Toyota’s Prime Directive: Plug In

  • Jeff Sabatini has written for many publications over his 20 years in automotive journalism, including Car and Driver, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Sports Car Market magazine. His lifetime car churn includes 30 vehicles: eight GM cars, five Ford products, four Toyotas, three BMWs, two Jeeps, two Chrysler minivans, a Miata, a Mercedes, a Porsche, a Saab, a Subaru, and a Volkswagen.

can be reached at jeffsab@gmail.com
  • Jeff Sabatini has written for many publications over his 20 years in automotive journalism, including Car and Driver, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Sports Car Market magazine. His lifetime car churn includes 30 vehicles: eight GM cars, five Ford products, four Toyotas, three BMWs, two Jeeps, two Chrysler minivans, a Miata, a Mercedes, a Porsche, a Saab, a Subaru, and a Volkswagen.

can be reached at jeffsab@gmail.com
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This year’s Los Angeles Auto Show was thick with plug-in hybrids, with new models appearing on stands at BMW, Hyundai, and Lincoln, among others. But no PHEV launch will be more important than the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime, a plug-in variant of the world’s largest automaker’s best-selling model.

Sales of plug-ins – never robust – have been falling, down nearly 30 percent through July this year, according to one estimate. Reports have Honda pulling back Clarity PHEV availability and GM has discontinued the Chevrolet Volt, one of the segment’s best sellers. “Plug-ins are too expensive,” one industry insider told Ride. “They’re too expensive for our customers and they’re too expensive for us.”

Toyota RAV4 Prime
The Toyota RAV4 Prime goes on sale next summer, offering 302 horsepower and an all-electric range of nearly 40 miles. (Photo: Toyota)

Cranking up the voltage

This environment makes the RAV4 Prime crucial to more than just Toyota’s bottom line. It’s been 10 years since the introduction of the Volt, the first mass-market PHEV, yet neither GM nor the industry at large has been able to effectively market plug-ins. They are confusing, with both a gasoline engine and a battery electric drivetrain, which adds cost as well as complexity. This also makes it challenging for consumers to calculate whether a plug-in makes financial sense. Even Toyota, whose Prius Prime is now the de facto best-selling PHEV, admits that more than half of consumers don’t actually understand how plug-ins work.

If any mainstream carmaker can break through the past decade’s failures, however, it should be Toyota. With its Prius hybrid leading the way, the company has sold more electrified vehicles than any other. Adding a plug-in to its RAV4 stable puts a PHEV model in front of the largest possible number of potential buyers – this year the compact SUV will again out-sell anything that’s not a pickup truck.

Toyota RAV4 Prime
The RAV4 Prime joins the Prius Prime in Toyota’s growing lineup of plug-in hybrid vehicles. (Photo: Toyota)

Strategy and tactics

Curiously, Toyota does not plan to directly address customer confusion. Rather, it is marketing the PHEV RAV4 as the lineup’s sportiest model. With 302 horsepower – as much as a Ford Mustang – the RAV4 Prime sits at the top in both power and, ostensibly, price. Toyota’s hope is that customers, attracted because of the performance, will then discover the other benefits of electrification, notably an electric range projected to be nearly 40 miles. Toyota has yet to share all the details, which it says will be revealed closer to next summer when the RAV4 Prime goes on sale.

As far as tactics go, at least this is different. By promoting plugging in from outside the dogmatic box that holds up battery electric vehicles as “pure” and, therefore, plug-in hybrids as inherently inferior, Toyota may reach an entirely new and different customer. This one might not care so much about whether they’re maximizing EV mode operation or if the running costs of a RAV4 Prime pencil out. They will likely not even know what PHEV means, let alone how one operates. Which is fine. The best way to explain a plug-in hybrid is for someone to use one, and discover for themselves how it can work in daily use.

If Toyota can’t convince a wider audience of this, however, the PHEV faces a bleak future.


About the Author

  • Jeff Sabatini has written for many publications over his 20 years in automotive journalism, including Car and Driver, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Sports Car Market magazine. His lifetime car churn includes 30 vehicles: eight GM cars, five Ford products, four Toyotas, three BMWs, two Jeeps, two Chrysler minivans, a Miata, a Mercedes, a Porsche, a Saab, a Subaru, and a Volkswagen.

can be reached at jeffsab@gmail.com
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