First Drive Review – 2016 Toyota RAV4 XLE Hybrid – By Ben Lewis

HYBRIDS.  Thanks for … Somethin’?

But first, a little credit where it’s due.

Or sacrilege.

You be the judge.

While we salivate over the Porsche 918 and BMW i8, and at $845,000 and $140,000 respectively, slobbering is about all we’re going to do.  We owe gratitude to the Toyota Prius.

Yes, the Prius. While Porsche actually developed the first hybrid automobile in 1901, it was the agrarian little sedan from Toyota that started making hybrid a household name, way back in 1996. And in just 20 years, it has gone from one painfully slow 4-door to become the best selling hybrid world-wide. All this, plus adding a host of other Toyota and Lexus models with the advanced powertrain.First Drive Review - 2016 Toyota RAV4 XLE Hybrid - By Ben Lewis

And when fuel started getting expensive, a lot of other manufacturers joined on the bandwagon. In fact, Toyota can be blamed for creating a Hybrid-sized hemorrhoid for the European manufacturers, who were happily developing diesels for the U.S. market.  When hybrids caught on big, it forced them to invest in both technologies, a budget-busting proposition.

With diesel fighting the bad rap right now, hybrid should be King of the World. Or at least, the U.S. Except for one thing. Gas. It’s cheap. Ridiculously cheap. So we’re having a bonzo, great year selling vehicles. Big gas-sucking ones, like full-size SUV’s and trucks.

While the market for hybrids is still out there – there are some people that just like efficiency and cool tech, regardless of gas prices, the demand for hybrids and electric vehicles other than the megabuck Tesla is pretty low.

So why is Toyota introducing the first ever RAV4 Hybrid now? Especially when the competition is starting to use small turbocharged engines giving them loads of zing? We’ll get to that.

But first, let’s talk about the 2016 RAV4. If Toyota pretty much invented the modern hybrid, you can make a darn good argument that the automaker also created the compact SUV with the RAV4 back in 1995. Over the years, we’ve seen a few interesting variations, including a tiny two-door model and a two-door convertible, but filtering the gene pool has left us with the 4-door body style we have today.

And it’s a good look. Toyota has dolled up the RAV4 for 2016, with a bolder, frownier, front end, more aggressive rocker panels and available LED taillights out back and new silver skid plate garnishes front and rear add some visual pop. We really like the update in Electric Storm Blue (appropriate for a hybrid). Our tester was Magnet Gray Metallic, which was much more subdued. Not our first choice.

Inside, the handsome interior has a few new gizmos, including a 4.2-inch display between the gauges to put useful information in your line of sight, and a larger 7-inch touch-screen audio screen. If that doesn’t get you excited, how about LED illumination on the lower center console, a 12-volt power outlet in the rear area and a revised cupholder designed to hold tall mugs with handles?

OK, not so exciting… but it is all nicely put together, and you get that Toyota feeling that this thing is going to rack up hundreds of thousands of miles and never break a sweat. And to a greater concern, there is almost no loss of interior room – only about 3 cubic feet in cargo space with the hybrid running gear. Interestingly though, the Hybrid bumps up the towing capacity from 1500 to 1,750 lbs., so it might be the better choice if you occasionally tow.

The drive is sporty. Well, sort of. While standard RAVies have a standard 176 hp and 172 lb. ft. of torque, the hybrid boasts 194 hp and 206 lb. ft. Even with the added 300 lbs. of battery pack and associated gear, the Hybrid is about a second faster 0-60. Toyota says expect a scorching 8 seconds or so.

It actually feels faster than 8.0, though, because you’ve got a combination of a CVT giving you optimal rpm’s from the get-go, plus the electric motors that throw out instantaneous torque. And it is smooth; you just waft away on the fat powerband. It’s not very sporty, but is seamless, and the hybrid system is virtually invisible. Which is very cool.

You’re probably wondering about fuel economy, and apples to apples, a regular all-wheel-drive RAV4 gets a 22 city/29 highway mpg rating, while the hybrid bumps it up to 34/31. Our tester was pretty green and honestly, we were lead-footing it (can we say that, in these days of unleaded?), but we were still seeing upper 20’s around town, where the hybrid should do best. A little restraint would probably do wonders.

And speaking of restraint, we’d like to point out that the smaller turbo motors that are offered in the segment really start to suck down the gas when you’re in the turbo zone.

The rest of the drive suits the creamy-style powertrain well. The ride is comfy, the brakes are excellent for a hybrid – the regenerative braking used to give an unpredictable, non-linear feel that was a bear to modulate smoothly. Easy peasy, now.  Handling is reassuring.

None of this feels especially sporty, mind you, but Toyota does offer a RAV4 SE, with a sport-tuned suspension, paddle shifters and 18-inch wheels. We haven’t had an opportunity to drive one yet, but if you have your heart set on performance in this segment, we say go directly to Mazda CX5.

But the RAV4 hybrid isn’t going after the drifting crowd. This driver will probably enjoy popping into Eco mode and seeing how far they can stretch a gallon of gas. Toyota is betting this is a well-heeled buyer, too – the hybrid models are only offered in upscale XLE (like our tester) and plush Limited trims.

You can get into a stylish RAV4 for as little as $24,350. Our XLE Hybrid stickered at $28,370. And you’re only paying $700 for the hybrid over a regular XLE all-wheel drive, so it’s a lot of tech for your buck. Hybrid or no, you get navigation, keyless entry, a power moonroof, power liftgate and heated outside mirrors.

Our tester also had the Toyota Safety Sense package, which includes Pre-collision system with Pedestrian Detection, Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist, Dynamic Rader Cruise Control and Auto High Beams. Also included were Blind Spot Monitor and Rear Cross Traffic alert, front and rear parking sonar and premium audio. Total price with all the goodies, a still reasonable $31,315.

Nicely equipped, as we say in the trade. Step up to the Limited and you’ll pay $33,160 and get such added goodies as power seats in, SoftTex (fake leather to you and me) 18” SuperChrome Alloys, LED headlights and more.

If you want a small crossover hybrid, Toyota has pretty much got you by the electric motors. The only current competitor is the Subaru Crosstrek hybrid – notably smaller, slower, yet offering no better mpg. We’d go for the RAV on this one.

Which brings us back to why you’d want one, especially when gas is cheap and the outlook is it will stay so for a couple of years. That goes to the Hybrid mentality.

These people are loyal.  To the brand and the philosophy. Even after all the celebrities have traded theirs in for Teslas. If that’s you, you can look at happily gliding along for a decade or more. And when those gas prices rocket back up – and it’s bound to happen– you’ll be sitting pretty.  And until we start seeing some great deals on used 918’s and i8’s, the RAV4 Hybrid offers something fun and affordable for the rest of us, too.


What do you think?

About The Author

Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round -- whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, or learning to surf.