It’s time to reconsider what the Hybrid badge means in today’s automotive arena. More power and better driveability are now perks of being a Hybrid – in addition to improved efficiency. In the case of the RAV4, it strengthens its weakest link for a small cost that will quickly pay for itself.
It would be entirely fair to blame Toyota for creating the stigma that being a hybrid meant being slow as those vehicles were focused on maximizing efficiency. For years, Toyota’s own Prius defined the segment (which is rapidly expanding) and, while its hybrid system was uber-efficient, it felt underpowered and a bit of a compromise. That formula is reworked for the RAV4 Hybrid and it should be seen as a performance upgrade while also providing better fuel economy which vastly improves the driving experience in numerous ways and in key scenarios.
Statistically, the Hybrid is a second faster to 60 mph than the gasoline-only model but in the real world, the difference is far greater, especially in more relatable tests, such as how quickly it can jump through a busy intersection or pick-up speed to pass a slow-moving 18-wheeler. Here, the electrified powertrain excels against a traditional powertrain. The electric motors and single-gear “transmission” deliver maximum power without any turbo-lag (think Honda CR-V) or slow response due to an overly tall first gear (think RAV4 (gas-only)). Even at speed, the power from the electric boost is noticeable as it can accelerate the RAV4 Hybrid before even the CVT has had time to change its ratios. More leisurely accelerations while at lower speeds will enable full electric-only drive and the engine is reserved for charging the battery. When the extra power is needed, the relatively large and very smooth 2.5-liter four-cylinder fires to life and can confidently pull the RAV4 Hybrid up to speed – even on the steepest of mountain passes.
The RAV4’s hybrid is standard with electric all-wheel drive which is a good thing with all of the systems’ combined power. Each of the systems (motor and engine) are used most where they provide excellent efficiency; there’s strong electrical power at low speeds and for extended engine-off periods when stopped and a low-revving engine that can provide power while cruising at higher speeds.
Despite the hybrid powertrain’s complexity, it operates with refinement and quickly settles into operating in the background with the exception of the brakes, which never felt natural during my extended time with the vehicle. Unlike some other hybrids on the market, the system had a difficult time smoothly blending the electrical and mechanical braking forces and felt vague when attempting to make minor pedal adjustments.
The RAV4 Hybrid includes an EV Mode which enables extended engine off low-speed motoring (note: the engine is the cabin’s only heat source), however, Normal Mode is a great set-it and forget-it mode and it too provides an impressively extended amount of engine-off time whether at a traffic light or at highway speeds. I did not achieve the EPA’s estimated 40 mpg combined rating, although, in fairness, the RAV4 Hybrid battled through some cold and snowy days and was even wearing efficiency-sapping roof rack cross rails (at least they were quiet) which resulted in a 37 mpg in my hands. The government estimates that the average person will save $350 per year in fuel costs which, in turn, means that the hybrid system will pay for itself in just three years. And, with a range of 580 miles, it doesn’t require fuel very often.
The hybrid system feels like a win-win-win but there is one major setback that proved continuously distracting and frustrating and the RAV4 Hybrid’s thus far near-pristine image felt like it was being sabotaged. A new law requires electrified vehicles to audibly announce their presence to make up for their lack of a combustion-engine clatter by way of a speaker and that sound is largely determined by the manufacturer. The Kia Niro EV sounds futuristic and the Bolt EV is a little staider but at least it never disrupts the cabin sound. The RAV4 Hybrid, however, when in EV Mode at low speeds (2-20mph) emits a noise that penetrates the interior and resembles a distant train’s mid-turn wheel squeal combined with a sound that mimics a near-by car that’s in need of a brake job. It is not pleasant and, overall, it’s frustrating because it’s such a big part of the EV experience.
This particular RAV4 Hybrid Limited wears a large panoramic sunroof, heated (albeit to mild effect) and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats and steering wheel, a power tailgate (motion activated), and a powerful 11-speaker premium JBL sound system. These are all heavy and power-robbing features but it emphasizes the RAV4’s commitment to being a no-compromise option.
Ultimately, the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid carries the high-quality, high-style, and high-tech design from the RAV4 and applies the ideal EV package that minimizes added costs and maximizes driveability gains. In fact, unless one is opting for the off-road equipped TRD Off-Road package, the answer of whether to choose a hybrid or a gas-only RAV4 may easily best be answered with another question; Why not?