If you tried to distill down what the average new car buyer wants these days into a single vehicle, you might well end up with something very much like the Toyota RAV4. In fact, the RAV4 happened to be the best-selling vehicle that wasn’t a pickup truck in America last year; Toyota moved more than 448,000 of them off dealer lots from January 1st to December 31st.
That tremendous appeal is in part, of course, buoyed by the insatiable consumer appetite for crossovers these days, but it’s also largely due to the fact that 2019 was the first full year of availability for the fifth-generation model, which brought far more attractive looks and better driving dynamics to the table than its predecessor. Toyota, however, wasn’t about to let the RAV4 rest on its laurels, so for 2020, the carmaker rolled out not one but two variants designed to make it appeal to a broader audience — albeit in very different directions: one made to appeal to off-roaders, another designed for eco-warriors.
The former, as you might have guessed already, is the RAV4 TRD Off-Road, which builds upon the Adventure trim level’s torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive, 8.6 inches of ground clearance and terrain-selectable drive modes by adding all-terrain tires and an off-road-tuned suspension. The latter goes by RAV4 Prime, and it pairs its gasoline engine with two electric motors and a battery pack that, after being charged from an external power source, can propel this cute ute more than 40 miles on electrons alone.
That last fact is key here, because it means the RAV4 Prime is eligible for the full $7,500 federal tax credit awarded to EVs and most PHEVs. That brings the $41,425 price of the higher-trim XSE Prime down to $33,925 - a touch less than the $35,780 price of the RAV4 TRD Off-Road. The design and interior of both vehicles is pretty much identical, apart from a few trim variations, so this comparison will focus on the areas where there’s a greater contrast: value, and performance.
On the street, there’s no contest: the Prime eats the TRD Off-Road for lunch. The TRD’s 2.5-liter inline-four makes 205 horses and 184 lb-ft of torque, which is fine for off-roading and plenty adequate for daily driving. The Prime, however, combines its 2.5-liter I-4 with a duo of electric motors to whip up a combined 302 hp, enough to spring it from 0 to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds in Car and Driver testing. (It even proved quicker than the four-cylinder Supra in the 5-60 mph test, which is generally more equivalent to real-world conditions.)
Plus, the Prime’s electric motors help mask the inline-four’s somewhat uncouth power delivery. The RAV4’s engine never sounds happy when being revved high (something you’ll do every time you try and merge onto a highway in the TRD); the Prime’s inline-four sounds just as raspy and harsh as the Off-Road’s, but since the electric motors are also doing plenty of work, you’ll hear it less often.
Go past the pavement — or even onto some rough roads — however, and the Off-Road’s benefits shine through. The suspension soaks up bumps very well, something that’s appreciated just as much on the post-apocalyptic streets of Brooklyn as on the roads and trails of rural America. Plus, there’s the tires; much like with sports cars and high-performance rubber, a set of tires specifically made for off-roading is one of the most substantive upgrades you can make to an SUV or truck to boost its chops, and the Falken Wildpeak A/T Trail all-terrain tires Toyota outfits the TRD Off-Road with are a damn fine example of the breed. (As a bonus, they’re good enough in the white stuff to score the tire industry's “severe snow service” certification, meaning you might not have to invest in a set of snow tires the way you would with the Prime.)
And while the Prime’s electric motor-powered AWD system (the gas engine isn’t connected to the rear axle at all; it’s only AWD thanks to that motor at the rear axle) is capable of serving up grip to all four wheels, it can’t match the computerized wizardry of the Off-Road’s drive modes, which serve up setting specifically tailored for sand and mud, rock-strewn trails and wintery snow.
The RAV4 Prime’s reduced price, of course, doesn’t show up when you drive it off the lot; you’ll still have to fork over more than $40K at the time of purchase. But if you don’t mind waiting until next year’s tax refund to knock down the cost, it’s hard to argue with the Prime’s value proposition. In many areas, owners can snag additional savings due to state tax breaks (in New Jersey, for example, you can knock an extra $1,050 off the effective price), as well as score perks like the ability to travel solo in HOV lanes.
On top of that, there’s the fiscal advantage of, well, using less fuel. While gasoline prices may be fairly cheap these days, electricity is even cheaper — and with 42 miles of EV range, the Prime has what it takes to knock out many Americans’ average commute without using a drop of gas, so long as you plug it in every night. And should the battery pack run out, it defaults to hybrid mode, in which case it gets 40 mpg in the city and 36 on the highway — a substantial improvement over the TRD’s 25 city / 32 highway.
Of course, if you want to save even more money and can live without such fancy features as faux leather, a moonroof and a wireless phone charger, you can opt for the SE Prime. It packs the same powertrain, still comes well-equipped with heated seats, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and a bounty of active safety features, and rings up at $30,600 after the tax credit, making it only a little more expensive than the mid-grade XLE version of the non-hybrid RAV4.
The TRD Off-Road, on the flip side, does pack a fairly impressive amount of capability into a package that still manages to come in below the average new car price. But anyone interested in the Off-Road has a few other options to consider: the Ford Bronco Sport and Jeep Cherokee, among others, both offer off-road-optimized trims that can likely keep up with it past the pavement for similar money, and anyone searching for a truly burly off-roader might be better suited leveling up to a Wrangler or 4Runner for not much more money.
The RAV4 Prime, on the flip side, has few direct competitors. Most PHEV SUVs currently exist in premium segments; the only real foes the Toyota has to worry about are the aging Mitsubishi Outlander, the front-wheel-drive Kia Niro that’s really more of a station wagon than an SUV, and the new Ford Escape. Objectively, none of them can match the RAV4’s EPA EV range; subjectively, none of them look quite as appealing as the RAV4's brute, aggressive styling.
The TRD Off-Road certainly impresses; the idea that Toyota has taken the archetypal soft-roader and turned it into a capable off-pavement vehicle is surprising in principle, but splendid in practice. Still, the Prime’s combination of better on-road performance and fuel economy — along with an effectively lower price — make it the better choice of the two by far for the vast majority of us.