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2016 Toyota RAV4 First Drive

It’s About Time for a Hybrid RAV4

Toyota likes to say that it invented the Compact SUV category in 1996 with the introduction of the RAV4. Whether you believe that or not depends on your definition of a Compact SUV. But if you add the qualifier “as the category exists today,” then Toyota’s claim is a lot stronger. The RAV4 certainly kicked off what has become the largest automotive market segment in North America, and Toyota works hard to keep the RAV4 relevant and competitive.

For 2016, Toyota has rolled out a mid-cycle refresh on the fourth generation of the plucky Recreational Activity Vehicle with a new sporty trim level and a host of new technology features. But what’s really new is that Toyota has given the RAV a state-of-the-art hybrid drivetrain in addition to the standard gas-powered model.

Hybrid Synergy AWD

The new RAV4 Hybrid is Toyota’s eighth hybrid model, so the only surprise is that it took them this long to put the hybrid drivetrain into the RAV4. The hybrid engine/motor combination uses a 2.5-liter Atkinson Cycle gas engine paired with an electric motor and a front-wheel-drive continuously variable transaxle, and then an extra electric motor to power the rear wheels. There’s no driveshaft down the middle of the car in the hybrid, just wires. This hybrid AWD system was originally designed by Lexus for the RX crossover series, and it’s also featured in Lexus’ compact NX300h, which bears a striking resemblance to the RAV4.

2016 Toyota Rav4 Limited Hybrid

2016 Toyota Rav4 Limited Hybrid

The hybrid system in the RAV4 delivers 194 horsepower and 206 pound-feet of torque. That’s enough power to make the hybrid the real performer in the RAV4 line, and you can feel the difference on the road. Toyota is expecting EPA fuel economy figures around 34 MPG city, 31 highway.

Before we move on, let’s be clear – this is a “rain and light snow” all-wheel-drive system. The rear wheels in the RAV4 hybrid are powered only when necessary to maintain traction – you’re getting a front-wheel-drive hybrid with the ability to put some rear power down when the traction control decides that needs to happen. If you’re looking for serious off-road capability, keep on walking.

Related: First drive: 2015 Lexus NX

The 2016 RAV4 Hybrid will be offered only with the top two trim levels for the RAV4: XLE and Limited. These are loaded with safety, tech, and comfort features like navigation, Toyota’s Entune system, and the Toyota Safety Sense package with pre-collision safety, lane departure alert, pedestrian safety, adaptive cruise control, and more.

Or Choose The Traditional RAV4

If you want a more traditional compact SUV experience, you can still get your RAV4 with a gasoline engine. You get the 2.5-liter direct injection engine with 176 horsepower and 172 pound-feet of torque delivered through a real six-speed automatic transmission. You have your choice of Front-Wheel-Drive or a traditional AWD system with a driveshaft. The EPA says the FWD version of the RAV4 will give you 24 MPG in the city and 31 on the highway. Choosing AWD drops those numbers to 22 MPG in the city and 29 highway.

The hybrid AWD system was designed by Lexus for the RX crossover.

With the gas-powered AWD system, Toyota still disconnects the rear wheels when you’re moving on clean, dry pavement and gives you 100 percent front-wheel drive. That helps with fuel economy, and the AWD system comes into play when you’re accelerating, cornering, or when traction is limited. The system is capable of giving you up to a 50/50 distribution of front and rear torque when necessary. You also get an AWD Lock button that enforces a 50/50 torque split up to 25 MPH if you know you’re going off-pavement.

The traditional RAV4 is available in four trim levels, ranging from the base LE up to the luxury Limited trim. New for 2016 is the SE trim, which gives you 18-inch wheels, paddle shifters, and a sport-tuned suspension. You get LED headlights, two-tone paint, and SofTex upholstery. Oh, you also get red-lighted instruments, so you know you’re in the sporty model.

Out on the Road

The 2016 RAV4 continues to improve the basic driving experience. If you’ve been in older versions of the RAV4, you’ll notice the improvement in the new model – it’s quieter, offers better handling, and it’s just generally comfortable and nice to drive. The AWD version is the one you want unless you live in the sun belt, because it just feels more solid on the road all the time and will be better in winter weather. The traction control system does a great job, and you’ll never feel the AWD kicking in.

2016 Toyota Rav4 SE

2016 Toyota Rav4 SE

If you want more power, you need to choose the hybrid over the SE sport trim on the standard model, because the V6 of the prior generation RAV4 is dead and gone like the pharaohs. With XLE trim on the hybrid, you’ll actually save a couple thousand dollars over the SE gas model, and you’ll get better fuel economy and better acceleration. With the XLE Hybrid, you’re getting Lexus technology for about $600 more than the comparable XLE trim on the AWD gas-powered model.

If you want more power, you need to choose the hybrid over the SE sport trim on the standard model.

I drove both the Hybrid and the gas-powered models on the freeways around L.A. and out to Riverside county through the mountains, and the new RAV4 behaves admirably. The little SUV will settle on its suspension through corners and won’t ever surprise you. There’s plenty of brake for descending hills, and you won’t ever feel like you’re in a tinny little penalty box because you went for the compact SUV. RAV4 aficionados will miss the V6 grunt, but that’s the way of the world these days.

Speaking of hills, the RAV4 comes with standard trailer sway control. This feature will detect the sickening feeling of your trailer going from side to side when you’re going downhill, and apply various brakes to kill that problem before it becomes a crisis. That’s great news, because trailers that meet the RAV4’s 1500-pound towing capacity don’t generally have their own brakes, and you probably don’t have a trailer brake controller in a RAV4 anyway.

Inside and Out

We mentioned the tech story and the SofTex interior already – so let’s sum the interior up by saying that the 2016 RAV4 is a Toyota – it’s nice enough in the base model and goes up to very nice in the top trim levels. On the tech side, the RAV4 offers almost every piece of kit you could ask for, including a bird’s-eye camera, blind spot monitor, Siri Eyes-Free, and more. What you don’t get is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Toyota is sticking with Entune for now.

Related: 2013 Honda CR-V review

2016 RAV4 pricing starts at $25,250, including the $900 destination fee for the base LE trim level with FWD. To get AWD in the base trim, you bump up to $26,750, and AWD with the XLE trim costs $28,570. Moving up to Sport trim and AWD, you’ll pay $31,565. The gas-powered RAV4 you really want with AWD and all the goodies tops out at $33,910 for the Limited trim.

On the hybrid side, you can get XLE trim for $29,270 and Limited trim for $34,610. All hybrids include AWD, so I have to say that the Hybrid XLE is really the sweet spot in the RAV4 line in terms of value for your dollar.

The bottom line on the 2016 RAV4 is that if you’re shopping Compact SUVs broadly, you really have to drive this vehicle as part of your process. Whatever you want, the RAV4 has an answer for you. Whether you like that answer is up to you, but the RAV4 remains the cornerstone of the compact SUV category.

Highs

  • Advanced Hybrid AWD
  • Solid road feel
  • Good range of gasoline and hybrid options

Lows

  • No Apple CarPlay or Android Auto
  • Could still use more power