First Drive: 2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid

Best of Both Worlds

Gary Witzenburg
Jan 13, 2016
Photographers: Courtesy of Toyota
Almost while no one was looking, compact crossover utilities (CUVs)—essentially compact cars wearing taller, more commodious bodies—have surpassed midsize cars as the U.S. auto market's best-selling segment. Nearly everyone, it seems, who doesn't need or want a pickup or large truck-based SUV is migrating up, down, and sideways into small CUVs.
Ever since it pioneered this segment in 1995 (1994 in Japan and Europe), Toyota's RAV4 has consistently been among its most popular entries, placing Third in 2014 behind Honda's CR-V and Ford's Escape with nearly 268,000 units delivered. And this well-refreshed ’16 iteration, with its softer, more upscale interior, host of new safety and convenience features, and pair of appealing new models, should be even more competitive. The V-6 engine and kids-only third-row seat options offered on earlier generations are thankfully gone, as is the trying-to-be-rugged tailgate-mounted spare tire.
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A new SE model has its own front look, sportier suspension, paddle shifters (to manually shift its six-speed automatic), red-lighted instruments, LED head and taillamps and a bunch of added features that cost extra on lesser versions. Unfortunately, it makes do with the standard 2.5L 4-cylinder's 176 horses and leisurely 9-second 0-60 mph performance.
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But the most interesting news is the new hybrid model, which marries a more fuel-efficient Atkinson-cycle 2.5L four to Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system and a modest-size nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack, with the added bonus of standard all-wheel drive "with intelligence" (AWD-i) from a second electric motor that torques up its rear wheels when its fronts start to slip. Total system output is 194 horses; 0-60 acceleration is about a second quicker; and its EPA economy ratings are an impressive 34 mpg city, 31 highway and 33 combined versus 24/31/26 for front-drive non-hybrid RAV4s and 22/29/25 with optional AWD. For comparison, the gas-only Mazda CX-5 Sport achieves 35 mpg on the highway but must make do with just 26 mpg around town.
There’s adequate room inside for five adults with 37.2 inches of rear legroom and 35.6 cubic feet of cargo room behind the rear seat (2.8 less than in non-hybrids). With the 60/40 split reclining rear seats folded down, that expands to 70.6 cubic ft. (73.4 in non-hybrids). Special attention was focused on cabin quietness, Toyota says, with added insulation in the cargo area, floor pan, and doors.
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The line-topping Limited grade boasts SofTex upholstery, heated front seats, an eight-way power driver seat with memory and lumbar adjustment, a Smart Key system with pushbutton start, a remote power liftgate, a 4.2-inch TFT multi-information display, and a 7-inch touch-sensitive infotainment screen. Four available Entune audio systems are available, and even the six-speaker standard one has AM/FM/CD, a 6.1-inch touchscreen (which also displays the standard backup camera view), Bluetooth connectivity, iPod connectivity and control, USB 2.0 and AUX inputs, and Advanced Voice Recognition. Adding to that, Siri Eyes Free is new for ’16; XLE and SE models feature Scout GPS Link cell phone-based navigation; and XLE, SE and Limited come with SiriusXM All-Access Radio with a 3-month trial subscription.
Its Star Safety System includes eight standard airbags, traction control, electronic brake-force distribution, Enhanced Vehicle Stability Control, brake assist, anti-lock braking system, and Smart Stop Technology. It is also among the first U.S. models to offer Toyota Safety Sense (TSS)—standard on Limited, available on XLE and SE—with Forward Collision Warning and automatic emergency braking, lane departure alert, automatic high beams, Pre-Collision Safety with Pedestrian Detection, and dynamic radar cruise control. SEs and Limiteds have a blind spot monitor with Rear Cross Traffic Alert, and front and rear parking sonar and a new Bird’s Eye View Camera with Perimeter Scan are available.
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We found the ’16 RAV4 a crisper handler than the outgoing ’15 with better steering and braking feel, though the hybrid seemed somewhat softer due to its added weight. However, the hybrid's 206 lb-ft of torque makes it quicker and more responsive than non-hybrid versions. Test-driving a RAV4 Hybrid on a 22.7-mile urban/suburban test loop, our only complaints were its rubbery electric continuously variable transmission (E-CVT) (with six simulated gear ranges that attempt to emulate a conventional automatic) and an unimpressive 25 mpg observed average in normal mode.
The upgraded interior is much nicer and quieter than before, and both passenger and cargo roominess were surprisingly good. Among a choice of operating modes, ECO optimizes throttle response and air conditioning to prioritize fuel economy, and the hybrid's EV mode lets it run solely on battery power alone below 25 mph for about a half mile. Maybe useful for parking but not much else.
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This ’16 RAV4 is not all new but a mid-cycle upgrade of the popular 4th generation introduced for ’13. The hybrid model is Toyota's eighth but the RAV4's first and the compact CUV segment's only available hybrid. It's offered in two trim levels: XLE (starting at about $29k, including delivery) and Limited. The gas RAV4 models come in four grades: LE (starting at $25k), XLE, Limited, and the new SE.
2016 Toyota RAV4 Limited
Vehicle type: Compact CUV Hybrid
Base price: $28,370
Price as tested: $33,610
Engine: 2.5L 4-cylinder w/ 105 kW electric motor
Transmission: E-CVT
Horsepower: 194 (total system)
Torque: 206 lb-ft (total system)
Curb weight: 3,925 lbs (XLE); 3,950 lbs (Limited)
Towing capacity: 1,750 lbs
EPA mileage rating: 34/31/33

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