Hybrid RAV4: Great MPG

September 8, 2018

There’s no corner of the U.S. automotive market more crowded and competitive than the one occupied by compact sport-utilities and crossovers. One of the more familiar faces in the crowd belongs to Toyota’s long-lived RAV4, which arguably ignited the craze for diminutive sport-utes. Compact, all-weather-ready and carrying the brand’s promise of long-term reliability, it’s earned go-to status for American customers since the first generation rolled into showrooms during the Clinton administration. Toyota provided a gas-electric hybrid version of the RAV4 for our annual journey to the Grand Traverse region of Michigan, a round trip of roughly 1,700 miles through the mountains of Pennsylvania, cornfields of northern Ohio and rolling glacial hills of Michigan’s northwest lower peninsula. At the end of our journey, I was impressed by the little ute’s appealing combination of fuel-sipping frugality, surprising acceleration and cargo capacity. There are four trim levels from which to choose, with prices starting slightly north of 27 grand. The base LE is a fairly well-equipped affair that includes 17-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights, a rearview camera, keyless ignition, blind-spot monitoring and more. Also standard is Toyota’s Safety Sense P system that bundles together pedestrian and pre-collision sensors, lane-departure sensing and correction, radar-based intelligent cruise control and road-sign assist. Upgrading to the LE adds standard goodies like a powered sunroof, a better rearview camera, an Entune audio system with integrated satellite navigation and XM/Sirius radio prep, leather-wrapped steering wheel and more. The sport-oriented SE features a more stiffly tuned suspension system and 18-inch alloys, a powered rear lift gate, power-adjustable driver’s seat, heated front seats, upgraded upholstery, and safety-minded items like blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert systems. Top-dog Limited models get all the SE’s standard gear and then some, minus some decorative details and the sport-tuned suspension. Prices here top out at $34,280. Toyota provided a nicely optioned SE for our trip north, the $32,185 base price of which rose to $36,055 almost solely due to the $2,785 Advanced Technology Package. Included herein was parking-assist sonar, bird’s-eye view camera, frame­less auto-dimming rearview mirror, premium JBL sound system with enhanced Entune multimedia bundle (seven-inch touch screen, upgraded speakers, USB port with iPod connectivity, Bluetooth and so forth), traffic and weather info, and more. Factor in $995 for delivery and $90 for a rear cargo cover, and there you have it. That’s a fair bit of coin for a small sport-ute, but it should be mentioned that unlike other gas-electric models, the RAV4 Hybrid doesn’t command a princely premium over the stickers of gas-only models. Our hybrid SE’s base price sits roughly $3,000 north of its dinosaur-juice sibling, for example. A not-inconsiderable sum, but assuming one takes full advantage of the fuel-economy savings (particularly during in-town driving), the long-term financial hit is softened. Our observed 30.5 mpg in almost entirely highway driving bettered the EPA’s estimate by a half-mile, and we often bettered the in-town 34 mpg estimate by a mile or two. Unlike a lot of other hybridized vehicles where precious cargo space is gobbled up by the battery pack and so forth, the RAV4 Hybrid’s 35.6-square-foot cargo area is only 2.9 cubic feet short of gas-only samples. Despite consuming fuel at a slower rate, the Hybrid version moves with a notably quicker step than a gas-powered RAV4. The 2.5-liter inline-four engine is joined by three electric motors (one for each axle and another for vehicle accessories) to produce 196 total hp, 19 hp more than the gas-only vehicle. There’s lots of engine drone under hard acceleration (credit the continuously variable transmission), but overall acceleration makes highway passing and merging a snap. Instrumentation and controls are clearly marked and easy to use, save for the LED infotainment touch screen’s tendency to wash out in direct sunlight or when the driver wears polarized sunglasses. The attractively trimmed, two-tone upholstered seats proved comfortable enough over the roughly 26-hour round trip; the 60/40 split folding back seat was commodious enough to cart my 13-year-old son and his buddy without complaint. 2018 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid SE Vehicle type: Four-door, five-passenger compact gas-electric hybrid SUV. Base/as-tested prices: $32,185/$36,055. Engine and transmission: 2.5-liter inline-four paired with three electric motors and nickel-metal hydride battery back (194 horsepower combined), continuously variable automatic. EPA estimates: 34 mpg city, 30 mpg highway, 32 mpg combined. The good: Excellent fuel economy for an all-wheel-drive sport-ute; gas-electric system combines to give this particular RAV4 a livelier step than its gas-only sibling; not appreciably more expensive than gas versions; four trim levels to choose from; spacious cabin offers room for four on a long trip and cargo volume to bring the stuff along; solid-feeling chassis; decent-enough handling; promise of Toyota reliability. The bad: SE’s “sporty” suspension tuning and 18-inch wheels make for a busy and noisy ride over rough pavement; LED display hard to read through sunglasses; engine howl under hard acceleration. Bottom line: The crowded compact SUV segment is arguably autodom’s most competitive, and the gas-electric RAV4 stands out with its combination of functionality and fuel efficiency.

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