Driven! Toyota RAV4 Hybrid

  • Jeff Sabatini has written for many publications over his 20 years in automotive journalism, including Car and Driver, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Sports Car Market magazine. His lifetime car churn includes 30 vehicles: eight GM cars, five Ford products, four Toyotas, three BMWs, two Jeeps, two Chrysler minivans, a Miata, a Mercedes, a Porsche, a Saab, a Subaru, and a Volkswagen.

can be reached at jeffsab@gmail.com
  • Jeff Sabatini has written for many publications over his 20 years in automotive journalism, including Car and Driver, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Sports Car Market magazine. His lifetime car churn includes 30 vehicles: eight GM cars, five Ford products, four Toyotas, three BMWs, two Jeeps, two Chrysler minivans, a Miata, a Mercedes, a Porsche, a Saab, a Subaru, and a Volkswagen.

can be reached at jeffsab@gmail.com
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There are few, if any, vehicles on the market right now hotter than the Toyota RAV4. In 2017, the compact SUV took over as the best-selling non-truck in the U.S., a title it has all but locked up for a third year in a row. Also this year, the RAV4 Hybrid should finish atop the hybrid sales charts for the first time.

  • The RAV4 Hybrid starts at $29,220, but a loaded, top-of-the-line model can crack $40,000.
  • All RAV4 Hybrids have all-wheel-drive, with an electric motor powering the rear wheels.
  • The hybrid is the most powerful RAV4 available, with 219 horsepower, 16 more than the non-hybrid version.
  • A plug-in hybrid version of the RAV4 will be introduced next year.

2019 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid
Sales of the RAV4 are off the charts, especially the hybrid model. (Photo: Toyota)

A popular hybrid

Toyota redesigned the RAV4 for the 2019 model year, and sales of the new model have been even stronger, up 4.8 percent last year and another 2.5 percent this year, to date. Those aren’t huge percentages, but when you’re already at the top of the best-seller list, they represent a lot of vehicles. Toyota has sold more than 362,000 RAV4s so far this year, which is almost 9,000 ahead of last year’s pace.

But what’s really astounding is how many of those RAV4 buyers are choosing the hybrid model. RAV4 Hybrid sales are up 77 percent this year! Toyota has already sold over 72,000, an increase of more than 31,000 units.

Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Engine
The RAV4 Hybrid is more powerful than the standard model, with a combined 219 hp from its 2.5-cylinder four-cylinder engine and two electric drive motors. (Photo: Toyota)

Plenty of power, plus high mileage

The key to the RAV4’s immense popularity has long been its excellent packaging and good value, and the hybrid doesn’t change that. With comfortable seating for five and a below average starting price, the RAV4 has taken over from the Camry as Toyota’s prototypical family transportation machine. With identical dimensions to the non-hybrid, save for about a half-inch less ground clearance, the RAV4 Hybrid forces no compromises to its passenger compartment.

Indeed, Toyota engineers have packed its tiny nickel-metal hydride battery under the rear seats and installed a 54-horsepower electric motor under the cargo floor to drive its rear wheels. A 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine making 176 hp and another electric drive motor rated at 118 hp power the front wheels. (A third electric motor built into the hybrid transaxle acts as a combined starter and generator.) This gives the RAV4 Hybrid a combined 219 hp and all-wheel drive, even without a driveshaft connecting the front and rear axles.

Toyota RAV4 Hybrid
With a more efficient hybrid system the new RAV4 gets an 8-mile-per-gallon boost over the old model. (Photo: Toyota)

Better than ever

All this complexity adds only about 200 pounds to the RAV4, far less than in the previous generation, and the hybrid system more than compensates for the additional weight. The RAV4 Hybrid not only accelerates quicker than the non-hybrid, but it’s also more fuel efficient. It is rated by the EPA at 40 mpg combined, an 8-mpg improvement over the old RAV4 Hybrid and 10 mpg better than the non-hybrid. This boost in fuel economy comes, in part, because of new, more efficient transaxle that rearranged the pair of electric motors.

In the interest of optimizing mileage, Toyota has also changed the logic that coordinates power delivery between the gas engine and the pair of electric drive motors. Toyota calls the technology “Predictive Efficient Drive,” which uses information collected about a driver’s habits as well as route and traffic information pulled from the navigation system to maximize both use and charging of the battery. So, for instance, the RAV4 will use more of its battery charge going up a hill, thereby saving gas, because it knows it will get a “free” recharge on the way down, thanks to gravity.

Toyota RAV4 Hybrid interior
The RAV4 Hybrid is comfortable and quiet, with plenty of standard safety features. (Photo: Toyota)

Behind the wheel

The improvements are immediately noticeable, as the new RAV4 Hybrid is much better to drive than the old model. To start with, it feels much quicker and more powerful, especially in its sport drive mode. The sometimes-jerky behavior of the old RAV4 Hybrid when the rear electric motor kicked in has been almost completely eliminated.

Regenerative braking is smooth and transitions between the gas engine and the electric motor are seamless, which was not the case before. But most important, we had no difficulty eclipsing the EPA estimate during our test drive, with the onboard trip computer routinely showing fuel economy in the low 40-mpg range.

The RAV4 Hybrid is comfortable and well equipped, with an easy-to-use infotainment system perched atop its dashboard. Toyota finally acquiesced to include Apple CarPlay in the RAV4 for the 2019 model year, but if you’re an Android user, you might want to hold out for a 2020 model, where Android Auto will make its debut. Toyota also makes its Safety Sense system standard on the RAV4 Hybrid, including adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, and automatic emergency braking. Best of all, the RAV4 Hybrid is quieter than the standard model, a byproduct of its nearly silent electric motors taking the burden off its gasoline engine.

2019 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid
Toyota may have the best hybrid SUV on the market today, but more competition is coming soon. (Photo: Toyota)

Leader of the pack

What competitors the RAV4 has had – the Kia Niro Hybrid, Mini Cooper S E Countryman All4 plug-in, Nissan Rogue Hybrid, the PHEV version of the Subaru Crosstrek – have fallen short in fuel economy or haven’t really matched up to start. But this is changing quickly.

Ford has already introduced the 2020 Escape Hybrid, the RAV4’s most direct competitor to date. With all-wheel-drive, it matches the RAV4’s 40-mpg EPA combined rating, and the front-drive Escape Hybrid actually earns 41 mpg. A hybrid version of the Honda CR-V is also coming soon, which could very well top both the Ford and Toyota when it comes to fuel economy. There are even plug-in hybrid versions of the RAV4 and Escape, both of which will be here next year.

But for now, it’s hard to argue that the RAV4 is not the best small hybrid SUV on the market.


About the Author

  • Jeff Sabatini has written for many publications over his 20 years in automotive journalism, including Car and Driver, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Sports Car Market magazine. His lifetime car churn includes 30 vehicles: eight GM cars, five Ford products, four Toyotas, three BMWs, two Jeeps, two Chrysler minivans, a Miata, a Mercedes, a Porsche, a Saab, a Subaru, and a Volkswagen.

can be reached at jeffsab@gmail.com
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