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(Pocket-lint) - When we drove the Rav4 back in early 2020 in its self-charging hybrid (HEV) format, we found its maximum electric-boosted range of a mile or two to be rather limiting. But its plug-in electric cousin, the 2021 Rav4 PHEV, is now here - boasting far more range (up to 46 miles per charge) and a lot more pep in its hybrid drive mode.

The original Rav4 was released to market over 25 years ago and defined the crossover SUV. But times have changed aplenty in the two-and-a-half decades since, and it's taken some time for the Rav4 - which is now in its fifth-generation facelift guise - to really feel like it fits into the modern world. In this plug-in format, however, it feels right at home.

Design & Interior

As we said of the HEV model: there's no escaping the Rav4's bold styling. Its front section looks like it belongs to a truck that you'd find hurtling down American highways, its LED lights cutting through to give it some personality. So we're somewhat sitting on the fence here: some will love its looks, others not so much.

In terms of proportion, this is a big vehicle, slightly larger than the outgoing fourth-gen model, which makes it an ideal option for families. The rear seats in the Rav4 offer stacks of room - easily enough for three adults - without cutting into the boot space (which still has 520-litres - which is 60-litres down on the HEV model on account of the PHEV's battery).

The PHEV brings extra licks of distinction over other Rav4 models too: there's a dark mesh grille and frame, the bumper has metallic moulding front and rear, while the alloys are bespoke 19-inchers for this model.

Inside that "PHEV special" continues, with new upholstery for what Toyota calls a more sporty look thanks to the red stitch in the leather that you won't find in other Rav4 models. We really like the stitching, especially on the seats, and that there's not been the temptation to try and go out-and-out "green" in styling as if this car will save both the planet and your soul.

Sat in the driver's seat it's a comfortable place to see, this Dynamic model adding extras such as heated front seats, which were much needed in the cold, wet January conditions on UK roads.

Tech

However, the arrangement of the tech setup is feeling a little tired now - those heated seat switches, for example, look plasticky and budget. The whole setup just has a feeling of last-generation about it, especially for a car that's knocking on the door of £50k.

When you buy a new car, you expect the latest and greatest tech to come in tow really. Toyota is listening though: while the earlier HEV lacked Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, this PHEV model has both options aboard.

It took a little while for our Android Auto to kick in for some reason - odd, as we were using a Samsung Galaxy Note 20 this time around, not a Chinese brand phone (such as ZTE, which has caused us issues in the past) - but when it did it worked swimmingly. Perhaps a little too well, actually, as Android took precedence with navigation, meaning our Toyota-programmed route got relegated. Not that, with Android Auto, you'll ever use Toyota's visually inferior system to be honest.

To view everything that's going on there's an 8-inch infotainment touch-control display front and centre, which is raised high to enable quick glances in eyeshot. We would prefer it to be more discreetly integrated, really, further down the dash section - as is much more current.

Pocket-lintToyota Rav4 plug-in hybrid review photo 24

Other tech treats include a bunch of safety and assists. There's a rear parking camera, which is especially useful in an SUV as grand scale as this, along with lane departure warning and steering assist. A bunch of buttons and controls are quickly accessible from the steering wheel, so you won't be lost when it comes to toggling something on and off (an error that other overly tech heavy brands have made with their EVs - such as the VW ID3).

Drive & Range

Up until now a large portion of what we've said about this plug-in Rav4 was also true of the mild hybrid version. Sure, there's some tweaks to design and the foresight to add Android/Apple in-car tech. But it's not dramatically different.

Pocket-lintToyota Rav4 plug-in hybrid review photo 30

Except it really is once you get driving: this is a whole other experience on the road compared to any other Rav4. Indeed, that combination of electric motor and combustion engine (the same 2.5l as in the rest of the range) is at times ferocious - and in a very good way indeed - as there's 302bhp total available in the PHEV (compared to 219bhp of the HEV version).

In electric-only mode you can shoot away from traffic lights at pace and keep on going - to 60mph in 6-seconds - and continuing up to 84mph with no interruption from the combustion engine. Not that we're suggesting flying from traffic lights to illegal speeds, but the fact you can retain EV only means, theoretically, the Rav4 plug-in will cater for many short journeys without ever needing to burn fuel.

With up to 46 miles of range, it can head a fair distance on charge alone too. Plenty of other similar vehicles top out at 27 miles, so that's impressive innings from Toyota. Especially for something that's comparably speedy compared to the competition - a Volvo XC60 Recharge is a little nippier, but a little pricier too, yet doesn't offer nearly as far an EV range.

Pocket-lintToyota Rav4 plug-in hybrid review photo 14

There's a decent refinement from the Rav4's electric motor too: it's smooth and quiet, making for a comfortable high-ride cruise. Indeed, so much so that once the electric charge depletes and you're on combustion only you'll really feel it: it's a low more growly, revs much harder (obviously) and feels like a bit of a different car.

That's because, like Toyota's other hybrids, the Rav4 uses a CVT transmission - which really isn't quite as engaging as some other cars out there. No problem for long motorway jaunts, but goes to show how a bit of modern modification - i.e. the electric motor and plug-in charge capacity - can pay dividends for such a car. 

There are four drive modes to consider too: EV Mode, as described, to 84mph max for up to 46-miles; Auto EV/HV Mode, where both combustion engine and electric motor are used under high demand, returning to EV only when slowing and conditions permit; HV Mode, which auto selects optimum mode depending on driving style and battery charge for maximum efficiency; and Charging Mode, which restores battery charge level when running long distances in anticipation of returning to EV urban driving (it's basically a boost charge from regen/combustion engine).

Pocket-lintToyota Rav4 plug-in hybrid review photo 40

We managed 32 miles on EV mode only - and that was when really hammering it to try and see just how quickly it could be depleted in normal conditions driving. That's still better than much of what you'll find out there, and we don't doubt that more economically aware driving will push that to the 40 miles mark. So good job on that, Toyota.

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Verdict

The Toyota Rav4 plug-in is something of a revelation: in this PHEV format the car is completely transformed, delivering decent electric-only range and a refined ride.

Adding the battery has barely been a counter to space either - the boot loses 60 litres, but all five seats have exactly the same space and layout as before - but it has increased the asking price by a considerable degree. As such, the Rav4 plug-in is knocking on the door on the Volvo XC60 Recharge's £51k asking price, which is a risky spot in which to sit. 

That said, the Rav4 PHEV has better electric-only range than almost any other PHEV on the market, so if you're realistically going to be driving 40 miles on the school/shopping run or nearby commute every day then, well, you'll rarely to never be burning any actual fuel.

Sure, there's scope for the on board tech to modernise - at least there is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto this time around though - but in terms of space, comfort, and a driving refinement that's leaps ahead of its Rav4 cousins, this plug-in houses heaps of appeal. It's a strong footing for a future electric-only Toyota SUV crossover, no doubt about that.

Writing by Mike Lowe. Originally published on 22 January 2021.