First Drive: Toyota RAV4 Hybrid

Are we still raving about the RAV?

The original RAV4 was a cracking mini-SUV, something of a cross between a Toyota Land Cruiser and a Golf GTi. Since then, it’s got progressively bigger and more sensible, until it ended up just a little anonymous, lost in a sea of similar competitors.

It’s time for a mid-life facelift to make things a little more interesting. The front end gets the latest Toyota house style, and that works remarkably well. Some detail changes along the side bring the front and back together nicely while the rear sees barely any changes beyond some LED lighting.

Inside there are more changes, making the RAV4 feel a little more luxurious. In between the two analogue instruments there’s a 4.2-inch screen for driving information, while a seven-inch touchscreen dominates the centre console. On this higher spec model it’s all covered in nice soft-touch materials.

That infotainment screen also houses a new satellite navigation system, although that sometimes threw up a few rather obscure routeing ideas. My test model also had the optional front mounted camera that allows you to peer around corners, something that could be very useful if the image from it didn’t appear on screen at every junction, just as you want to glance at the sat-nav to see where you should be going.

They’re minor details in an otherwise pleasant and inoffensive interior that works well, is spacious enough, and comes well equipped. It rivals the Nissan Qashqai in every area, and compares well, which is handy as that’s exactly what the RAV4 is aiming at.

However, unlike the Qashqai, the only way to have all four wheels of your RAV4 powered is by opting for the hybrid model (or the expensive, inefficient and slow petrol option) as the smooth diesel-powered model is front-wheel-drive only. Off-road shenanigans for most will therefore be limited to bouncing up kerbs at the Waitrose car park.

Staying firmly on the tarmac, the RAV4 Hybrid is comfortable and quiet – at least once the engine has stopped spinning. The CVT gearbox means noise rises to an irritating drone when accelerating, but the benefit comes once you’ve reached a cruising speed as the revs then drop and near-silence arrives. There’s little wind noise too, which only serves to highlight the tyre noise; this probably isn’t too bad, but as there’s little other noise to drown it out, it seems louder than it should be.

The comfort, gearbox and SUV-style discourage true GTi-style driving but, with a 2.5-litre petrol engine and two electric motors available, it could be considered by some to be a sporty proposition. It’s not.

For a start, the handling being best described as safe rather than involving, while the combined 195bhp available powers the car to 62mph in a respectable 8.4 seconds, but that’s where the fun ends. That’s not a criticism though, as the RAV4 makes no bones about the fact that it’s built for comfort.

It’s built for economy too, in theory. With that hybrid system in place, the Toyota officially manages 55.4mpg while putting out 118g/km of CO2. It’s certainly no Prius, but stands up fairly well to its SUV rivals, apart from minor details such as a lower CO2 option from a conventionally powered Mazda CX-5 or better mpg results from a BMW X1. Even the RAV4 diesel promises better economy, if higher CO2 emissions.

Then we get to the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. This most obvious rival, being a plug-in hybrid, can cover around 25 miles without using a drop of fuel while attracting zero car tax and a company car BIK rate of 5% compared to the Toyota’s 18%. It’s slower, thirstier once the battery has run out and has less load space, but the financials stand out, especially for company buyers.

Even the four-wheel-drive capabilities of the RAV4 are brought into doubt thanks to the hybrid system. As you can’t turn off the traction control system (the car needs that to keep the hybrid system working) you find yourself slowly coming to a halt if there’s any slip from the wheels at all, as I found out on a beach near the launch venue.

Apart from being somewhat embarrassing, it highlighted the fact that having twin motors and all four wheels powered offers little advantage if the surface is less than solid. I’ve yet to put it to the test, but I fear a muddy incline, damp field or, as in this case, sandy beach, would demand too much from the computers which would then shut down power to the wheels.

If that all sounds a little negative, then remember that the RAV4 is a mostly comfortable car that is reasonably efficient and economical. It’s easy to drive thanks to that intentionally uninvolving CVT gearbox and light steering, while you’re encouraged to sit back and relax in large seats and pleasant enough surroundings, with a more commanding view of the road ahead. If that’s what you want from a car, the Toyota makes a great deal of sense.

The problem is that many of its competitors offer similar levels of refinement while also being either more fun to drive, or more stylish, or more spacious. In a market where there is such talent in the competition, the RAV4 doesn’t stand out as being special in any one area.

Model Tested: Toyota RAV4 Icon 2.5 Hybrid
Price: £29,795
Engine: 2.5-litre petrol and 2x electric motors
Top speed: 112 mph
0-62 mph: 8.4 seconds
Power: 198 PS (195 bhp)
Torque: N/A
Official fuel economy: 55.4 mpg
Road Test economy: N/A
CO2 Emissions: 118 g/km
VED Band: C / £30 per year
Car insurance group: 34A
Kerb weight: 1,775 kg

Phil Huff

Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, DAD.info and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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