203 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. This powerplant works in tandem with an eight-speed automatic transmission and a front-wheel-drive system. However, AWD and dynamic torque-vectoring AWD are available for those who want extra traction. FWD models are the most efficient of the bunch, getting a respectable EPA-estimated 30 MPG city/highway combined.

Many may assume the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime delivers more exciting performance based on its increased horsepower. However, that doesn’t tell the full story. MotorTrend tested the 2021 RAV4 Prime vs. the 2019 RAV4, and it found the gas-powered model to be more lively. 

The publication stated, “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.”

The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime’s extras aren’t jaw-dropping

These models provide some different comfort and technology offerings, despite sharing the same nameplate. The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime’s benefits include more than more eco-friendly performance. It also offers technologies that are unavailable on the traditional RAV4. 

The top-of-the-line RAV4 Prime XSE comes standard with a nine-inch touchscreen display, while the gas-powered RAV4’s touchscreen tops out at eight inches. Plus, the RAV4 Prime has an optional 10-inch head-up display, which is unavailable on the regular RAV4.

These tech enhancements are a pleasant touch. However, considering the cost of the vehicle, buyers may expect more in terms of exclusive upgrades. After all, the range-topping RAV4 Limited trim is still cheaper than the base model of the RAV4 Prime.

Both models come with Toyota’s suite of driver-assistance technologies along with other typical amenities. Buyers can equip available synthetic leather upholstery, heated seats (standard on the Prime), 19-inch wheels, and more. Plus, both SUVs are equipped with Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and Amazon Alexa compatibility.

The final verdict

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It’s challenging to make a case to upgrade to the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime, given that the regular RAV4 is already pretty fuel-efficient and value-packed. Potential buyers who rarely drive long distances may be able to make the most of the plug-in hybrid’s fuel savings, but it could take quite a while to break even.

Eco-conscious shoppers will do well to consider the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime when comparing it to other plug-in hybrids. However, the gas-powered 2021 RAV4 is likely the better choice for those only looking for the best value.