Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Review: Small Step for Toyota, One Giant Leap for Crossovers

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

It may have experienced one of the most unassuming starts of all time, but the Toyota RAV4 has seen unparalleled success since its introduction back in 1994 with over 2.4 million of these little buggers flooding the roadways since. What began as a bubbly little Japanese toy car that looked like it belonged in a game of Mario Kart has morphed into a Godzilla-like monster, with compact crossovers accounting for the largest area of growth in the SUV segment.

Toyota is smart, and rather than playing all of its hand at once, it opted to hold off on releasing a hybrid version of the RAV4 until now even when it could have done so at any point within the past fifteen years. Timing is everything, so as the millennial market began to clamor for more fuel-efficient, tech-laden servings of CUV, this year became the right time to strike. Yours truly was on site, driving both the all-new Prius and the hybridized RAV4 back-to-back. Here is what I thought.

Exterior

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Much like the Prius, the new RAV4 has a far more angular, pissed-off appearance with its pursed front end and angular LED eyelids. But where the Prius looks just flat-out angry about everything, the RAV4 features a look that is more of squinting distrust than full-blown menace, as the LED-wrapped headlight sconces adopt almost an Audi-ish appearance. With its wider stance, raised front end that carries through the belt line, a noticeable decrease in the use of black trim pieces, and a standard skid plate for all models, the redesigned RAV4 is quite the looker, offering an appearance that is both noticeably different and well-proportioned.

Exterior pros and cons

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ Aggressive, angular, and all grown up, the RAV4 can’t be referred to as a toy car for adolescent teenage girls and substitute yoga teachers.

+ Those LED-wrapped lights look damn good on this car. Who ever thought we would one day be comparing a RAV4’s styling cues to an Audi S5?

+ Toyota has done a great job of cleaning up any unnecessary creases and lines on this car, with well-designed alloy wheels, a tapered rear spoiler, and an integrated skid plate adding pizzazz in stylish increments.

– Whoever thought it was a good idea to allow that much unpainted plastic in the RAV4’s lower subsections should revisit what happened with the Honda Element and Pontiac Aztek.

– Some of us like the way a lower air dam/front lip looks on a car. Without one, the Hybrid RAV4 looks a little exposed/imbalanced up front.

–  The RAV4 seems to have the same triangular cutaways for LED fog lights as the Prius, but instead of opting to put a snazzy, tiered ensemble of diodes in the available sconce, Toyota has replaced them with traditional round fogs. This may not be a deal breaker, but they sure don’t match the rest of the car very well either.

Powertrain

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Let’s be honest; the words “hybrid” and “exhilarating” don’t typically land in the same sentence with one another, so careening around the Southern California countryside is not what the Hybrid RAV4 is all about. Nevertheless, it does still pack almost 200 horsepower, and its ECVT transmission is a clever contraption with its infinite shift points and ability to fluidly disengage or engage both rear motors in order to save gas or grasp the asphalt at a moment’s notice.

The system is remarkably fluid, with zero driveshafts, U-joints, or transfer case woes getting in one’s way. It’s a very precise setup, all the way up until you put it in manual mode in an attempt to feel out all six simulated gears, at which point everything falls apart and you’re left wondering why you just did that. Remember how much I liked the Scion iM but despised its gearbox? This is both a similar and different kind of frustration, as it is not a manual transmission, yet like the iM it still needs a bit of coaxing when it is time to safely secure second gear.

Powertrain pros and cons

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ The RAV4’s 2.5-liter Atkinson cycling four-cylinder offers 194 horsepower and 206 foot-pounds of torque, which felt plenty adequate when bumping around the hills of Laguna Niguel. This car is definitely not as underpowered as it appears on paper.

+ This little bugger features a 1,750 pound tow limit and gets an estimated 33 miles per gallon, which isn’t all that bad for how small it is.

+ The AWD-i system on the new RAV4 is electronically controlled, with no driveshaft connecting the front and rear electric motors, just like the Lexus 200t F Sport I drove back in the spring. So cruising on just the front axles is always an option for saving extra fuel.

– Is it just me, or should a hybrid version be quieter than the non-hybrid version? This car definitely has a strong engine note to it, which to me sounded a tad overkill, even if it may be slightly simulated.

– Putting the car into manual shift mode gives you a gearbox that doesn’t always want to engage right away, and decelerating to a complete stop will leave you sitting at a light in sixth gear. Definitely not the most attentive slushbox I’ve encountered over the years.

– There is something incredibly disconcerting about the thought of tracking down electrical bugs in a hybrid. I am curious to see what issues (if any) people will run into with this car’s individually mounted AWD motors or hybrid system in ten years or so.

Interior

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Toyota has really begun to bridge the gap between itself and the Lexus brand we have all grown to know and love. The interior on the Limited version I was driving at the time of the photo shoot came equipped with a cabin that was just about as snazzy as its high-scale siblings. The RAV4’s white exterior contrasted splendidly with the cinnamon-colored leather two-tone interior.

Some of my favorite features outside of all the headroom I encountered were the reclining rear seats, comfy heated front ones, the availability of adjustable cargo shelves with 70.6 cubic-feet of storage space, having more padding and soft touch materials than Hugh Hefner’s bed chambers, and the use of matte black, brushed, and glossy silver plastics in place of all that faux carbon from the outgoing generation.

Interior pros and cons

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ The RAV4’s premium-grade interior comes complete with stitched leather trim pieces across parts of the dash, two-tone heated power seats, and premium touch points at every turn, making it feel akin to a rebadged Lexus.

+ Quiet, comfy, and super spacious, the cabin of the RAV4 is a fantastic place to be, with attractive lines, multiple USB ports, and well-placed storage spots spread liberally throughout.

+ Everything is in its place here, and not once did I find myself pondering where a particular switch or button might be located in the cabin, with a well-proportioned and appointed steering wheel capping it all off.

– I’ll always and forever despise the addition of a cruise control stalk to any steering column, regardless of manufacturer or trim level. Millions of drivers have voiced the same complaint over the years. Toyota insists on doing so, even when there is plenty of room on the steering wheel for a couple more buttons.

– No LED interior lights. If you can afford to outfit the exterior of the car with them, at least have the consideration to throw a few diodes toward the interior like Korean automakers have so wisely chosen to do.

– For as well appointed as the seats in the RAV4 were, they were by no mean the most comfy ones I’ve experienced. Although this was a top-of-the-line Limited edition, they are also devoid of cooling abilities — though Toyota would have to give people reason to buy Lexus, after all.

Tech and safety

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

This part of the review could take forever purely based on the fact that the new RAV4 has a seriously advanced hybrid monitoring system and more security built into it than a field trip to Fort Knox. Auto sensing hill start assist, trailer sway control, blind spot monitoring, front and rear parking sonar aids, fully syncing climate control, infotainment connectivity, and the list goes on and on. The new RAV4 is like a technological hub for this quadrant of the universe.

Tech pros and cons

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ Lane departure warnings, blind spot warnings, sonar parking assistance, auto sensing hill start assist, and eight airbags are just a few of the safety features you get on this little guy.

+ The seven-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.

+ Six programmable height options for the electronically controlled rear lift gate means you won’t ever have to worry about smacking the roof of your garage again. Bravo, Toyota. That’s quite clever.

– The speakers that came in the car sounded tinny and cheap, even though they were supposedly top-tier JBL audio components. After fooling with the car’s audio controls, as well as my smartphone’s volume settings, the RAV4’s audio system still sounded relatively hollow, leaving me to wonder if this was just a fluke coincidence.

– The driver Multi Information Display (MID) shows all sorts of useful info, but digitally won’t tell you how fast the car is going numerically. While it may not be a requirement for some, this remains a fundamental piece of the puzzle to others like myself.

– We’ve reached the point where CD players are no longer in high enough demand for Toyota to warrant continue putting them in. Wanna slap that mix in before hitting the highway? No can do — import it, download to your MP3 player. Your plastic is no good here.

The drive

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Driving the Hybrid RAV4 back-to-back with the sporty SE version is a pretty straightforward affair, and while it may handle softer in the corners due to not having the SE’s stiffer suspension, there is no feeling of disconnection with the road. OK, so it has an electric power steering system, but even that has been re-tuned for a tighter turning radius, and while it may not be the most exhilarating car to drive, the powerband on it isn’t all that bad either. Toss in minimal blind spots, a well-proportioned steering wheel and appropriately placed displays, excellent forward-facing visibility due to that steeply raked hood, and then refrain from putting it in “manual mode,” and you have a hybrid crossover that is quite pleasant to putter around in, even if “Sport Mode” doesn’t seem to do a whole lot outside of slightly tightening up the steering.

Wrap up and review

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Overall I liked the Hybrid RAV4, as it fills a void in Toyota’s lineup somewhere between the Highlander Hybrid and the Lexus NX200t quite nicely. With its sharp exterior lines, class-leading interior amenities, surprisingly capable engine/hybrid system, and industry leading reliability, there is a lot to like in this latest addition to the green side of the Toyota family. It may feature a few questionable areas here and there in the design department, a manual shift mode that’s weirdly finicky, and has a few tech oversights that need amending, but all cars have their own little issues. Plus, with a sticker price that starts out at $28,370, it is hard to picture a more well-balanced little hybrid crossover for the money. Good job Toyota, you’re off to a great start with this one.

More from Autos Cheat Sheet: