2021 Toyota RAV4 GXL Hybrid review

  • Doors and Seats
  • Engine
  • Engine Power
  • Fuel
  • Manufacturer
  • Transmission
  • Warranty
  • Ancap Safety

Australia’s best-selling medium SUV continues to set the benchmark, writes Rob Margeit.

  • Smooth and efficient petrol-electric engine combination
  • Spacious interior
  • Frugal fuel consumption

  • Transmission can get a little loud under heavy load
  • Infotainment graphics a generation old
  • Space-saver spare wheel and tyre

It seems astonishing that in a segment with 20 different models comprising 127 variants, the Toyota RAV4 enjoys a seemingly unthinkable almost 25 per cent (24.4) market share.

The medium-SUV segment is arguably Australia’s ‘hottest’ new car battlefield, the mid-size soft-roaders competing for the hard-earned of middle Australians everywhere.

Proving just how fertile that plain is, the under-$60,000 bracket sees 19 manufacturers with 20 models and 127 variants, of which 56 are front-wheel drive.

Even more remarkable is that Toyota is the only brand in the segment with a closed hybrid in its line-up, with only Ford, MG and Mitsubishi bolstering the frugal fuel ranks with plug-in hybrid variants.

The first rule of sales is to listen to what the people want, and in the medium-SUV segment, if RAV4 sales are an indicator, that means hybrid powertrains. For the record, Toyota had sold around 22,000 RAV4s this year to the end of July. An astonishing 73 per cent, or around 16,000, of those featured a hybrid powertrain. Impressive. Free kick to Toyota, then, own goal to the rest.

But it’s not just because the RAV4 is the only hybrid option in a crowded market that it enjoys such a huge advantage over its rivals. The fact is, the RAV4, by any measure, is a bloody good SUV. It’s no surprise that its blend of practicality and comfort, frugal drivetrain and value-packed equation cemented its status as Drive’s Car of the Year in 2020.

Around 18 months on, and with challenges afresh from within the segment, we see if the RAV4 still stacks up in an ever more crowded marketplace.

The RAV4 we have on test here is the mid-spec hybrid, all-wheel-drive GXL model. The 2021 Toyota RAV4 GXL Hybrid is priced at $42,915 plus on-roads, or around $47,000 drive-away.

Opting for front-wheel drive only shaves $3000 off the list price ($39,915 plus on-roads), while eschewing the hybrid powertrain puts another $2500 in your pocket. It’s listed at $37,415 (plus ORC), leaving you plenty of cash to splash on the extra fuel you’ll use by not going hybrid.

While the hybrid RAV4 may be an island in a sea of medium SUVs from rivals without hybrid powertrains in their arsenals, the battle remains fiercely competitive.

The RAV4 might be the bestseller in the segment, but Mazda’s popular CX-5 isn’t far behind. The Korean twins Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage are also popular in the segment, as are stalwarts from Japan, the Nissan X-Trail and Mitsubishi Outlander. And the surge from Chinese carmakers is gathering momentum, with the MG HS proving popular, while the Haval H6 is also making an impact in the segment.

Get a great deal today

Interested in this car? Provide your details and we’ll connect you to a member of the Drive team.

The mid-spec GXL packs plenty of punch for the money with a healthy equipment list devoid of any options, bar shades of paint. Our tester wore a $575 optional shade of Eclectic Blue, one of seven colours in Toyota’s optional palette. If you don’t want to pay extra for paint, you’ll be driving a white RAV4.

Key details 2021 Toyota RAV4 GXL Hybrid
Price (MSRP) $42,915 plus on-road costs
Colour of test car Eclectic Blue
Options Premium paint ($675)
Price as tested $43,590 plus on-road costs
Rivals Mazda CX-5 | Hyundai Tucson | Haval H6

There’s a solidity to the RAV4’s interior that feels like money well spent. There are enough design flourishes to please the eye, like the brushed-aluminium trim elements on the dash, around the gear selector and the door trims. They break up a sea of black plastics, a mix of mainly hard with a smattering of softer surfaces.

The seats are trimmed in what Toyota calls “Premium Embossed Fabric”, a durable-looking fabric with some nicely embossed touches. They are comfortable and supportive, and manually adjustable.

The steering wheel is wrapped in leather and again dubbed “Premium” by Toyota, as is the gear lever. They feel nice in hand, chunky and solid. Reassuring.

Chunky is the word to describe the RAV4’s climate controls, too, which fall easy to hand and are trimmed in a rubberised material that feels, there’s that word again, reassuring. Kudos to Toyota for sticking with manual dials, railing against a tide that sees an increasing number of manufacturers burying climate controls deep inside a screen.

There’s a decent amount of storage up front, too, with generous door pockets and a big cubby under the central armrest. Two cupholders trimmed in non-slip rubber keep your takeaways nice and secure, while secret sliding drawers under each of the front seats add a level of security for your valuables should you decide to leave them in the car.

The second row is accommodating and spacious, with plenty of room in all key areas. Make no mistake, the RAV4 is a ‘big’ medium SUV, and it shows in the second row, especially where three adults can comfortably sit three abreast.

They’ll benefit from the separate air vents back there, too, while a couple of USB points will keep second-row passengers on their devices all day long.

One of the RAV4’s key highlights is undoubtedly boot space, which measures in at 542L with the boot floor in its uppermost position. It can be lowered to expand that to 580L, although curiously Toyota doesn’t quote a cargo capacity with the second row folded away in 60:40 split-fold fashion. For context, the RAV4’s closest rival, Mazda’s MX-5, quotes a minimum cargo capacity of 442L, some 100L less than the Toyota, expanding to 1342L.

A space-saver spare wheel lives under the RAV4’s boot floor, which is increasingly the norm for most manufacturers, but not one we love.

2021 Toyota RAV4 GXL Hybrid
Seats Five
Boot volume 580L seats up
Length 4600mm
Width 1855mm
Height 1685mm
Wheelbase 2690mm

Infotainment and Connectivity

While Toyota’s native operating system isn’t the most glamorous to look at, it is at once functional and intuitive. An 8.0-inch colour touchscreen anchors the RAV4’s infotainment and it wants for little. Standard are satellite navigation with SUNA live traffic updates, Bluetooth connectivity, smartphone mirroring via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, as well as AM/FM radio and DAB+ digital radio.

The graphics appear a generation old, as does the mapping of the sat-nav. But thanks to a range of shortcut buttons and a simple interface, the system is easy to navigate and use. Smartphone mirroring works easily, and is quick to connect via a USB cable.

Wireless charging keeps devices topped up. Although, if you’re plugged into one of the two USB points up front, you won’t need the charging pad.

Like the rest of the graphics on the screen, the rear-view camera can be a bit grainy, but it works well enough in most circumstances.

A regular six-speaker sound system offers decent, if not high-end audio clarity. Models higher up in the range come equipped with a nine-speaker premium JBL sound system.

A smallish 4.2-inch digital info display is flanked by a traditional analogue speedo and a power gauge, akin to a tachometer, that displays how the RAV4 is spending its energy – from recharging the battery to Eco and then Power.

The display panel toggles through various screens, including at its most basic a digital speedo, and at its most elaborate the state of the RAV4’s battery and powertrain routing. There’s also a variety of trip data available including fuel consumption.

The RAV4 was awarded a five-star ANCAP safety rating when this model launched in 2019. It achieved excellent scores in all four key areas as assessed by the safety body with scores of 93 per cent for adult occupant protection, 89 per cent for child occupant protection, 85 per cent for vulnerable road user protection, and 83 per cent for its included safety-assist technologies.

The RAV4 carries Toyota’s Safety Sense suite of technologies that bundles in lane-departure alert along with lane-keeping assist in this model (not included in RAV4s with manual gearboxes), autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and daytime cyclist detection, road sign recognition, automatic high-beam headlights, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and adaptive cruise control.

ANCAP highlighted the RAV4’s autonomous emergency braking system’s “good performance in highway-speed scenarios with collisions avoided or mitigated in most tests”.

A complement of nine airbags covers both rows, although it should be noted the second-row seats score side head protection, but miss out on side chest protection ’bags.

2021 Toyota RAV4 GXL Hybrid
ANCAP rating Five stars (tested 2019)
Safety report Link to ANCAP

One of the key reasons Toyota sells so many cars, not just in Australia but worldwide, has always been its value equation. Affordable pricing married to low ongoing maintenance costs are a drawcard.

For its part, the RAV4 Hybrid range enjoys Toyota’s capped-price servicing costs for the first five years/75,000km of ownership, a measly $215 every 12 months or 15,000km, whichever comes first. And Toyota covers the RAV4 with its standard five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty – par for the course, even if lagging behind Kia’s seven-year surety and Mitsubishi’s conditional 10-year warranty.

But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more frugal medium SUV when it comes to fuel consumption. For its part, Toyota claims the RAV4 Hybrid in AWD trim like the GXL on test here will use just 4.8L/100km of regular 91RON unleaded petrol. Our week with the RAV4 saw an indicated 5.9L/100km over a variety of conditions, including longer highway runs, not a hybrid’s happiest hunting ground.

While not meeting Toyota’s claim overall, we did achieve consumption in the low 5s during particularly heavy traffic situations, where hybrid technology really begins to shine. The stop-start, low-speed nature of traffic and a light right foot on the throttle are conducive to electric-only motoring.

At a glance 2021 Toyota RAV4 GXL Hybrid
Warranty Five years / unlimited km
Service intervals 12 months / 15,000km
Servicing costs $645 (3yrs) | $1075 (5yrs)
Fuel cons. (claimed) 4.7L/100km
Fuel cons. (on test) 5.9L/100km
Fuel type 91-octane petrol
Fuel tank size 55L

Toyota has had nearly 25 years to perfect its petrol-hybrid powertrain, the first Prius rolling off the production line in 1997.

Today’s RAV4 – as well as every hybrid vehicle in Toyota’s contemporary range – is the beneficiary of that long history, at once frugal on fuel without compromising performance.

Power for the RAV4 comes from a petrol-hybrid 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine running on the fuel-efficient Atkinson cycle. It makes, on its own, 131kW at 5700rpm and 221Nm at 3600-5200rpm.

But performance and economy boosts come from electric motors at each axle. The front motor is good for 88kW and 202Nm, while the less powerful rear motor outputs 40kW and 121Nm. Toyota doesn’t claim total output numbers, other than a combined 163kW (or 160kW combined with FWD). That’s because not all three motors are working on full power all the time.

Instead, the RAV4 uses a combination of petrol only, petrol-electric, or pure-electric energy to provide its momentum. And it’s an excellent combination.

Around town, the RAV4 glides silently from standstill using only the electric motors. Depending on throttle application, the RAV4 can reach speeds of around 60km/h on electric power only before the petrol engine kicks in. That said, you have to be pretty light with the right foot to achieve this.

A more realistic scenario, mirroring everyday driving, sees the petrol engine kick in to help the electric motors at around 30km/h. Still, that’s plenty good enough for decent fuel savings.

The transition between the forms of power is seamless, too, and barely noticeable when it kicks in while on the move. Around town, the RAV4 feels light on its wheels despite its 1730g kerb weight. At slower speeds, such as urban traffic, the RAV4 is happy enough to roll along using just electrons. That changes once the speed picks up and the rate of acceleration demanded is increased, the 2.5-litre petrol kicking in to add some assistance and power.

Only on the highway does the petrol engine do the bulk of the heavy lifting, with highway speeds the natural enemy of hybrid powertrains. But, even then, it can work in combination with the electric motor at each axle to minimise fuel consumption, while foot-off-throttle coasting provides short bursts of electric-only motivation and also allows the battery to recharge.

Drive is sent to all four wheels, but the rears are electrically driven only, with no connection to the engine or transmission. Front wheels can be powered by engine, electric motor, or both, channelled via a CVT automatic. It’s an excellent application of the technology that hasn’t always been seen favourably. ‘Shifts’ are imperceptible, while the CVT does a decent job of ensuring the right amount of torque and power is sent to the wheels in any situation. Only harder acceleration, like merging on to a freeway and picking a gap in traffic, will elicit that tell-tale CVT drone. Instead, for the most part, the transmission works quietly and harmoniously with the rest of the powertrain.

That driving experience is only enhanced by how the RAV4 handles the detritus of our modern roads. The ride is, in a word, excellent. On average roads, the RAV4 remains unflustered by the pockmarked streets that make up our road network. Even bigger hits, such as speed bumps, are dispatched with ease, the RAV4 quickly settling back on its wheels with little in the way of wobbling.

Out on the highway, the cabin remains nicely insulated from road noise, while road joins can be heard but aren’t felt from the driver’s seat.

Key details 2021 Toyota RAV4 GXL Hybrid
Engine 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol
Power 131kW @ 5700rpm (maximum 163kW)
Torque 221Nm @ 3600-5200rpm
Drive type All-wheel drive
Transmission Continuously variable automatic
Power to weight ratio 97.6kW/t
Weight 1675kg (kerb)
Tow rating 480kg unbraked / 480kg braked
Turning circle 11.0m

It all adds up to an accomplished medium SUV that does everything in the playbook extremely well. From around-town driving to highway cruising and, as we’ve tested elsewhere, even light off-roading, the RAV4 Hybrid combines decent performance with excellent fuel consumption in a package that’s at once comfortable and practical. Add in a friendly cost-of-ownership experience, and you have an accomplished medium SUV, even more so in hybrid guise.

It’s little wonder the RAV4 Hybrid is such a runaway success in the segment, despite the plethora of choice buyers are faced with. In a segment counting 127 variants in its ranks, the fact that almost one-in-five medium SUVs sold is a RAV4 Hybrid speaks volumes to its appeal.

2021 Toyota RAV4 GXL Hybrid review-0

Ratings Breakdown

2021 Toyota RAV4 GXL Wagon

8.5/ 10

Interior Comfort & Packaging

Infotainment & Connectivity

Rob Margeit has been an automotive journalist for over 20 years, covering both motorsport and the car industry. Rob joined CarAdvice in 2016 after a long career at Australian Consolidated Press. Rob covers automotive news and car reviews while also writing in-depth feature articles on historically significant cars and auto manufacturers. He also loves discovering obscure models and researching their genesis and history.

Read more about Rob Margeit