On the Road Review: Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Limited

Toyota does not get a lot of recognition in the enthusiast press, nor is the brand first off the lips of drivers passionate about driving.

However, Toyota sells the most cars to consumers who revel in steady, consistent performance in the day-to-day driving of life. Top-selling car in America: Toyota Camry. Top selling hybrid — in the world: Toyota Prius. Top selling small-to-midsize pickup — in the world: Toyota Tacoma. Top-selling compact car — ever: Toyota Corolla. You get the picture.

Now, Toyota also has the top-selling compact crossover — in the class created by the original design — the latest RAV4. Buyers get two new versions of this Toyota for 2016, and we recently got to drive one of them, arguably the most important RAV4, for a week.

All RAV4s receive enhanced front and rear fascias in a mid-cycle styling exercise for 2016, with some trim levels benefiting from more LED lights than others. The look is smoother, calmer and more pleasing — combined with some new paint schemes, the latest RAV4 looks like a completely new wagon. There are new electronics inside, new materials — including Softex simulated leather — plus a wider array of driving aids available on top XLE and Limited trim.

Slotted between the latter two trims is a new SE package with a sportier stance, a stiffer chassis and the assertion that this family crossover at least has more sporting pretense. Starting at just over $30,000 for front-drive versions, the SE uses the same 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine as other RAV4s, so real-world performance remains virtually the same.

The game-changer addition to the lineup is the much-anticipated RAV4 Hybrid.

Toyota has been building hybrid synergy drive vehicles for almost 20 years, with the original Prius going on sale in Japan in 1997. Millions of Priuses have been sold worldwide, so there is an obvious proficiency for what this battery/electric motor/gas engine powertrain can and cannot do. Toyota has put hybrid powertrains in four different Prius body styles, the Camry sedan, several Lexus sedans as well as the Highlander crossover.

Yet, this is the first attempt at a RAV4 hybrid, which seems odd given the perspective of 20/20-vision and how compact crossovers have surged to the head of the sales charts. Ford gave us a hybrid-powered Escape in the mid-2000s; long departed Saturn did too with the Vue, but that is it. No Honda CR-V hybrids, no Nissan Rogue hybrids and no RAV4 hybrids.

The first question that will pop into your mind is how much more — what does the hybrid system add to the sticker, and secondly, will the fuel economy gains offset this extra cost?

Toyota takes the same 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine used in the Camry Hybrid and the Lexus NX300 and shares it with the RAV4 Hybrid. Almost the same battery packs, under the rear seat, almost the same permanent magnet electric motors (two, one at the rear wheels for separate power — no drive shaft connecting axles front to rear, and the second motor up front). Only available with AWD-I — intelligent all-wheel drive — the RAV4 hybrid delivers four-season traction with a combined electric/gas engine output of 194 hp and 206 pound/feet of peak torque, making this RAV4 the most fuel-efficient and most powerful version consumers can buy.

What does this add to the sticker price? The RAV4’s synergy drive system only adds $700, however it only comes with AWD, and only in XLE and top Limited trim, so sticker prices include lots of other additional equipment. A base front-drive RAV4 starts at $25,250, AWD is $1,400 more. An XLE hybrid model starts at $29,270, while our well-equipped Limited sample stickered for $35,945 with most of the available Toyota parts inventory.

EPA fuel economy estimates are 34/31/33-mpg for the RAV4 hybrid — an eight-mile-per-gallon gain on the combined cycle over a conventionally powered RAV4. Strangely, compared to other vehicles but not to Prius owners, the RAV4 hybrid earns higher city EPA ratings, an environment where the batteries and electric motors play a larger role in the crossover’s power delivery. The usual gear whirs and whines are evident, and the regenerative brakes make some noise as you ply the urban driving scene, so this wagon feels like a Prius — with a LOT more versatility.

Pushing the RAV4 into tourist duty for a weekend in southern Maine produced strong impressions. Highway driving revealed good power yet a ‘busy’ powertrain as the combination of a CVT automatic plus the engineering efforts to maximize fuel efficiency has the RAV4 hybrid rapidly cycling from gas-to-electric motor, or both, as you cruise with traffic. The synergy drive gauge needle was very active.

With 80 percent of our travel at highway speeds, the hybrid returned 27.6 mpg for 300-plus miles. On a subsequent 280-mile tank, with a greater volume of urban and suburban driving, the RAV4 hybrid generated a healthier 31.6-mpg report — calculated, not from the digital readout.

Secondly, at speeds over 65 mph on less than perfect new pavement, the RAV4 hybrid revealed a lot more road noise than expected. There is notable tire noise, wind noise and general road noise that makes conversation and audio listening often difficult, if not downright annoying. It seemed like the low-rolling resistant Bridgestone Ecopia tires contributed, or maybe our sample was missing some strategic noise suppression, but the car was definitely louder inside than other recent RAV4 models. The hybrid model adds roughly 320 pounds of mass to the regular RAV4, 3,950 pounds, yet this is still more than 200 pounds less than the similar NX300 Lexus model, so perhaps the Lexus receives more sound suppression features.

Beyond the hybrid powertrain, RAV4 buyers still get a wide list of virtues with this crossover. Ingress and egress, very good, back seat space (with a nice flat floor), excellent, plus the revised interior layout is very user-friendly with convenient controls, nice switchgear, and simple screens. Our Limited tester’s two-tone Softex leather-like interior was pleasing to view, while heated seats with memory will be appreciated by all. Visibility is very good — especially with the addition of Toyota’s new Bird’s Eye 360-degree camera setup — while the cargo hold retains its low load height even though you sacrifice the flat-folding rear seatbacks due to the battery pack. A power liftgate is now available too.

Safety and driving aids include: blind-spot detection, lane-change assist, forward braking assist with pedestrian detection, rear cross-traffic alerts, plus new Dynamic cruise control. The Advanced Technology Package adds a more capable Entune audio system with weather, traffic, and 11 JBL-speakers, as well as multiple power ports, a larger screen, and Bluetooth.

Built in Ontario, Canada, the Prius of crossovers has arrived. Toyota expects the take rate will be approximately 15 percent of RAV4 sales, as total RAV4 sales have markedly increased. Even with low gas prices, I believe buyers will flock to the RAV4 hybrid because it works well as an AWD crossover, yet it has the genes from the Prius. That has a lot of appeal; think of what crossovers are in the driveways of current Prius, Volt, Leaf, and Tesla owners. That vehicle will be replaced by a RAV4 hybrid.

Toyota, what took so long?


Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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