For 2016, Toyota has introduced a hybrid version of its RAV4 to compete in the crowded compact SUV market. Despite this version being several years old, does this model still compete? And, does a hybrid drivetrain have a place in a compact SUV?
Toyota wanted me to drive the RAV4 Hybrid badly enough that they delivered a fully gassed up and sparkling clean 2016 RAV4 Hybrid Limited to my driveway for a week’s worth of use. Other than that courtesy, I received no compensation for this review.
Toyota’s RAV4 has been on the market since 1994. When introduced, it was available in both two and four-door models and was a very simple, basic SUV built to withstand rugged environments with unpaved roads. With each restyling, it has lost a bit of that ruggedness (and the two-door model on the first restyling) and replaced it with better road manners and a more luxurious interior.
An all-electric version was offered in California from 1997 to 2003 for lease to fleet operators and it gained critical acclaim. It was also offered for sale to retail customers for only seven months in 2002. When the third generation was introduced for the 2005 model year, no electric model was initially offered. But, in 2012 another all-electric RAV4 was introduced for the California market and, again, it gained critical acclaim.
Toyota didn’t design this new version in-house like it had with the previous version. They contracted with electric car manufacturer Tesla to design the drivetrain and battery pack. What was produced was a very versatile electric SUV with a greater range than the other (and very limited) electric competition at the time. This vehicle was produced from 2012 to 2014 with only 2,600 units rolling off the production lines.
Toyota opted to not produce a new electric version but rather a hybrid variant available in all 50 states. That hybrid is the focus of this review.
The test vehicle
The subject of this test was a 2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Limited with All Wheel Drive. The base price of this model is $33,610. The optional Advanced Technology Package pumped the price up to $35,945.
The engine and drivetrain
The RAV4 Hybrid is smooth, quiet and generally very competent with excellent handling and all wheel drive. The all wheel drive system is accomplished with the addition of a second electric motor that drives the rear wheels only while the front wheels are powered by a combination of the 2.5 liter double overhead cam four-cylinder engine and an additional electric motor. Overall, the combined gasoline engine and electric motors net a total of 194 horsepower. The system works flawlessly and provides extra traction when needed without interior space being compromised by the intrusion of a center hump in the floor needed for a driveshaft to the rear wheels.
There are three drive modes. EV (good up to 25 MPH), Eco and Sport. Eco works very well to help squeeze out the maximum miles per gallon and this particular sample was easily capable of beating the city EPA estimate by two miles per gallon if driven gently.
At an EPA estimated 34 MPG in the city, the RAV4 is at the top of the list in terms of city fuel economy for compact SUVs. On the highway, the EPA estimates that the RAV4 Hybrid should get 31 MPG and that number appears to be spot-on.
Acceleration is smooth and linear and, while not particularly fast, speedy enough to keep up with traffic. Around town, the engine is very quiet and smooth. Toyota has really perfected their hybrid system and it’s often impossible to tell when the gasoline engine is running or not. An ‘EV’ light in the gauge cluster lights up when the gas engine is off and that’s usually the only clue that gasoline is not being used.
Around town, handling is very good and it has good forward visibility and a high driving position. Side visibility is good as well and the Blind Spot Monitoring compensates for what can’t be seen with the large door mirrors. Rear visibility is only okay but is greatly aided by a backup camera that offers an overhead view with the addition of cameras on the underside of the door mirrors.
Things change a bit on the highway. The drivetrain remains fairly quiet but wind noise and tire noise become quite noticeable and become a bit tiring after more than an hour. More interior sound deadening materials would go a long way in correcting this annoyance.
In a nod towards the ever-increasing level of electronic driver assistance features, this particular example was equipped with Steering Assist, Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection and Dynamic Radar Cruise Control along with the now commonplace Blind Spot Monitor and Rear Cross Traffic Alert.
The Steering Assist system uses the cameras to monitor lane markers and, when the system senses a lane departure, the gentle nudge is felt in the steering that eases the vehicle back into the travel lane. This system works well but does take a bit of time to get used to. It can be turned off.
The Pre-Collision System and Pedestrian Detection system also works very well and will stop the car in certain situations if the driver fails to react in time. Toyota plans to have this system on virtually all its models by 2017. Look for these features to be standard on all cars by 2020.
Toyota’s Dynamic Radar Cruise Control deserves special mention. It’s easy to use and can be easily configured to follow the car ahead at three distinct distances. It works simply by setting a desired speed. If a car pulls in front or traffic slows, the RAV4 slows as well. If traffic speeds up, the RAV4 does as well but does not exceed the speed initially set by the driver.
With this system, it’s easy to drive hundreds of miles on the freeway (in light to moderate traffic) without ever having to touch the accelerator or brake pedal.
Interior comfort and practicality
Despite being somewhat noisy at highway speeds, the interior of the RAV4 is a delightful place to be. Any surface the hand might fall upon is covered in high quality materials. Generous use of Toyota’s Softex material (a leather substitute) on the seating and parts of the dash move the interior in a decidedly upscale direction. Add to that very comfortable heated front seats with driver’s side power operation with memory and rear seating that’s roomy for two and the result is a very comfortable interior. Though the back seat has seating for three, it’s best to use that capability for short drives only.
Fold those rear seats down and the RAV4 offers carrying capacity big enough to swallow a couple of bicycles. Toyota gets high marks for putting together a first class experience in terms of interior comfort and versatility.
Again, the interior gets great marks for ergonomics. All major controls are exactly where they would be expected. The gauges are clear and concise and easy to read. The Entune Premium audio system has great sound, is easy to operate and incorporates the aforementioned and much-needed backup camera into a 7-inch touch screen.
What to buy?
Hybrid systems tend to make the most sense in city driving where stop and go traffic are the norm. That’s because these are the conditions where the gasoline-powered engine has more opportunities to be shut down thus reducing fuel consumption and pollution. At freeway speeds, the efficiency of a hybrid system is diminished mainly because the gasoline engine has to be running at those speeds.
If a driver does greater than 75% of daily driving in an urban setting where speeds likely don’t exceed 50 miles per hour, the RAV4 Hybrid makes a lot of sense. With the 34 miles per gallon EPA city rating, it easily beats the standard non-hybrid RAV4’s 24 miles per gallon rating and the city EPA ratings of all its competitors.
Both the standard RAV4 and RAV4 Hybrid are rated at 31 miles per gallon highway. With that being the case, if a majority of the miles driven are highway, that buyer would do well to bypass the RAV4 Hybrid and go with the standard engine. And, if freeway mileage is of ultimate concern, those buyers might look elsewhere at some of the competition, such as the Mazda CX-5 that is rated as high as 35 miles per gallon on the highway. However, as the standard bearer in the compact SUV segment, the RAV4 of any variety could be considered a sound buy for those who want versatility but demand efficiency that larger SUVs just can’t match.
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