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SUV Comparison: 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime vs 2021 BMW X5 xDrive 45e

Blog originally written by David Booth on

An unconventional comparison reveals a surprise winner in the quest for PHEV bragging rights

I know what you’re thinking. At first blush, Toyota’s RAV4 versus a BMW X5 doesn’t make a convincing comparison. One is obviously the core of perhaps the most famous of German luxury marques; the other a seemingly pedestrian sport cute. One — I don’t think I need to remind you which — is powered by a turbocharged version of the smoothest engine this side of a Rolls-Royce V12; the other by a raucous little four that, while resplendent in many fine attributes — parsimony and efficiency being the most commonly attributed — has never been accused of being sophisticated. They are chalk and cheese, Felix and Oscar or, if you felt particularly unkind, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

Except that both are plug-in hybrids, both claim more than 40 kilometres of electric-only driving and, I suspect this one will surprise more people than anything else, both — yes, the Toyota too — can accelerate to 100 kilometres an hour in six seconds or less. What is even more interesting — indeed, why I am writing this Odd Couple comparison — is that each reveals the direction each manufacturer might be taking with its plug-in hybrid electrification.

Electrifying your hybrid

Simply put, the 45e feels like a big gas engine to which BMW added a battery and a motor. Oh, to be sure, it will whisper along on electrons only for some 40 kilometres or so, but there’s never any question where its heart is. Only when the big 3.0-litre six kicks in does this X5 feel like a real BMW, all glorious excess and pleasing passing power. That’s because, while the turbo six is good for 282 horsepower, its single electric motor, boasts but 111 horses. Bundle them together and there’s a Toyota-squashing 389-hp, but most of that is gas powered.

The RAV4, on the other hand, feels more like an electric vehicle that’s been range extended. Not since the Chevrolet Volt — and the possible exception of Polestar’s rarer-than-hen’s-teeth 1 — has any plug-in hybrid felt more electric. Where BMW’s fossil-fueled six dominates its 83-kilowatt electric motor, the opposite is true for the Toyota. In Prime guise, there are no less than three electric motors helping motivate the 2,000 kilogram sport cute: two at the front that combine for 179 horsepower and another powering both rear wheels that’s good for 53-hp. Throw in the 177 horsepower from the Atkinson-cycled 2.5-litre inline four and the total comes to that are-you-sure-this-is-a-RAV4 302 horsepower.

Hogging the green lane

In theory, both PHEVs have an electric-only top speed of 135 kilometres an hour. In reality, while the BMW can acquire that ultimate velocity, it’s not exactly confident about it. Around town it’s fairly sprightly in EV mode though the gas engine will kick in occasionally. On the highway, though, the big BMW must be coaxed to anything over 100 kilometres an hour lest it need fossil fuel reinforcement. It is more than possible to maintain 100 per cent electrical operation until the 24kWh battery gives out, but one does have to pay attention.

Not so for the RAV4 which feels, for all the world, like a full EV. Except when the temperature fell below minus 10 C — and the gas engine is needed for cabin warmth — the RAV4’s engine simply never fired in town before the battery went dead. Never. I suppose I could have forced the issue with a major tromp of the loud pedal. But on electric energy alone, it felt, well, much like any other regular, medium-powered compact sport cute, albeit with none of the valvetrain clatter or intake drone.

Ditto on the highway. Typically, PHEV manufacturers advise owners to use some form of “hybrid” or “battery save” mode when driving on the highway. Ostensibly that’s because it’s more efficient. But it’s really because their electric powertrains simply run out of jam once they get up to highway speeds and feel underpowered.

Not the RAV4. Right up to a what-do-you-mean-officer 140 km/h, the little Toyota’s 232 horsepower of electric motors prove more than adequate. Again, like in the city, the RAV4 Prime does not need — or call upon its — gas engine.

Charging blues

The Toyota’s superior performance and 10 kilometre advantage in EV range — 50 klicks for the Prime in a frigid Toronto February versus 40 km for the Bimmer — are despite boasting a smaller 18.1 kilowatt-hour battery. The BMW’s is significantly larger at 24 kWh. And while some of that can be explained away by the X5’s size — the 45e weighs some 2,510 kilograms compared while the Prime tips the scales at about 2,000 kilos — it does not fully account for a 10-klick deficit despite having 33 per cent more juice. BMW, I think still needs to do some work on electrical efficiency.

Also worth noting is that the BMW makes do with but a 3.7 kW onboard charger while the Toyota has a 6.6 kW affair built in. Do the math and it means, when using the supplied charging cables with 110 volts, the Toyota takes about half as long to recharge. And yes, I know that if you own one of these, you’ve almost assuredly plumped in for a more powerful household unit. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that the cheaper Toyota has the most versatile onboard unit.

Speeding right along

In hybrid mode with fully charged batteries, both these plug-ins are plenty speedy. The combination of gas and electric motivation sees the RAV4 Prime claim 302 horsepower which makes it, says Toyota, the second fastest vehicle in its lineup, right behind — and isn’t this just the loveliest of coincidences — the BMW-made Supra. The BMW, meanwhile, thanks to turbocharged six and electric motor, boasts a total of 393 horses. Both claim impressive zero to 100 kilometres an hour time, the Toyota good for 6.0 seconds while the BMW claims 5.6 seconds for the more powerful, but heavier, electrified X5 45e (1.2 seconds quicker than the old 40e version). How they go about said impressive performance, however, is remarkably different.

The Toyota, dependent on its comparatively powerful electric motors — the three electric motors offer no less than 288 available-right-from-zero-rpm pound-feet of torque — is all about off-the-line jam. Thanks to those 179-hp of electric power up front, the front tires squeal, there’s a flurry of revs from the little four and, with more than a hint of drama, it scoots off the line. The BMW’s 83-kilowatt electric motor, on the other hand, is more “torque filler” meant to disguise the 3.0L’s turbo lag off the line. The Toyota, believe it or not, gets a better jump off the line.

On the flip side

I don’t think it will come as any surprise to anyone but, once up to speed, the BMW feels its oats. Passing on the highway is far more confidence inspiring and X5’s turbocharged six surges ahead on just a whiff of throttle. The RAV4, so dependent on electrons for the majority of its urge, becomes more dependent on the little Atkinson four. So, while the RAV4 felt, by far, the more powerful in full electric mode, the BMW is decidedly more powerful — besides generating 111 more horsepower than Toyota’s little four, the turbo six also boasts 133 more pound-feet of torque — when gasoline is the predominant source of power.

And the BMW is, by far, the far sweeter powertrain. It is after all, sophisticated BMW inline six — again the sweetest engine this side of a V12 — versus crass Toyota inline four which, while incredibly efficient, is just plain rough. Combined with the fact that the BMW six is mated to a conventional eight-speed automatic transmission while the Toyota has one of those rubber-bandy CVT affairs, and there’s just no comparison between the two when you’re driving on the highway.

Sophistication reigns supreme

What did surprise me is how well BMW’s gas engine and electric motor mated. Toyota has been in this hybrid business for an eon — the company has sold some 16 million hybrids of all sizes in the last 20 years — yet the X5 melding of engine and motor was at least the equal of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive. Sure, part of the reason is that Toyota’s four, as I said, a lot rougher around the edges — quelling the cacophony from the little 2.5L is one of the few improvements the RAV4 Prime needs — but the seamless blending of gas and electricity is mighty impressive nonetheless. The big BMW could surely use a little more electric-only range. It could also use a more powerful electric motor. But loyal BMW owners looking for plug-in power married to Munich’s traditional sophistication will be more than pleased with the 45e’s comportment.

Final thoughts

Obviously, these two cars don’t compete with one another. There is precious little cross-shopping between BMW and Toyota and absolutely none between X5 and RAV4. The X5 remains the more luxurious, better handling and, of course, the roomier of the two, not to mention the more attention grabbing when it comes to attracting the attention of parking valets. It’s also a marked improvement over the previous 40e thanks to its larger, more powerful gas engine (BMW’s previous plug-in was powered by a 2.0-litre four), larger capacity battery and more EV range.

But given that its costs $83,500 (the RAV4 Prime starts at a far cheaper, but still not insignificant $44,900) and the reputation Munich maintains for superlative engineering, it’s nonetheless stunning that the RAV4 is the superior plug-in in this comparison. In electric mode, it boasted at least 10 kilometres more range — again, 50 klicks versus 40 km in a frigid Toronto February — and, thanks to that superior electrification, its overall fuel efficiency is at least 50 per cent better.

More impressively, its performance in EV mode was noticeably superior to the much more costly BMW. Indeed, in as much as the BMW remains the vastly superior driving machine — the 45e proving that BMW’s prowess for silly-smooth powertrains isn’t limited to just internal combustion — I can’t help but think that it is the RAV4 that is the plug-in hybrid’s best foot forward. It is more “electric” and, in a time when electrification is taking over transportation, he with the most efficient electrons wins. Simply put, the BMW is the better car, but the Toyota the superior plug-in.