The dawn of the jet age, the point at which turbine-driven flight had become unquestionably the way forward, came just as piston-powered planes reached their peak. This meeting of eras led aircraft engineers to ease the transition with hybrid, mixed-format designs such as the Navy’s FR-1 Fireball and the Air Force’s B-36 Peacemaker, the latter of which had six 28-cylinder engines and four turbojet engines. We sit at a similar inflection point in the automotive industry today, when modern plug-in hybrid cars and SUVs like the 2021 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime stand as analogs for those hybrid aircraft, bridging the purely internal combustion powertrains of the past and the electric propulsion of the future.
Those early hybrid airplanes leaned on their piston engines for efficiency and instantaneous acceleration, and their jets provided speed. The latest plug-in hybrids sport electric motors for instant thrust and efficiency while their gas engines provide for long-distance cruising. In other words, whether in a plane or a car, a hybrid system aims to provide the best of all worlds.
The Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV (represented here by a top-spec GT model) and the Toyota RAV4 Prime (a loaded XSE) are in many ways the most relevant of the roughly 30 plug-in hybrids on the market today. Why? Simple: They’re SUVs, that most popular of body styles. Of course, there are just four mainstream plug-in hybrid SUVs in total, the others being the 2021 Ford Escape PHEV and 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid. But because they’re SUVs, people might actually want to buy them, unlike loathsome Toyota Prius Primes or Ford Fusion Energis—ew, hatchbacks and sedans! It might also help explain why the Outlander PHEV is the best-selling plug-in hybrid in the world, even if its maker’s American presence is essentially nil.
The Outlander PHEV may be the world’s best-selling pluggable hybrid, but is it actually the best such SUV on the market? With the RAV4 Prime—a hybridized version of America’s top-selling SUV—and Outlander PHEV in hand, we set out to determine which reigns supreme.
What’s a Plug-In Hybrid and Why Would I Want One?
First, let’s talk briefly about what plug-in hybrids are how they work. A “normal” hybrid (think Prius) has a gasoline engine, at least one electric motor, and a small battery pack. These traditional hybrids use their gas engines and regenerative braking to charge the batteries, allowing one or more electric motors to assist acceleration and (very) occasionally provide propulsion sans engine. This results in improved fuel efficiency and lower emissions. Like any other fossil fuel-powered vehicle, “plugging in” here means jamming a nozzle into its fuel filler at a service station.
A plug-in hybrid builds on that formula, however, with a much larger battery pack (the RAV4 Prime, for example, has an 18.1-kWh battery, while the RAV4 Hybrid has a 1.6-kWh battery) and, often, more powerful electric motors. Its battery can be charged by plugging the included charging cable into normal 120-volt (or 240-volt) household wall outlets or by using a public charging station, and its engine can be fueled at a normal filling station. With a fully charged battery, the best modern plug-in hybrids function like an electric car, driving solely on electric power, with the engine only turning on in certain circumstances, such as under heavy accelerator applications or above certain road speeds. Once the battery is depleted and you’re out of electric range, the engine fires up, and you can continue on your merry way, with the vehicle operating like a traditional hybrid.
So why choose a plug-in hybrid over a traditional one? Provided you have a place to plug in at home or work—or even while running normal errands—to keep the batteries somewhere near topped up, a plug-in hybrid is vastly easier on fuel and cheaper overall to run, and it provides you with most of the benefits of EV ownership without drawbacks like range anxiety or concerns about charging times or networks. You don’t even have to plug in your plug-in hybrid, though neglecting to do so will likely result in fewer miles per gallon than if you had opted for a regular hybrid.
The other benefit of a plug-in hybrid is cost. There’s no denying it: Neither the $43,190 base MSRP for the Outlander tested here ($43,805 as tested) or the $42,600 starting price for our RAV4 ($49,831 as tested) are easy to swing for a vast swath of average American families, but rebates exist to reduce the burden. Most notably, the Toyota qualifies for a $7,500 federal tax rebate, and the Outlander qualifies for $6,587 in federal dollars. This isn’t money in your pocket, per se, but it does significantly reduce your tax liability to Uncle Sam. Most states, many municipalities, and some utility companies also offer their own tax rebates and incentives for a PHEV purchase, some of which actually do put cash in your hand.
Let’s Talk Outlander PHEV and RAV4 Prime Power
Under the RAV4’s hood resides a 2.5-liter inline-four producing 177 horsepower and 165 lb-ft of torque. That engine teams up with the typical Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive motor and generator in front that generates 134-hp and 199-lb-ft, which helps drive the front wheels via a planetary e-CVT. A rear electric motor, this one making 40 hp and 89 lb-ft, powers the rear axle. Total output for the RAV4 Prime is rated at 302 horsepower. (Because of how the power and torque curves differ between engines and motors, not to mention the differing speeds they operate at as road-speeds vary, you can rarely add the peak output figures.)
Although that meaty power rating is pretty appealing on its own, the RAV4 Prime also serves up one of the highest EPA-rated driving ranges of any plug-in hybrid, thanks to its large battery and efficient powertrain. With a full battery, the Toyota is said to go 42 miles before the engine kicks in. With the four-cylinder in the mix, total driving range is 600 miles. As for fuel efficiency with all powertrain components in play, the EPA rates the RAV4 at 94 mpg-e combined. If you never bother to plug in the Prime—which strikes us as a subprime choice—the EPA says you’ll get 38 mpg combined.
A new Nissan Rogue-based 2022 Mitsubishi Outlander is on the horizon, but Mitsubishi didn’t neglect the 2021 Outlander PHEV. Despite being near the end of its now nine-year life cycle, this year Mitsubishi replaced the previous 2.0-liter inline-four with a 2.4-liter version, and the electric motors and battery pack were upgraded, too. Working the front wheels, the new electric motor is good for 80 horses and 101 lb-ft of twist. The rear motor produces 94 horsepower and 144 lb-ft of torque. The bigger engine makes 126 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque, but usually just spins a generator. Like the latest Honda hybrids, it connects directly to the front wheels at certain conditions above 40 mph. The Outlander’s peak system output of 221 horsepower can only be felt at high speeds; most of the time you only feel the additive power and torque of the two electric motors.
With a 13.8-kWh battery pack on board, the Outlander PHEV’s 24-mile EPA-rated electric-only range would be impressive if it weren’t for the RAV4 Prime’s long legs. The Outlander PHEV has a total driving range of 320 miles before needing to be refueled and/or recharged, which also trails the RAV4 Prime’s numerical might. Averaging out a full battery with a tank of gas, the plug-in Outlander is rated at 74 mpg-e combined; shun power outlets for good, and it returns 26 mpg combined.
Which of These Plug-In Hybrids Is Faster?
Given the power disparity between the two SUVs, it’s unsurprising the Toyota had the advantage in almost all of our instrumented tests. It isn’t dignified while doing so, but the Prime will zip from zero to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds and through the quarter mile in 14.1 seconds at 98.7 mph. “Well, that was unexpected,” associate road test editor Erick Ayapana said. “The RAV4 Prime really made me work to control wheel spin, seemingly from the rear axle first, and then the front axle. Regardless, this thing feels strong off the line.” The power helped the Toyota on our figure-eight handling course, too, where it tuned a 27.0-second lap at an average of 0.65 g.
The Outlander was much more sedate, accelerating to 60 mph in an uneventful but respectable 8.5 seconds and through the quarter mile in 16.7 seconds at 83.9 mph. Its figure-eight lap of 28.0 seconds at an average of 0.59 g once again lagged behind the Toyota, but the Mitsubishi at least managed to outbrake the RAV4 in our 60-0-mph test, needing 125 feet versus the Toyota’s 127.
What About in the Real World?
Outside the confines of the test track, the Outlander and RAV4 are more evenly matched. We tested the duo on one of our standard driving routes, choosing one long enough to deplete their batteries and ensure at least half the distance was done in hybrid mode. We started with full batteries thanks to an Electrify America station conveniently located along our loop.
On the topic of charging, both the Outlander and RAV4 include a standard J1772 plug, which takes AC electricity from your 120-volt Level 1 wall outlet or a 240-volt Level 2 source and uses an onboard charger to convert the juice to DC and deliver the electrons to the batteries. The Outlander packs a 3.7-kW onboard charger, whereas the RAV4 Prime comes standard with a 3.3-kW unit.
Generally speaking, the higher the kW rating of a charger, the faster the charge, and the onboard chargers in the Toyota or Mitsubishi require roughly three hours of tethering to achieve a full charge from empty. However, the RAV4 Prime XSE’s $3,765 Premium package substitutes a 6.6-kW onboard charger, which would halve the charging speed at Level 2 voltage. Advantage Toyota, it would seem.
Not so fast (charging), actually. The Outlander PHEV has a clever trick up its sleeve: a standard Level 3 CHAdeMO DC fast charger, making it one of very few plug-in hybrids capable of using quicker-charging infrastructure reserved for pure electric vehicles. Although CHAdeMO is on the slower end of fast-charging technology, delivering a max of 50 kW of DC electricity straight to the battery by bypassing the onboard charger, this setup is capable of replenishing the Outlander’s battery from empty to full in less than an hour. (It’s worth mentioning that just as HD DVD lost the format war to Blu-ray, CHAdeMO has lost to the more common and quicker CCS fast-charge system, which can deliver up to 350 kW.)
On the road, the Outlander PHEV is nice enough to drive, which sounds like faint praise but is truly surprising given how mediocre the gas-only version is. The Mitsubishi’s power delivery deserves much of the credit for its better manners. Its accelerator response is fairly aggressive, which couples with the surge of low-end torque from its twin electric motors to make the Outlander feel quicker than it is, especially around town. That said, passing power is sorely lacking at highway speeds, and igniting the engine helps less than it sounds like it is. That’s because the battery alone can’t deliver full power, so the engine starts and runs at its twin power/torque-peak of 4,500 rpm to generate the needed power—which still just tallies to just 174 hp until the engine connects to the wheels and starts pulling its weight.
The Mitsubishi’s ride quality and chassis performance aren’t as modern in execution as its powertrain. Despite using unibody construction, the Outlander PHEV feels like an old-school body-on-frame SUV as it lists in turns and shudders over bumps. The steering has very little feel, but to the good, the mighty electric motor at the rear imparts a sporty impression as it helps power the Outlander through bends crisply enough given the other handling demerits.
Compare this to the Toyota, which somehow gets even better in the real world. With a full charge, the RAV4 feels a lot like a contemporary electric SUV. Its motors make prodigious power and give the Toyota plenty of scoot both around town and on the highway without having to resort to firing up its four-pot. Although even harsher-sounding at full throat than the Mitsubishi’s four, when the engine does fire up, its presence is always directly additive to the electric motors, and the Prime feels properly quick for the segment. The RAV4 Prime is also the first Toyota we’ve ever driven in which the “EV” button—which forces the powertrain to full-electric mode—actually does what it’s supposed to.
Although the RAV4’s powertrain is seriously impressive, its ride and handling are typical Toyota, which is to say the suspension tuning is generally agreeable, but, as road test editor Chris Walton put it, the setup is “all spring and no damper,” meaning the impact from an imperfection lasts long after you’ve passed over it. The RAV4’s steering is surprisingly tactile, however, with a feel and precision lacking from most compact SUVs.
Which Interior Is Better?
Downtime while charging gave us plenty of time to get familiar with the innards of our SUV pair. The Mitsubishi attempts to cover its age in unexpected ways. “Surprising,” Segura said of the Outlander’s well-crafted quilted leather. “I can honestly say I didn’t expect the seats to show such attention to detail. That the detailing spreads to the door panels is pretty neat, too.” But look closely, and signs of the Outlander’s near-retiree status emerge. Plasticky switchgear and an outclassed infotainment system betray it as a generation (or two) older than the Toyota, while its packaging isn’t as clever, either, offering less cargo capacity and head-, shoulder-, and front legroom than the RAV4.
So the RAV4 is roomier, and its cabin is also one of Toyota’s more successful among its current lineup, with neat, texturized HVAC knobs; a big, easy-to-read infotainment display; and plenty of storage. We love the dashboard’s integrated shelf, for example.
Which Is the Better Plug-In Hybrid SUV?
Ultimately, both the Outlander PHEV and RAV4 Prime are impressive achievements, both offering up pain-free ways to bridge the gap between your last gas-powered SUV and first electric one. But one is clearly better than the other.
In second place is the 2021 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. While outclassed by the Toyota in range, efficiency, and performance, the Mitsubishi put up a valiant fight thanks to the zippy feel of its electric motors, its friendlier sticker price, and its quick-charge capability. We can understand why the Outlander is the best-selling PHEV in the world, and the impression it left has us looking forward to the all-new version coming soon.
Which means the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime is our winner. This RAV4 is a true have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too SUV. It’s efficient thanks to its seamlessly integrated powertrain. It’s long-legged, thanks to its large battery pack and miserly engine and motors. And it’s also properly fast, reasonably fun to drive, comfortable, and spacious. Although it’s a shame that the Ford Escape PHEV and Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid were unavailable for this party, it’s safe to say the RAV4 Prime is the plug-in SUV to beat.
Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV
A fast-charging trick can’t make up for this pleasant but aging plug-in’s packaging, handling, and powertrain deficiencies.
Toyota RAV4 Prime
Big power, smart interior flourishes, and efficiency advantages put this one over the top. It’s the RAV4 to get, plug-in or no.
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