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2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid First Drive Review

Camry Killer: Hybrid model will help CUV oust sedan sibling as Toyota sales king

Camry Killer: Hybrid model will help CUV oust sedan sibling as Toyota sales king

Bold prediction time: The vehicle you see here will one day become Toyota‘s best-seller. I’m not the only one who believes that—Toyota does, too. At the debut of the updated 2016 RAV4, Toyota said that it expects its compactish crossover to one day crest the 400,000 sales marker, beating the mighty Camry in sales. Vehicles such as the 2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid—a big new addition to the larger updated 2016 RAV4 lineup—will also serve as an important step toward Toyota’s goal of selling mostly emissions-free vehicles by 2050.

Those two predictions go a long way toward providing some sort of background to the upgrades Toyota made to the 2016 RAV4 lineup. Always a strong player in the segment (in November, the RAV4 overtook the Ford Escape for second place in the compact crossover sales race), Toyota found that many of its most loyal customers were unhappy with how carlike their formerly rugged RAV4 had become when the fourth-generation model debuted in 2013. Customers were also displeased with the hard plastics inside and excessive noise, vibration, and harshness.

Interested in the 2016 Toyota RAV4? Read more here: 10 Things to Know About the 2016 Toyota RAV4

The updated RAV4 does much to win back the favor of those customers. For starters, the RAV4’s gets a nose lift (literally) to give drivers a more SUVish look over the hood. With the lift comes a new front end with a revised grille, new LED headlights, and a faux skidplate, all of which help to improve the RAV4’s aerodynamics. The design is tidied up in the rear with a new bumper and new taillights, and revised rocker panels tie the whole design together along the RAV4’s profile.

Inside, the ragtag combination of plastic, pleather, and contrasting finishes has been simplified for a more premium design. The bones of the interior are the same, but the fit, finish, and quality of the materials have vastly improved. Take the door cards, for instance. Toyota said that customers complained about the feel of the hard plastic upper section of the door on their arms, so Toyota fixed the issue with soft-touch padding. The automaker also added soft-touch padding to the dashboard, put in a new steering wheel, and revised the center console’s design and trim. The cabin is finished off with extra sound deadening under the floors and in the doors.

For better or worse, the base 2.5-liter I-4 with 176 horses is unchanged, but the RAV4 Hybrid is the final piece of the puzzle. For a brand as synonymous with hybrid vehicles as Toyota is, it’s surprising it took the automaker 22 years and two low-selling RAV4 EVs before it tried a hybrid version. Like the Camry Hybrid it shares its major powertrain components with, the RAV4 Hybrid has a 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle I-4 mated to a hybrid transaxle containing an electronically controlled CVT, an electric generator, and an electric motor. The traction motor, dubbed Motor Generator 2 (MG2), works as we’ve come to expect of hybrid-electric motors: by assisting the internal combustion engine while accelerating, taking over while coasting, and driving using nothing but electrons under the right conditions. Also included in the hybrid transaxle is a generator, MG1, which functions both as a starter for the internal combustion engine and as a generator of electricity for the battery pack and electric motors. Yes, motors. All RAV4 Hybrids are all-wheel drive with a rear-mounted electric motor (MGR) supplying additional power and traction. Despite the lack of a mechanical linkage between the two axles, as much as 50 percent of the drivetrain’s power can be sent to the rear wheels. Bringing the whole system together is a small 1.6-kW-hr nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery intelligently packed underneath the rear bench seat. Total system power is 194 hp and 199 lb-ft of torque.

Although the Hybrid badges on the RAV4 Hybrid’s front quarter panels might initially put off some enthusiasts, most will be pleasantly surprised at its dynamic performance. Toyota estimates an 8.1-second 0-60-mph time for its hybrid crossover, three-tenths of a second quicker than the last non-hybrid RAV4 we tested. In driving the new RAV4 Hybrid back-to-back with a non-hybrid variant, the electrified version certainly feels more powerful than the 18-hp gap would otherwise suggest. Nailing the throttle results in the gas engine quickly and smoothly firing up as the RAV4 zips forward. Accelerating at a more reasonable pace oddly feels quicker, as you get a quick burst of juice out of the electric motors before the gas engine kicks on and you get going on your way. The hybrid powertrain offers up enough passing power at freeway speeds to satisfy all but the most enthusiastic of drivers, the CVT pitching in and quickly changing its shift logic to mimic a six-speed automatic during passing maneuvers.

The RAV4 Hybrid is most in its element at city speeds, as its EPA scores of 34/31/32 mpg (6.9/7.6/7.3 L/100km) city/highway/combined would suggest. Watching the RAV4’s motors and engine trading off the work via the large Entune infotainment display is oddly hypnotizing. The RAV4 Hybrid seamlessly works the motors and engine independently of each other; one minute you might be driving at 45 mph (72 km/h) on just the front and rear motors, and the next the engine and front motor are powering the front wheels while the engine does double duty charging the battery. I can only imagine the complexity of the computer code needed to make the hybrid’s components work together so seamlessly.

Ultimately, the updated RAV4 lineup is a solid improvement on the current-generation crossover, with none more impressive than the hybrid variant. Toyota initially expects a 15 percent take rate on the RAV4 Hybrid, but given its EPA figures and that it starts at $29,270 USD for a well-equipped RAV4 Hybrid XLE—just $700 USD more than a non-hybrid XLE—I’d be surprised if more buyers weren’t seduced by the hybrid variant. With Toyota’s lofty goals for this potential Camry killer in sight, the hybridized RAV4 may just be what Toyota needed to get over the hump.

2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid
BASE PRICE $29,270
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, front/rear motor, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 2.5L/112-hp/206-lb-ft Atkinson cycle DOHC 16-valve I-4 plus 67-hp/199-lb-ft front and 67-hp/199-lb-ft rear electric motors; 194 hp/199 lb-ft comb
TRANSMISSION Cont. variable auto
CURB WEIGHT 3,950 lb (mfr)
WHEELBASE 104.7 in
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 181.1 x 72.6 x 65.9 in
0-60 MPH 8.1 sec (mfr est)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 34/31/33 mpg
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 99/109 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.60 lb/mile
ON SALE IN U.S. Currently