Testing the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime XSE Premium on snow-packed roads

A red 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime XSE Premium driving down a road into a city.
Credit: Toyota

Forget being a treehugger for a moment. While a hybrid engine is great for saving fuel and ultimately reduces carbon emissions using a bit more electric power, the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime XSE Premium is also a road-hugger — thanks to one nifty setting.

On a recent trip across my state, I activated the trail mode by pressing one easy-to-find button marked “trail” in the center console. Both the normal mode and the eco mode are handy for driving on dry pavement and to save fuel by making the vehicle less responsive. Trail mode is designed to monitor the road and your driving. The RAV4 can adjust torque on the fly to the front and rear axle, ease off acceleration to avoid slippage and also adjust the drive force if the vehicles sense you are going to be moving up and down on the road. (The 2020 Nissan Rogue performs similarly with its 4WD function.)

In my case, the snow had started falling so heavily in a remote area of Wisconsin that the road was uneven, had a few moguls scattered about, and had a mix of ice and snow such that the driving was a bit stressful. I’m not one to think about it too much. A friend told me many years ago that the best way to drive in winter is to keep moving. In a vehicle like the RAV4, if there are any issues with tire slip or uneven driving, a computer will take over anyway. My friend had a point — there’s not much any of us can do about the weather.

I noticed right away that the tires were adjusting their torque — you can feel it and sense it happening in real-time. The vehicle doesn’t fishtail when you go around a corner. In one case, I was on a heavily packed side road and about to enter an on-ramp and the RAV4 felt like it was on rails. I zipped around the corner at a perfect angle. Other cars would have slid out or even skidded onto the shoulder quite easily. I simply trusted that the AWD would work, didn’t overcompensate with my steering, and kept chugging along in the snow.

The interior of the Toyota RAV4.
Credit: Toyota

On a long drive on a highway, the road wasn’t as packed with snow and moguls, but the ice made the conditions slippery and unpredictable. Again, you feel the computer automatically sending extra torque or lessening the torque on the fly. You keep going straight.

I was surprised by all of this for a few reasons. One is that I don’t think of the RAV4 as an off-roading vehicle that’s in the same league as a Toyota Land Cruiser I reviewed recently. It’s more of a people-mover, a high-tech commuter car, and great for families. The trail button was a surprise because once activated, it seemed as though the RAV4 had some off-roading capability beyond what I expected, and helped me on that snow-packed road. I also liked how easy the button is to find. Some AWD and 4WD settings are tucked away near the steering wheel and I have to look them over closely before I ever start driving. The markings are a bit faint or confusing. On the RAV4, there is one obvious trail button.

I’m seriously considering this vehicle now for myself, now that I know the trail button works and the AWD is so capable. I honestly don’t say that about too many vehicles I’m testing. It helps that the car is fun, sporty, and has plenty of cargo space. Now it’s also snow-ready.