The RAV4 Hybrid definitely wins sleeper SUV of the year. We want one.
The Good: I was shocked by how capable the RAV4 was in a blizzard that dumped 14 inches of heavy, wet spring snow on Denver. The compact SUV’s 6.3 inches of ground clearance and sophisticated AWD system kept the Toyota moving on roads that stymied other vehicles. To boost traction, I left the vehicle in Eco mode, which cut the amount of torque to the wheels, rolling the car out and through the deep powder instead of spinning its wheels. The absence of a front spoiler, common among SUVs and trucks, allowed the Toyota to punch over drifts instead of getting stuck.
The Bad: Due to the inclement weather and a high-speed run into the mountains, the hybrid didn’t match its combined EPA fuel economy numbers, even though I left it in Eco mode the entire time. (Really, why else would you buy a hybrid?) Still it came close. Also, the steering wheel doesn’t telescope out quite enough. A bummer, since the rest of the driver’s seat ergonomics are completely dialed.
The Verdict: This is the hybrid compact SUV for those who truly need AWD capabilities—and it’s affordable. Eco mode both maximizes fuel economy and turns the car into a snow machine. With Toyota’s decade-plus experience building hybrids, combined with its vehicles’ legendary durability, the RAV4 Hybrid is a worthy alternative to the legendary Outback.
Price: $28,370 (base); $33,610 (as tested)
Engine: 2.5-liter inline, 150-horsepower, 4-cylinder engine powering the front wheels, and a 67-horsepower electric/hybrid motor for the rear wheels
Drivetrain: CVT automatic, AWD
EPA Fuel Economy: 33 mpg combined; 34 mpg city/31 mpg hwy; 31.4 mpg observed
The RAV4’s 2.5-liter engine puts out 150 horsepower and powers only the front wheels. A separate electric motor powers the rear wheels and is called in to help with acceleration or when the front wheels slip. The electric motor runs by itself when the vehicle turns over to electric vehicle mode, which happens on residential streets at up to roughly 20 miles per hour or when the car goes downhill. It’s a cool concept but doesn’t appear to do much to boost fuel economy. That said, like most hybrids, the Toyota did great in stop-and-go city traffic—a trip downtown produced my best numbers of the week, at 34 miles per gallon.
Performance-wise, the two engines spirited me up to 8,000 feet on the interstate at 70 miles per hour without a hitch, although the gas engine and transmission had to work hard to maintain speed, as evidenced by the 20 miles per gallon I averaged. It’s no sports car, but it gets the job done.
The RAV4 Hybrid’s wheel has a soft feel. There’s no visceral connection to the road through the tires; however, it rolls smoothly for a small SUV, which I attributed to the hybrid being 320 pounds heavier than the nonhybrid. The downside is that on twisting roads and in high-speed corners, that weight produces more side-to-side body roll.
The interior layout is highly functional. The battery and rear-wheel drivetrain take up just two cubic feet of interior room compared to the nonhybrid—much less than I imagined. With the rear seat up, there’s room in back for a golden retriever. Fold the rear seats down, and you can store a mountain bike sans front wheel. Rear-seat passengers—even six-footers—have enough room to sit comfortably for long stretches while giving front-row passengers plenty of room.
If you want the AWD functionality and cargo capacity of an Outback but with better city fuel economy and the driver’s vantage point of a SUV, the Toyota RAV4 is worth a look. It’s also relatively affordable. Sure, you’ll spend a few thousand more dollars for the hybrid, but we think the green upgrade’s worth it for the bump in urban fuel performance.