2016 Toyota RAV4 SE: Sporty and Sensible, But Not Perfect

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Now that I’ve reviewed the “environmentally conscientious” side of the redesigned Toyota RAV4, with its hybrid version offering Americans even more green, perhaps it’s time to explore the other side of the Toyota emblem, where they supposedly harbor all the fun stuff. Over 2.4 million RAV4s have graced our roadways since its humble introduction over two decades ago, and while it’s certainly served its role well in the crossover market, it’s never been a particularly fast or sporty car.

But that’s about to change, because Toyota has finally come to grips with the fact that millennials have the money to afford something other than a base model, and by God, they want a little luxury, tech, and handling to go with it! Take the all-new Prius or the Lexus NX200t F Sport that I got to spank back in the spring, and compare them to Toyota’s offerings from just a few years ago. These aren’t just cars that look more aggressive, they are more aggressive. Many Toyotas now have full-blown, race-inspired components sprinkled throughout their DNA, and when it comes to the sporty “SE” version of the 2016 RAV4… well, you’ll see…

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior

Compared to the tech-laden, Limited version of the Hybrid RAV4 I drove after this one, it’s safe to say that the SE is the sharpest-looking of the bunch. It still has that angular, pissed-off face, but with all of its honeycomb black mesh, wider air ducts, and protruding lower air dam, the SE version has an aggressive look that deserves be universal across the RAV4 lineup. That’s just me being performance-oriented though, so for now we’ll just have to work with what we’ve got. Still, that mean front end, LED tubed lighting, 18-inch alloy wheels, black-housed heated side mirrors, and blue shock absorbers work together to give the SE a seriously unique appearance in the segment.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior pros and cons

+ Just like the top of the line Limited Hybrid model, the SE is aggressive, angular, and all grown-up, striking a sharper pose than ever before.

+ LED daytime running lights, projectors, and taillights are all welcome additions, bringing it into the new year with style.

+ The silver-colored lower front air dam, enlarged, honeycomb grille, 18-inch performance wheels, and blackened side-view mirrors all give extra flair to the SE.

– Unpainted plastic ground effects may not look so bad on the SE version when it’s red, but offering it paint matched from the factory would be greatly appreciated.

– Sport-tuned suspension and unique alloys don’t mean a damn thing if you have fender gaps large enough to stick softballs into. Up the size of the wheels and the tire sidewalls a hair, or lower the geometry of the car 1.5 inches or so to make this thing actually look sporty and still be drive-able.

– The SE comes equipped with an incomplete aero kit, and after looking at it for a few minutes you’ll realize it needs side skirts, a larger rear diffuser or lip, a duckbilled/angled wing, and a sport-tuned exhaust instead of just a boring old, downward-facing tailpipe.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain

While it may be amusing to mention how certain hybrids are now out-muscling their 100% petrol-powered counterparts, in the case of the new RAV4, the word “amusing” can be switched with “unfortunate.” Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Toyota sportiness. The Celica All-Trac, 2JZ Supra, 86 Trueno, and MR2 were all outstanding automobiles in their own regards, but sadly the SE won’t ever be counted among them.

Featuring the exact same 176 ponies and 172 foot-pounds of torque as the base RAV4, the SE is a far cry from being sporty where it counts. I don’t give a hoot if it has paddle shifters, a tricky ECU, and some fanciful aspirations. There’s a very reliable, yet utterly uninspired powerplant languishing beneath the bonnet of this car. Without the aid of a little TRD love in the intake and exhaust departments, it stays an engine that’s about as exciting as shoe polish. Want buyers to jump for joy and wee themselves with glee? Offer a complete TRD version, or better yet, offer the NX200t’s turbocharged engine just for shits and giggles. Hell, the electric AWD system with Dynamic Torque Control on this thing came off the NX, why not reunite the two and just add it to the $29,265 bottom-line?

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain pros and cons

+ The RAV4 SE has a 2.5-liter aluminum four-cylinder that generates 176 horsepower and almost the same amount of torque. Simple and reliable, this is an engine that will last you at least 300,000 miles if properly maintained.

+ As opposed to the Limited hybrid version I bounced around in, the SE model offers paddle shifters that actually engage at the correct point.

+ As disconnected as I felt controlling an all-wheel drive car that didn’t come equipped with locking differentials, U-joints, or a drive shaft, there was a level of connectivity between the front and rear wheels that was unmistakably all Lexus 200t F Sport. Plus, being able to cruise on just the front axles to save fuel is a nice touch.

– While it may be better to drive in “Sport Mode” with the paddle shifters engaged, the drivetrain’s enjoyability peaks at around the same time my coffee begins to taste lukewarm.

– It may work flawlessly now, dazzling us with its space-age intelligence and control, but what will the diagnosing and replacement fees for those AWD motors set owners back when the warranty expires?

– There’s really no difference between the SE version and the base LE model of the RAV4 when it comes to power. We demand TRD awesomeness or uncouth Lexus IS200t turbocharged resilience down the line, because this is just pure tomfoolery without.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior

Bright red exterior color, meet Darth Maul interior. Cloaked in deep black, with few contrasting lines outside of some ornate, Lexus-grade stitching and a few brushed plastics, the cabin of the SE looked and felt sinisterly urbane, a product of well executed engineering and craftsmanship. Seriously, just look at the photos and try to tell yourself this interior looks tacky. Virtually every angle of the cabin is well thought-out and appropriately placed, the result of generations of trial and error.

As I prodded and poked my way around the cabin, things like well proportioned paddle shifters, shift levers and e-brake grips with contrasting stitching, an 8-way adjustable, bolstered driver’s seat with memory functions, SofTex-wrapped sliding center armrest/storage box, and heated front seats all were pleasant discoveries. Plus, the SE offers the same 70.6 cubic-feet of storage space as the rest of its brethren, making it a fantastic candidate for road-trips – especially since the rear seat reclines to accommodate extended periods of “lounge mode.”

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior pros and cons

+ Toyota’s interior designers must have been listening to “Paint it Black,” “Back in Black,” and “Fade to Black” when designing the cabin of the RAV4 SE. The result is a sharp-looking cabin that’s hard to not love.

+ Storage cubbies, USB ports, well-laid out buttons and switches, a steering wheel that’s balanced and basic, and easy to view control/infotainment screens all are properly placed and quite well-made .

+ I don’t care if SofTex is not genuine leather. It looks and feels fantastic, holds-up better than real leather, and is the perfect fit for the front seats, both of which remain heated and bolstered in proper fashion.

– Why does Toyota hold onto the notion that drivers want a cruise control stalk attached to the steering wheel? Virtually everyone else has already gravitated away from this cumbersome eyesore, it’s time Toyota did the same.

– No LED interior lights on this model either. I wrote an entire diatribe on the significance of LED automotive lighting earlier in the year. Incandescent bulbs are ancient news guys.

– While adding paddle shifters to a car nowadays may constitute it as a “sport model,” the paddles on the SE left me wanting a far-less hard feel. Perhaps utilizing the silicone I found in the door grips could aid in boosting both grasp and overall feel here.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech and safety

Blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alerts, smart keys with push button starters, remote power liftgate functions, fully syncing climate control, infotainment connectivity – there’s just so much tech to cover nowadays! A couple of my favorite features on the SE were the the auto sensing hill start assist, which monitors the steepness of the grade and engages the brakes accordingly, and the Entune Plus connected navi, which syncs with your phone, then runs maps via Bluetooth instead of burning data. Naturally, there’s way more tech here, but I don’t have time to rewrite the Iliad at this moment.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech pros and cons

+ Blind spot warnings, eight airbags, auto sensing hill start assistance, and rear cross traffic monitoring cameras are all fantastic safety features.

+ The 7-inch audio HD touchscreen taps into a bird’s eye camera view that allows you to zoom in and out with the tap of a finger, a first for the Toyota brand.

+ A 4.2-inch Multi Information Display (MID) gives drivers all sorts of cool info, like real-time all-wheel drive tracking, fuel economy read-outs, and G-force monitoring.

– That 7-inch center stack display may be HD in quality, but it doesn’t do you any favors when it comes to making sure the Scout GPS links-up every time via Bluetooth. Some people with have far better luck with this feature than others, depending on their smartphones.

– That same MID shows all sorts of useful info, but won’t digitally read how fast you’re going. While it may not be a requirement for some, this remains a fundamental piece of the puzzle to people like myself.

– JBL makes some quality components, but without the aid of a sub and an amp, the audio in the RAV4 remains “not bad” at best.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The drive

With its performance wheels, re-tuned digressive shocks, and fatter sway-bars, the Hybrid RAV4 SE looks plenty snazzy, but it can’t completely hide that awkward, lofty stance. Re-tuned for a tighter turning radius, however, the RAV4’s electronic power steering is quick to respond, even if it doesn’t offer as much feedback as I would’ve liked. The brakes and stiffer body complemented the aforementioned dampers nicely too.

So the powerband isn’t all that exhilarating, go figure. But with its slinky cabin, minimal blind spots, well-placed displays, and fantastic forward visibility, most drivers will likely find that the RAV4 SE strikes just the right balance between sporty and sensible when driving it for the first time.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Wrap up and review

I’ll keep my closing criticisms brief, as I see a lot of potential in the 2016 RAV4 SE, and don’t want to bash a good car. The SE is a strong swing at making a small SUV fun, but Toyota kind of missed its mark by not offering enthusiasts a more potent powerplant. Upgrade it with some TRD power mods, brakes, suspension, and aero all around, and then we’ll be talking. Because for $29,265, the SE costs more than the hybrid version, something that left me wondering how well it’ll sell without said needed add-ons.

Perhaps Toyota should look at what Jeep has done with the Renegade Sport, what with its turbocharged, all-wheel drive, six-speed manual transmission, and mud-slinging appeal. Maybe the Japanese automaker could design a TRD-PRO model of the RAV4 that rocks the same turbocharged engine as the NX200t, and then, with a lift, some bully bars, gnarly tires and wheels, and a manual gearbox, a real star would be born.

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