Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2016 Toyota RAV4

There are those who would tell you being popular is overrated, but in the auto industry, popularity equals profitability. Just ask one of the many car manufacturers competing for sales in the compact crossover category.

Toyota is primed to win that particular popularity contest, predicting its RAV4 will overtake Ford's Escape as Canada's best-selling small crossover next year. It's a bold proclamation, based mainly on the addition of an available hybrid drivetrain conceived to expand the RAV4's appeal and make it the only car in its class with a gas-electric option.

Before we get into the details of what's new, some clarification: Toyota said it aims to sell more RAV4s to "real people," a not-so-subtle dig at the Escape's popularity with fleet buyers such as rental car companies. So while Toyota says it expects RAV4 sales to top 45,000 in 2016, the sources we use to track Canadian vehicle sales will likely still put the Escape at the top of the heap. No matter how you parse the data, the question that looms is whether a hybrid will attract an additional 8,500 buyers (Canadians bought more than 36,600 RAV4s last year) while gasoline is relatively inexpensive.

Whether you go hybrid or not, all 2016 RAV4s get new front and rear bumpers, headlights and taillights, and a few interior tweaks, which we'll delve into shortly.

As the seventh hybrid in Toyota's lineup (four of the other six are Prius variants), the RAV4 uses the company's 'hybrid synergy drive' technology, which mates the gasoline engine and electric motors via a continuously variable transmission.

Where gas-only RAV4s come in front- and all-wheel-drive variants, hybrid models are exclusively all-wheelers, with power delivered to the rear axle by one of two electric motors (the other one is up front), eliminating the need for a driveshaft to carry power from the engine compartment.

Adding electricity also adds power, says Toyota, with the RAV4 Hybrid's output rated at 194 hp, versus 176 for the gas-only model. The manufacturer doesn't quote a hybrid torque figure, but it's safe to say it's more than the gas model's 172 lb-ft, given the torquey nature of electric motors.

Other figures Toyota thinks you'll want to know are the Hybrid model’s 6.9/7.6 L/100 km fuel consumption ratings; rankings for gas models remain the same as last year, at 10.6/8.1 L/100 km for AWD versions, and 10.0/7.6 in FWD form.

Driving the RAV4 Hybrid is hardly a revelation, which is a bit of a back-handed compliment: the powertrain behaves much like that in any of Toyota's hybrids, in that it mostly does its work in the transparent way Toyotas tend to go down the road. The one exception we noticed on the short drive route Toyota laid out for us was the way the gas engine roared to maintain our speed on steep uphill stretches of the secondary highways we drove into the Gatineau hills north of Ottawa.

On the plus side, it felt like the engineers behind this car have done good work to eliminate some of the artificial brake pedal feel once so common in hybrid vehicles, Toyota and otherwise.

If the engine seemed particularly vocal in the hybrid we drove, a back-to-back drive with a gas-only model revealed the dual-power model as the quieter in terms of road noise. Toyota engineer Terrence Chu said all 2016 RAV4s benefit from extra sound deadening targeted specifically at quieting that aspect of the car's soundtrack. Elsewhere, Toyota says it improved ride comfort and high-speed stability with stiffer rear suspension mounting points.

Gas-only models get a revised AWD system that proactively engages the rear axle in corners, a function that previously only worked with the transmission set to 'Sport' mode.

The rest of the notable changes made for 2016 are found inside. Hybrid models give up 80 litres of cargo space with the rear seat folded (2,000 litres, versus the standard model's 2,080), owing to the battery's home under the floor; the available power tailgate can be set to open to six different heights; and there's a new cargo net that can be hung from a variety of attachment points behind the rear seats.

Between the front seats, there's a new cupholder designed to better accommodate big travel mugs, and a new SE trim gets red accent stitching and other unique interior appointments. Uplevel models with leather seats can be optioned with a sharp-looking "cinnamon" upholstery colour, and all trims but the basic LE model get a new gauge cluster.

New available technology includes a bird's-eye view camera system (standard in Limited, and optional in Hybrid Limited) that uses lenses on the front and rear of the car and in each side mirror housing to provide a 360-degree view of what's around the car when parking.

The entry-level LE model starts at $24,990 as a front-driver, and $27,255 with AWD; new stuff for 2016 includes rear privacy glass, convex blind-spot side mirrors, and variable intermittent front wipers. An LE upgrade package adds backup camera, six-speaker stereo, and heated front seats.

XLE trim comes in at $29,500 (FWD) or $31,650 (AWD), and for 2016 adds a leather-trimmed steering wheel, power driver's seat, power tailgate, 4.2-inch trip information display, and blind spot monitor and rear cross traffic alert systems. As before, this is also where you get standard heated front seats and six-speaker stereo, plus dual-zone automatic climate control, upgraded seat fabric, sunroof, back-up camera, and 17-inch alloy wheels in place of steel wheels with plastic covers.

Toyota says the SE trim heralds the return of a "sporty" model to the RAV4 line, something last seen in 2012's Sport variant. Sporty is a term open to various interpretations, and here it's more about appearance than added performance. Priced at $36,620 with standard AWD, the RAV4 SE gets a different grille and unique 18-inch wheels, but the rest of what sets it apart is inside, where there are "softex" leather-esque seats, a seven-inch touchscreen stereo with navigation, a heated leather-trimmed steering wheel, and a 4.2-inch trip information display.

New to Limited models ($37,500, also with standard AWD) is the same heated steering wheel alongside an 11-speaker stereo with navigation, front and rear park assist, LED headlights and taillights, intelligent keyless entry with push-button start, and the bird's-eye view monitor. The RAV4 Limited is also one of the first Toyota models (the other being the Avalon sedan) to get the company's new "Toyota Safety Sense" (TSS) suite of safety features, including pre-collision alert with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert and lane keeping assist, automatic high beams, and radar-based dynamic cruise control.

2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid 0005

Hybrid XLE and Limited trims are largely equipped the same as their gas-only counterparts, save for the XLE's addition of standard intelligent keyless entry. Hybrid XLE pricing starts at $34,465, and rises to $38,265 in Limited guise. Where the RAV4's latest safety kit is standard in the Limited gasoline model, TSS and the bird's eye view camera are extra on Hybrid Limited models; call us cynical, but that seems like an obvious money grab considering many hybrid buyers not only want the high-tech drivetrain, but any high-tech toys they can get their hands on.

Toyota has committed to continue building the RAV4 at its Ontario (Woodstock and Cambridge) factories, and has promised to move some hybrid production here as well, from Japan, a decision that helps offset the loss of Corolla construction, set to move to Mexico in 2019. Popularity may be overrated to some, but when it comes to cars built in Canada, we say the more popular, the better.

Pricing: 2016 Toyota RAV4
LE FWD: $24,990
LE AWD: $27,255
Options: Upgrade package – $1,075
XLE FWD: $29,500
XLE AWD: $31,650
Hybrid XLE: $34,465
Limited AWD: $37,500
Hybrid Limited: $38,265
Options: Technology package – $2,675

Fuel Consumption:
RAV4 FWD: 10.0 L/100 km city / 7.6 L/100 km hwy / 8.9 L/100 km combined
RAV4 LE/XLE AWD: 10.5 L/100 km city / 8.2 L/100 km hwy / 9.5 L/100 km combined
RAV4 SE/Limited: 10.6 L/100 km city / 8.1 L/100 km hwy / 9.4 L/100 km combined
RAV4 Hybrid: 6.9 L/100 km city / 7.6 L/100 km hwy / 7.2 L/100 km combined