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car review

The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime.Photography by Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

At the time of writing, Canada’s best-selling passenger car is no longer a car. Discounting the fleet-sales advantage of pickup trucks, sales chart champions used to be compact sedans. Now, the Toyota RAV4 leads the pack.

This one, the plug-in hybrid Prime XSE, is the most expensive RAV4 you can buy, which makes sense because it is good at nearly everything. And I do mean everything: it’s a roomy, family-friendly crossover that consumes little fuel day to day, could be driven across Canada at the drop of a hat and has about as much power for passing and on ramps as a high performance machine like a Honda Civic Type R.

Sports cars and burly off-roaders tend to grab the headlines, but mass-market vehicles are the real technological masterpieces. This hybrid RAV4 is no more difficult to live with than a conventional car. However, if you hook it up to a plug overnight – and you don’t even need to install an upgraded charger – it is perfectly happy to run errands on electrons only.

The 18.1-kilowatt-hour battery can be fully charged in 12 hours on a Level One charger, or just an hour and a half on a Level Two.

For a Monday-to-Friday schedule of ferrying kids to summer camps and going grocery shopping and the like, the RAV4 Prime burned no gasoline. None. Running the air conditioning full blast sapped the pure-electric range below the best-case-scenario claimed 68 kilometres, but 50 kilometres of driving around covers a lot of ground for most drivers.

According to Statistics Canada, the median distance travelled by Canadian commuters is just 8.7 kilometres one way. Other more recent studies done in the Metro Vancouver area, which has many commuters coming in from the Fraser Valley, shows a median distance travelled of 23 kilometres. If these commuters were charging a RAV3 Prime at home during the week, they’d rarely need to burn fuel.

Of course, they could also be doing the same with a full EV like a Nissan Leaf or similar. The difference with a plug-in hybrid is that, once the battery is depleted, it just becomes a thrifty hybrid. The late comedian Mitch Hedburg observed that escalators don’t break, they just become stairs. The RAV4 Prime offers medium-range EV ownership benefits without any real drawbacks, apart from the initial price.

The Prime is really quick; it’s faster than the four-cylinder Supra sitting next to it in the Toyota showroom. The 18.1-kilowatt-hour battery can be fully charged in 12 hours on a Level One charger, or just an hour and a half on a Level Two. In practice, with EV charging infrastructure being built into many new commercial developments, you can top off your battery from time to time while picking up groceries, or at the mall.

What’s even better is the vehicle that is supported by this flexible and convenient powertrain. The larger battery doesn’t intrude into the cargo area, so there’s plenty of space for hauling items on a camping trip. The rear seats are comfortable and spacious for a growing family. The front has plenty of cubbies for storage, and simple controls.

The RAV4′s angular lines give it a bit of personality, something that’s daring in a mass-market product.

What the RAV4 Prime does best is what Toyota has consistently done with its hybrid products. Owners don’t need to understand the complexity of the powertrain, nor change their habits much. The Prime is no more complex to own than any of the other nearly 60,000 RAV4s sold in this country last year. It just comes with the option of plugging it in to save on fuel costs and reduce emissions.

There are really only two drawbacks. Toyota is simply not making enough RAV4 Primes to keep up with customer demand, and the wait list is growing. Further, while other RAV4 models are built in Canada, the Prime is shipped over from Japan. It would be nice to have a made in Canada option.

Pure battery-electric vehicle ownership continues to climb, but it is still just a tiny fraction of the market. Plug-in hybrids like the RAV4 Prime work right now, providing driving enjoyment without compromise. Canadians have pivoted away from compact sedans, preferring to spend our money on crossovers that offer more capability. The RAV4 Prime is simply taking that capability one step further toward near-zero emissions.

Tech specs

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

Base price/as tested: $44,990/$51,590

Engine: 2.5-litre, four-cylinder plug-in hybrid

Transmission/drive: continuously variable transmission

Fuel economy (litres/100 kilometres): 2.8, with 68 kilometres purely electric

Alternatives: Kia Niro PHEV; Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV

Looks

Toyota’s designers should get a great deal of credit here for turning a ho-hum consumer good into quite a handsome car. The RAV4′s angular lines give it a bit of personality, something that’s daring in a mass-market product. The Prime XSE adds some distinctive touches like a blacked-out roof and 19-inch wheels.

Interior

The car's interior doesn’t demand too much of its passengers.

With a comfortable and sensible layout, the RAV4′s interior doesn’t demand too much of its passengers. The impressive part is the sheer range of features on offer. XSE models have heated and cooled seats, a heated steering wheel, a powerful stereo and a large panoramic sunroof.

Performance

Toyota notes that the Prime version of the RAV4 gets a sportier tune to the front suspension, but it’s not particularly noticeable. The steering is direct, and body motions are reasonably controlled. The combined 302 horsepower on offer doesn’t make it a sporting machine; it’s still softly sprung. Further, the complexity of the powertrain means that the RAV4 doesn’t really carve up the corners. It merely has plenty of electric torque to get you up to speed on an on ramp, or to make the pass around a semi-trailer with alacrity.

Technology

With a nine-inch touch screen and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, the RAV4 Prime has all the technology modern consumers are looking for. There are, however, better offerings from other manufacturers, notably Hyundai and some of Honda’s newer systems. It’s not really a flaw, being acceptable but not outstanding.

Cargo

The RAV4 Prime has a full 949 litres of cargo space.

As mentioned, the Prime’s larger battery doesn’t eat up cargo space, as is so often the case with plug-in hybrids. Here, you get a full 949 litres of space.

The verdict

All the practicality and comfort of Canada’s best-selling passenger vehicle, juiced up with a dose of extra horsepower and the ability to handle most commutes in fully electric mode.

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