When it comes to electrification, there are three major ways automakers are making the switch. Some are offering a traditional hybrid setup. Others are offering full battery-electric EV offerings. Lastly, some are offering a combination of the two, called plug-in hybrids.
Leaving the 48-volt mild hybrids out of the discussion, these three major types make up the vast majority of electric options, with the traditional hybrid being dumped for full EV offerings.
Plug-in hybrids, or PHEVs, are an interesting splitting of the difference between the two. It’s a car that you plug in and charge like a traditional electric vehicle, but it also has a gasoline motor and extended range, so you aren’t stranded.
Some plug-in hybrid electric vehicles out there are like the new Jeep Wrangler 4xe or the long-standing Kia Niro PHEV.
If you visited your local Toyota dealership, you’ll have an option for two different PHEVs; the Toyota Prius Prime and the Toyota RAV4 Prime.
The RAV4 Prime is interesting because it’s based on the extremely popular RAV4 crossover — one of the bestselling vehicles in the country behind pickup trucks — and offers an impressive EPA-rated 42 miles of pure electric range.
With that type of range, you could plug in overnight and leave in the morning, do a full day of errands or drive back and forth to work, and arrive home at the end of the day without having used a single drop of fuel.
But, when you need to go farther than 42 miles, you don’t have to worry about stopping and plugging in. No, all you have to do is continue to drive because after you run out of pure electric range, the RAV4 Prime behaves like a normal gasoline hybrid, delivering 500 miles of range before needing to put more fuel in it.
And if you can’t plug in, you can continue to just run the RAV4 Prime off of gasoline like a traditional hybrid. The fuel economy will suffer a bit if you never plug the car into a wall socket, but in some combined driving that we’ve done here at EV Pulse, it’s easy to get over 40 mpg in the RAV4 Prime. In fact, it’s not too difficult to get to nearly 50 mpg.
Let’s talk a bit about that EPA-estimated range number of 42 miles. That assumes a mixed driving style under a certain, repeatable, test scenario. But could you go farther than that?
We ask because the true advantage of a PHEV is to have the electric-only mode for driving around town, and the hybrid gasoline mode for out of town and at higher speeds. So if you’re just driving around town, how far can you actually go on electricity only?
I live in a relatively small down that is a couple of miles wide, but it’s easy to pick out drive routes that mimic larger urban environments. If I want to sit for a bit in stop and go traffic, I can. If I want to meander through fancy suburb, I can. There’s even some industrial areas where the speed limits hit 45 mph.
Unfortunately the weather where I live is a bit unpredictable. Like the classic Katy Perry song, it’s either hot or it’s cold. It’s either yes, or it’s no. It never really wants to participate.
So with an ambient air temperature of 87° F and a light wind, I set off. Because I didn’t want to die in a hit car, I did set the automatic climate control to 72° F. At no point did I exceed 45 miles per hour, but I also didn’t hypermile. I wanted this to be as realistic test as possible.
The indicated range when I set off was 43 miles — one higher than the EPA estimated range. I connected my phone to Apple Car Play and started a podcast.
Driving around in stop-and-go city driving is boring. Excessively boring. The desire to hit the highway and drain the battery was strong, but then that wouldn’t be too scientific. You get to see a lot of your small town when you spend several hours driving more than 40 miles through it.
Finally, when I hit the 43 mile mark — the range indicated when I had left — the computer said I still had 12 miles of range left. At 4.4 miles per kWh of electricity used, I was as efficient as some of the most efficient dedicated EVs that there are out there.
I was satisfied with just doing some math and saying that if I add 43 plus 12, that’s how far I’ll get. I bet I could do a bit better than that.
So I carried on, and ultimately the gasoline engine on the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime fired to life after it declared I couldn’t have any more electricity from the battery pack.
It was a long Saturday afternoon, constantly switching my right foot from the accelerator to the brake. Sometimes you left foot brake to give your right foot a rest. Sometimes you switch on the stop-and-go adaptive cruise control so that it does the footwork for you. It’s not something that I’d encourage anyone to go do for fun.
But if you do a lot of city driving, but want the space of an SUV and the freedom to go out of town without getting stranded, the RAV4 Prime might just be the right car for you. Especially when you consider the results.
When the electric motor powered on, I had driven 57.8 miles.
That’s 15.8 more miles than the EPA said I should’ve made it, and 14.8 more miles than the computer said I’d go. If the weather would have been a bit cooler, so I wouldn’t have had to run the climate control and the car wouldn’t have had to actively cool the battery pack, I bet I could’ve gone farther.
A normal operator could likely buy a RAV4 Prime, and only have to plug it in once every few days while never running on a drop of gasoline.
The RAV4 Prime is definitely one way you can start to live the EV lifestyle while never having to deal with any type of range anxiety. Plus, you’ll likely get more range out of the battery than you ever thought you’d be able to get.