Most manufacturers who are serious about hybrids focus on sedans. When they do attempt an SUV, their efforts often deliver “why bother?” results, combining a high price tag with only minimal hybrid benefit. Toyota and Honda have offered mass-market hybrids for almost 20 years with Toyota dominating the space. In 2012, Toyota introduced the RAV4 Hybrid to mixed reviews but saw potential with the hybrid compact SUV. Four years later, they have rolled out a completely revamped version.
Let’s get this out of the way up front: I was not expecting much from the RAV4 Hybrid. As a small car driver, I don’t really appreciate larger vehicles – especially SUVs – nor do I try hard to understand them. With no kids and a 50-mile daily commute, they simply make no sense for me. Heck, almost every day, there are four seats in my car going to waste. It’s with this mentality that I started a week of driving the RAV4 Hybrid; it’s higher, wider, and longer than my regular car. It’s going to take a lot to impress me.
The RAV4 used to be the cute little brother of the Highlander. Its curves were subtle and relatively understated. This is no longer the case. Toyota has moved to redesign the front of all their vehicles with more angles, more recessed fog lights, more curious curves, more – well – angles. The RAV4 picks up this design element in a grand fashion.
The headlight varies between the Limited and the XLE model: the Limited gets LED projector-beam whereas the XLE gets the Halogen projector-beam. The headlight assembly itself is relatively subtle for the size of the front area and potential space. This is a good thing, in my opinion, because I’ve never been a fan of overly-large and obnoxious headlight assemblies. The RAV4 does a nice job of enclosing the headlight in LED running lights and tying the assembly into the upper grill, coming together to accentuate the Toyota front logo.
One of the things that boggles my mind is how manufacturers are placing the lower fog lights into recessed cavities. Aesthetically, this creates an interesting contrast and sharp front corners. From an aerodynamic perspective, it would take some effort to convince me that pushing a concave shape into the wind is a good idea. Yes, I tend to overthink things.
The hood features strong Venturi-like styling that helps direct airflow up and over the windshield without letting it spill over to the sides. The high ridges on either side of the windshield further help direct the air up to the roof racks and back to the rear spoiler. The roof racks and spoiler are standard on both models.
An interesting feature is that the shoulder line running from above the front tires back to the taillights delineates the wider bottom half from the thinner upper half. This breaks up the side view and adds character while further directing the air smoothly past the car. This shoulder line has been present in previous generations, just not as prominent.
The Limited comes with 18-inch 5-spoke chrome tires. The XLE comes with 17-inch 5-spoke chrome tires.
Sliding into the RAV4 and sitting in the driver’s seat is actually a pleasant experience. And by sliding, yes: the driver’s seat is about hip-high. There is no squatting down into the car and no climbing out. It was almost too easy. Once seated, the driver’s cockpit easily spreads out in front of you. Everything is within reach and well laid out. The overall layout of the dashboard is a combination of leather and plastic. The plastic itself is a combination of hard surfaces and soft-touch texture. In some places, the leather stitching matches and in some places it contrasts. For example, the steering wheel has textured black leather with black stitching for a non-distracting appearance. The dash, however, has smooth gray leather and white stitching to create a dignified look. All-in-all, the entire layout works.
The first thing the RAV4 did to win me over was to have comfortable seats. My memory of SUVs includes the early days when they were poor attempts to make cars out of trucks, complete with uncomfortable seats. Those days are gone and the RAV4 sits like an everyday sedan. The driver’s seat has six-way adjustments including height. The Limited model has programmable seat memory meaning once that perfect seat position is identified, you can program it. With two memories, the car can be shared without starting fights.
Speaking of avoiding fights, the RAV4 hybrid comes with dual-zone air conditioning standard on both models. One of the things I do when testing a car is to turn the A/C on AUTO and leave it there. According to most manufacturers, this is the preferred way to maintain a constant temperature regardless of variables without having to constantly fidget with the controls. With the temperature set to turn on the heater or to turn on the cooling system, the RAV4 hybrid never seemed to struggle. Drawing on years of hybrid experience, Toyota really knows how to run an A/C unit without impacting the overall operation of the car. This results in higher mileage, which we’ll get to later.
Of course, the hybrid is a modified version of the conventional RAV4 so it should come as no surprise that parts are shared and modified. One example of this is the dashboard. Standard on all RAV4s is the information screen flanked by two circular dials. The dial on the right is the speedometer and gasoline gauge. On the left, where the conventional RAV4 has the tachometer, is the Hybrid Power Monitor. The Power Monitor is such a simple gauge to read and use. The dial indicates the amount of pedal pressure applied and how it will affect the operation of the car.
When the car is being propelled forward, the dial moves clockwise. A little pressure can keep the needle in the “ECO” section, which will cause the engine to shut off and run on battery. Beyond that, the engine is running and powering the car but doing so efficiently. At the high end of the dial is “PWR” where the engine is working its hardest to power the car. Once the driver is familiar with the how to work the pedal, this becomes a very powerful feedback tool.
Of course, the RAV4 has regenerative braking and that is reflected in the dial as well. When decelerating, the dial moves counter-clockwise into the “CHG” zone. When simply rolling, the dial is lightly dancing in the zone; when a little pressure is applied to the brakes, the dial dips hard into the zone indicating a deeper regen. Anyone looking to ‘game’ the RAV4 for high mileage only needs to pay attention to this one dial.
One thing all hybrids do is to display the word “READY” when the car is powered up and ready to be driven. One thing no hybrids do is turn that indicator off after you start driving the car. It is absolutely unnecessary to remind the driver – as they are driving on the interstate – that the car is ready to be driven. To the credit of the RAV4, at least it’s subtle.
Many manufacturers are working to completely computerize their entire car interface. The RAV4 maintains “old-fashioned” dials and backlighting. When driving at night, the light-blue, off-white, and yellow tones are subtle and easy to look at. Kudos to Toyota for knowing when to stick with what works.
Speaking of what works, the center display has an energy screen that simplifies the illustration of energy flow between the gasoline engine, wheels, and battery. At first, the arrangement of the three components not being “anatomically correct” seemed a little odd. However, their simplified layout uses the space beautifully and provides an easy-to-read display. More kudos for this design.
The steering wheel mimics most other Toyota vehicles in that the audio system is controlled with the left thumb. The 4-way rocker ring tunes the music source up or down and also answers or hangs up the hands-free phone. Two large buttons are used for adjusting the volume. Having large volume buttons is vital: when a really good song comes on, there is no excuse for having to dig around for the volume. Likewise, when that unexpected Bieber song starts, you want to kill that as quickly as possible. The right thumb is used to interact with the dashboard information screen.
The information screen is a high-resolution display neatly tucked between the two analog dials. It is comprised of multiple screens that the driver pans through to retrieve various data. Using the right thumb, the driver moves sideways to access information about fuel efficiency, multimedia, lane keep assist, system messages, or access system configuration settings. Some of the categories have multiple screens that can be accessed vertically. For example, when viewing the fuel efficiency screen, there are individual screens displaying mileage data After Start, After Rest, After Refuel, and the energy monitor.
The only thing that struck me as odd about the information display was the multimedia screen. The good part is that with the screen and control buttons, you can change sources. The unfortunate part is that it does not display information such as artist and song title. You know how it goes: you’re jamming along with your favorite XM station when they pull out that one-hit-wonder you haven’t heard in forever. It would be great to have the name right in front of you but instead you have to look over at the center console. It’s trivial, I know, but something that should just be there.
Infotainment and Center Console
The infotainment center features a 7.0-inch multi-functional display. This screen is used to view navigation, control music, make phone calls, and display how the car is managing energy. If equipped, this screen also provides real-time weather and traffic. Pairing my phone to the car via Bluetooth was extremely easy. Within a few moments, I was able to make voice-activated phone calls to people in my phone’s address book simply by speaking their name. Pretty slick.
There are multiple audio options: AM/FM/XM/USB/Aux/Bluetooth. What’s missing? A CD player. This is a monumental moment; this is the first time I have seen a car without a CD player. For most people this is not such a bid deal because there are literally a half-dozen other options. However, for those of us who get audio book from the library on CD, we’re doomed. Someone once suggested to burn the CDs into my computer, sync them only my phone, and stream them that way. What a hassle. Truly, I did not expect a tape deck and didn’t miss it but the CD player? Good bye old friend.
I’ll follow that CD rant with one thing I truly like about how the RAV4 stores radio stations. It simply has a bunch of memory slots and you save whatever you want wherever you want. That is to say, in some cars you have to select the XM screen and then you have your XM stations. Or pick the FM screen to access your FM stations. And even then there’s FM1 and FM2. Not having to navigate into a specific audio category makes browsing so much easier.
Toyota continues to promote its Entune suite of applications, including Bing Internet search, iHeartRAdio, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable, and Pandora. When enabled and connected to the Internet, the map screen provides real-time traffic information. Though the RAV4 Hybrid doesn’t need fuel as often as the conventional version, when the time comes, it is surprisingly easy to look up nearby gas prices and station locations. When the best one is located, a single touch will provide navigation information straight to it.
The glove box is relatively huge. Once you’ve read the manual cover-to-cover (right?!) leave it at home and you have a large space to store other stuff. Above the glove box is an open space for the things needed to be within reach. As with most spaces without doors, make sure whatever you put there isn’t going to fly out when you make turns and isn’t going to turn deadly in the event of an unfortunate accident.
I drive around the Chicagoland area and use Waze to help me navigate around the various traffic issues. This means I like to have my phone accessible or at least visible as I’m driving. The RAV4 provides no real place to set the phone that is visible and accessible. There is a space tucked away under the center console but it’s way too far away. Toyota’s Entune system and voice recognition controls do a great job of keeping people off their phone when they are driving. However, there are many reasons other then those covered by Entune that require access to phone-provided information. It would simply be nice to have somewhere close-at-hand to set the phone.
Toyota has learned a lot from their Prius hybrid. They incorporate the same hybrid technology into the RAV4 but scale it up for the beefier vehicle. Whereas the Prius weighs just over 3,000 pounds, the RAV4 tips the scales at just shy of 4,000 pounds. As you can imagine, the same setup just wouldn’t cut it. So Toyota got clever.
The RAV4 powers the front wheels with a 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine capable of producing 150 horsepower coupled with a 141 horsepower electric motor. But wait, there’s more! In addition to the front motor, there is a second, 67-hp electric motor dedicated to the rear wheels with no connection to the front. Both motors can draw from – and regenerate to – the 244.8-volt Nickel-Metal Hydride battery. The rear motor is not used most of the time and the RAV4 is front-wheel drive. However, if the RAV4 detects any slippage from the front wheels the rear motor will engage the rear wheels to assist. Toyota calls this setup AWD-i because it is intelligent all-wheel drive.
What really got my attention was that the RAV4 does not drive like the old-school SUVs I remember. Yeah yeah, it’s a CUV for what that’s worth. All the same, I expected some stiffness in the steering and braking and expected the ride to be equally stiff. Nope. For several years, I drove a Buick Regal and the RAV4 reminded me more of that Regal than any other car I’ve driven. It was smooth and easy. As a daily driver, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The RAV4 Hybrid provides three different driving modes. These modes are used to adjust the ratio between pedal pressure and motor response. In Normal mode, there is a 1-to-1 ratio in that the car responds in concert with the amount of pressure applied to the pedal. When Eco mode is engaged, the dash takes a green hue and the amount of response to pedal pressure is reduced. In SPORT mode, the display is red and the response is increased.
ECO mode is great for those situations where sudden power jolts are unnecessary. For example, when crawling in traffic. Because it reduces the amount of power relative to the pedal pressure, ECO mode can be used to help achieve higher MPG during regular driving.
When in Power mode, the amount of “gitty up” is startling. Power mode provides those bursts of power when needed and boy does it deliver. For a large vehicle, it really has some spring in its step.
In addition to ECO and SPORT modes, there is also EV mode, which forces the gas-powered engine to stay off and power the car exclusively from the hybrid battery. This mode is intended only for short distances such as shuffling cars in a driveway and should not be used as an attempt to improve overall fuel efficiency.
What surprised me is the location of these buttons: under the center console, recessed in a nook, in front of the shifter. They are not easy to reach and you have to lean forward, almost face-to-steering wheel to reach them. There are situations in which a quick burst of Power mode is needed – such as merging at the top of an onramp. With the button placement, a quick burst is difficult.
Because I am not accustomed to driving higher vehicles, it took a little while for me to get accustomed. Thankfully, the seat adjusts up which allowed even little ol me to see comfortably in all directions. The placement of the mirror adjustments just to the left of the steering wheel meant that I could always see to my sides and behind.
The center console has two coffee mug holders. They are nice coffee mug holders. One even has a slot to allow for mugs with handles. It’s very nice. However nice they are, their placement leaves a little to be desired. One is behind the shift lever and in front of the armrest. Too far behind the shifter and too close to the armrest; middle-of-the-forearm location. So as your elbow is on the armrest, you can’t reach the mug without taking your arm off the armrest, rotating your shoulder, and reaching down to grab the coffee mug from the top.
A well-placed coffee mug holder is located where the hand falls when the elbow is on the armrest and allows for picking up the mug from the side. Imagine that rather than coffee mug it’s a To-Go cup with one of those questionable lids. That’s what you’re using to pick it up. Hope it doesn’t pop off. On the other hand, there’s the mug holder in front of the shifter. That’s right: it’s in front of the shifter and tucked up under the center console. This means you have to reach around the shifter to grab the mug and then tilt it as you lift it in front of the center console. Of course I realize the cup holders have to be placed around the shifter, which cannot be relocated. But their final placement just seems awkward. Don’t get me wrong: these things did not keep me from enjoying my favorite morning brew every day.
The armrest itself has a clever design. The lever for opening it is split in two so there are actually two levers. If you lift them both, the armrest opens to a very deep and practical space. However, if you lift just one lever (sorry but I can’t remember if it’s the left or right) then the armrest opens to a shallow tray. This type of two-stage storage compartment is ingenious and practical.
Allow me to rant a little bit. If you move the shifter all the way to the bottom, the car is in drive. Move the shifter to the left and now you have gear control and can shift up or down manually. To be clear, the RAV4 Hybrid uses an electronically controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (eCVT). It uses software programming to continuously and instantly find the most efficient gear ratio for the situation. With a flip of the wrist, the driver can override that. Rather than write several paragraphs about how silly it is to electronically introduce fake gear settings to a CVT so the driver can play make-believe sports car driver in a CUV, I’m just going to make it clear that I’m not a fan.
Let’s get right to it: the RAV4 is a great car for small families. Toyota has been manufacturing – and tweaking – the RAV4 for many years and they have it pretty dialed in. And yet, they seem to find ways to improve on the previous generation.
The RAV4 seats four people comfortably and one person awkwardly. The back seat has a fold-down armrest which doubles as a really bad back seat. There are seatbelts for that middle area but trust me; you do not want to sit there. As the youngest of a large family, I know exactly where I’d be and I’d hate every minute of it. So let’s just way that it seats four very comfortably. With connectors for car seats, it’s extremely family friendly. Here’s a really cool feature: the back seats lean back. Seriously. Not all the way; maybe to the level of coach class on an airplane. In other words, enough to make long trips a little more bearable.
In addition to the two cup holders in the front, there are two in the back contained in the fold-down armrest. This means that if you are the poor kid forced to sit in the middle, not only are you uncomfortable but you are also the reason the other two don’t have cup holders. Sorry, kid. The RAV4 does have bottle holders suitable for standard 12oz bottles of water. There are four in the front: two in each door and two in the back: one in each door.
If your kids like using their devices on long rides, don’t worry about battery charging. There are two cigarette chargers in the front and one in the back. Nowadays, it’s easy to find a 4-port charger that plugs into the cigarette chargers. This makes it easy to squash that “are we there yet” nonsense once and for all.
To make sure your family is safe, Toyota’s “Safety Sense” suite of safety features is standard on the Limited model and available in the XLE. This suite includes Pre-Collision that will alert you of an impending impact and apply the brakes if you don’t. Also included is Lane Departure Assist that watches the road for painted lane lines and notifies you if you start to drift. Automatic high beams will disengage the high beams when the system detects an oncoming car. The Pedestrian Detection System uses millimeter-wave radar and a shape-detecting camera to warn you of pedestrians who might walk into your path. One of my favorites is the Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, which allows you to specify a safe following distance from the car in front and maintain that distance automatically. In addition to the high-tech safety, the RAV4 has eight airbags just in case.
Other nifty safety features include the Front and Rear Parking Sonar that is standard on the Limit and optional on the XLE. An integrated back-up camera is standard on both models. Blind spot monitoring is standard in the Limited and optional in the XLE. The bird’s-eye-view, which provides a true 360-degree camera visual, is only available on the Limited model.
As much as I enjoyed the ride and technology of the RAV4, it’s the cargo space that probably attracts most people to this segment of vehicles. In that category, the RAV4 does not disappoint. To start, opening the hatch is a piece of cake thanks to the push-button power hatch. There are three ways to activate the power hatch: a button on the dashboard, from the remote fob, pressing the handle above the license plate. To alleviate any security concerns, the fob must be nearby when the hatch handle is used. When fully opened, the hatch is 74 inches high allowing plenty of headroom for most people to easily walk underneath.
The cargo deck is 26 inches off the ground and flush with the opening, which makes getting things in and out very easy. The entire space is clean and unobstructed measuring 52” at its widest point, 29” from the hatch to the back seats, and 70” with the rear seats folded. With the back seats upright, I was able to easily fit 9 paper shopping bags. Maybe 10 if I smooshed a little. Toyota offers a “Cargo Net Envelope” that provides a cargo net ‘pocket’ for holding things like baseball gloves, Frisbees, and the like. They also offer a “Cargo Net Hammock”, which is a cargo net between two rods used to hold things down such as soccer balls, basketballs, and other things that tend to roll around.
Under the cargo area is a full-sized spare tire. This surprised me because I expected the hybrid battery to be housed under the cargo floor. However, Toyota places the hybrid battery under the back seats. Having a full-sized spare is a good thing.
The RAV4 Hybrid is a variant of the RAV4 model. For this reason, it should be expected that someone who purchases the hybrid version is interested in the mileage aspect. To help the mileage-concerned owner, the RAV4 presents the trip’s MPG when the car is turned off. At first, this might strike some people as a little over-the-top but think about the people who drive the same route to and from work every day. This closing display gives them the opportunity to see how today compared to yesterday and perhaps they can do a little better tomorrow. Maybe I’m too obsessed about this, but when someone is presented immediate results, there is a bigger impact.
The overall hybrid system is rather aggressive, by which I mean every opportunity it can shut off the gas engine it will. This is contrary to some other hybrids that seem shy and will run the engine longer than needed. This aggressiveness pays off big time, especially when approaching a stoplight or on stretches of road running under 40 mph. The RAV4 will run on battery at speeds up to 45 MPH, which is rather impressive on a vehicle of this size. The electric motor is strong and not shy when it comes to moving up rolling hills at 40 mph purely on battery.
When trying to ‘game’ the hybrid system in an attempt to eek out the best possible mileage, I found that it seemed impossible to “glide”. Gliding is a hybrid term in which there is no energy flowing from the battery or engine to the wheels and no regeneration from the wheels to the battery. Gliding a hybrid is akin to slipping aconventional car in to Neutral only safer and legal. This proved to not be a big deal since the RAV4 rolls exceptionally well. With the two electric motors, it is able to regenerate more energy while not excessively dragging on the wheels. If you’ve ever gotten into an aggressively regenerating hybrid, you understand the noticeable drag when you let off the pedal. Rolling in the RAV4 was smooth and easy.
There are three primary routes I use during my daily commute. Route One is a straight-drive on a state highway with stoplights; Route Two is stop-n-go, some highway, and goes through a town; Route Three is a more peaceful, slower, drive. The baseline is that the RAV4 is rated 34 city / 31 highway / 33 combined. Route One, driven twice, averaged 44.5 mpg. Route Two, driven twice, averaged 40.2 mpg. Route Three, driven four times, averaged 46.0 mpg. To be clear, the A/C was set to AUTO and though I’m an attentive and experienced hypermiling driver, I was not “really” trying. The RAV4 Hybrid totally shattered its EPA rating.
Over the course of a week, I had driven the RAV4 to and from work four days and run random errands in the evenings and over the weekend. My entire one-week average was 43.2 MPG. A full 10 MPG above the combined rating; almost 33% more than expected!
When Toyota introduced the Prius, people said, “yeah, I want to save money on fuel but I need to haul stuff” or “I need to tow stuff”. Then the hatchback Prius was introduced and people still didn’t feel there was enough room for their family and all their stuff. As other manufacturers introduced hybrids they were still not large enough for the naysayers. Well let me tell you something: you’re really running out of excuses with the RAV4 Hybrid. It has comfortable seating for 4, an automated hatch, 38.4 cubic-feet of cargo space (73 with the back seats folded), 1,500 pounds of towing capacity, all the creature comforts of a well-appointed sedan, and the mileage of a conventional Camry.
A family of four with regular jaunts to school, the playground, and soccer pitch would find the RAV4 more than adequate. A couple who likes to camp and occasionally has passengers would love this car. Basically, the RAV4 Hybrid matches the mileage of a sedan, providing more interior space without being a behemoth SUV.