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AUTO CASEY: 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime, Venza - Two suits, same hybrid closet

Built on architecture shared with the Lexus RX, the RAV4 looks like it just rolled off the trail while the sleek Venza is ready for a night on the town.
Credit: Casey Williams

INDIANAPOLIS — “Dress for the job you want” is good advice for somebody seeking to change careers…or for Toyota’s hybrid crossovers, the RAV4 and Venza. Built on architecture shared with the Lexus RX, the RAV4 looks like it just rolled off the trail while the sleek Venza is ready for a night on the town. Both wear pretty well.

2021 Toyota RAV4 XSE Prime Plug-in

Consider the RAV4 the trail leader of the pair, looking ready for adventure with its square jaw grille, LED projector headlamps, strong fenders, and deeply sculpted D-pillar. Chiseled bodysides are accentuated by our sporty XSE edition’s black top over red lower body and 19” wheels. Get intimate to notice the power moonroof and tailgate. It’s a contemporary look that wears well on or off trail. 

Underway, enjoy 42 miles of all-electric range from a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and lithium ion batteries. Fuel economy is rated 94-MPGe after plugging in or 40/36-MPG in normal hybrid mode. A combined 302 horsepower runs 0-60 mph in 5.7 seconds – good for a roomy hybrid. Use “EV Hold” to preserve the battery for city driving. An electric motor at the rear enables all-wheel-drive while Trail Mode configures the powertrain for getting to a favorite fishing spot.

Moving inside, a large touchscreen with rubberized knobs for tuning and volume sets the tone – as do head-up display, wireless phone charging, navigation, Wi-Fi hotspot, and JBL audio with subwoofer. Comfy faux leather SofTex seats with red stitching add style, but can be washed down with a rag. They’re also heated and ventilated up front, heated in the rear. You’ll love the heated steering wheel too.

Of course, safety was a prime consideration for a vehicle likely to carry all those you hold dear. Adaptive cruise control with lane tracing steering, lane keep assist, and forward collision alert with auto brake keep “eyes” ahead. Blind spot warning, rear cross path detection, digital rearview camera mirror, and 360-degree birds-eye camera help too. 

The RAV4 starts at $26,250, but the plug-in Prime begins just over $38,000. Our fully-optioned XSE Prime came to $49,578. If you want an outfit that’s slightly less expensive and decidedly more urban, read on.

2021 Toyota Venza Limited

Between the muscular Toyota RAV4 and genteel Lexus RX fits the 2021 Toyota Venza Hybrid. Sleek forms flow from a plastic beak over large grille, narrow LED headlamps, fast rear roofline, and thin wrap-around LED taillamps – all placed over 19” alloy wheels. You would be hard pressed to tell it shares anything with the RAV4, but the connection to Lexus is more obvious.

The interior shares basic lay-out with the RAV4, but with more panache. It looks like Louis Vuitton had his way with it considering details like the blend of gray and brown upholstery, brown stitching on the faux leather seats, and woodgrain dressing the console and doors. The panoramic sunroof turns from clear to opaque with the touch of a button. Beautiful.

There’s a lot of tech, too, with wireless phone charging, JBL audio, and head-up display. Seats are plush and stylish, but are also heated and ventilated up front. Grip a thick leather-wrapped steering wheel. Safety is enhanced by adaptive cruise with lane tracing steering, blind spot warning, lane keep assist, and rear cross path detection with auto brake. A rearview camera mirror provides a clear look rearward.

Unlike the RAV4 that’s available with powertrains ranging from gas to plug-in, the Venza is only available as a regular hybrid. Beneath the sleek bodywork is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine bolstered by lithium ion batteries to generate a combined 219 horsepower. As expected, fuel economy is excellent at 40/37-MPG city/highway. 

It’s not perfect. Luggage space is more sedan than crossover, but it’s flexible with a power hatch and split/fold rear seats. The RAV4 has more space. I prefer the rubberized volume and tuning knobs on the RAV4, but the Venza’s touch pads are easy enough. You can always swipe through stations on the screen.

The Venza is a velvety near-luxury crossover with excellent fuel economy and lush style – a Lexus in Toyota clothing. That’s reflected in the price. Base models start at a value-packed $32,570, but came to $43,100 for our swanky Limited. 

Storm Forward!

Casey Williams is former auto correspondent for WFYI and the Indianapolis Star plus a contributor to the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday Auto Page. He has reviewed vehicles and covered the auto industry for over 25 years. He lives with his family in Broad Ripple. E-mail him at AutoCasey@aol.com; check his reviews on YouTube at AutoCasey.

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime

5 passengers, AWD Crossover
Powertrain: 2.5-L I4, CVT, Li-Ion Batteries
Output: 302 hp combined
Suspension f/r: Ind/Ind
Wheels f/r: 19”/19” alloy
Brakes f/r: regen disc/disc
Must-have features: Style, MPGs
Fuel economy: 94-MPGe, 38-MPG
Assembly: Aichi, Japan
Base/as-tested price: $26,250/49,578

2021 Toyota Venza Limited

5 passengers, AWD Crossover
Powertrain: 2.5-L I4, CVT, Li-Ion Batteries
Output: 219 hp combined
Suspension f/r: Ind/Ind
Wheels f/r: 19”/19” alloy
Brakes f/r: regen disc/disc
Must-have features: Style, MPGs
Fuel economy: 40/37-MPG city/hwy
Assembly: Aichi, Japan
Base/as-tested price: $32,570/43,100