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2016 Toyota RAV4 and RAV4 Hybrid First Drive

Breaking new ground By ,

The Toyota RAV4 compact SUV is fortunate enough to have a built-in audience. Years of carefully gauging the ebb and flow of family driving habits have created a focus-grouped hauler that hits all the major high notes for discerning shoppers: big cargo space, roomy rear seat, respectable fuel efficiency, and an affordable price. And yet, as with any vehicles aimed squarely at the middle, the broad approach inevitably leaves a few potential customers on the sidelines. The RAV4 simply reached past a few niches in its quest to scoop up as many buyers as possible.

The 2016 Toyota RAV4 makes an effort to accommodate more than just its legions of repeat buyers with a refreshed edition that introduces itself to a previously overlooked batch of Canadian SUV fans. In addition to mildly tweaked styling inside and out, the RAV4 now features a “sporty” SE trim level, along with a full Hybrid model that doesn't just promise frugal fuel consumption but also brings a performance boost to boot. 

I drove them both back-to-back on a rainy day in Gatineau, Quebec, in a bid to uncover how much more personality these two newcomers bring to Toyota's sport-utility party.

No SErious Performance Upgrade
I have to give the brand some credit. Toyota's recent push to produce “SE” editions of its most popular models -- including the midsize Camry sedan and the unlikely Sienna minivan -- has resulted in more than just sticker packages and sexier wheels. The 2016 Toyota RAV4 SE offers the same chassis tuning provided by its forerunners, alongside 18” wheels, marginally more aggressive exterior styling (LED headlights and taillights are standard), and a few interior cues to remind you that you should be having more fun than you'd initially planned for in a compact crossover.

Unfortunately, while it did walk the line between bouncy and button-down quite well, especially on the ragged secondary roads surrounding Canada's capital region, there's little reward to be had in hustling the RAV4 SE from one set of corners to the other. The vehicle's electric power steering system simply doesn't let you in on what's happening under its front rubber, nor does its 2.5L 4-cylinder engine (which carries over from the year before) deliver too many thrills via its 6-speed automatic transmission; 176 horsepower and 172 lb-ft of twist are fine for cruising, but offer languid acceleration above 80km/h. And while Toyota claims that the RAV4's available all-wheel drive system now dumps more torque to the rear axle in Sport mode neither I nor my co-driver were able to appreciate the difference on wet asphalt.

Still Batting a Thousand with Canadian Families
It's more instructive to focus on what the 2016 Toyota RAV4 does well rather than what it almost manages to achieve with its SE model. Aside from its revised looks, the new RAV4 also brings with it a number of laudable features, including a much nicer 4.2” colour information display in the gauge cluster, a top-down parking camera that Toyota is calling the “Bird's Eye View Monitor,” and the Toyota Safety Sense suite of equipment that includes a forward collision warning system, a lane departure warning system, adaptive cruise control, and even automated high-beam headlights.

Some RAV4 trim levels have also been given a brush up throughout the cabin that sees the installation of softer materials at the most common touch points, especially on the dash and the door panels. Still, even if you stick with the base model you'll benefit from the SUV's well-proportioned passenger compartment and its class-leading amount of cargo space, which qualifies as enormous with the rear row folded down.

Toyota Loosens its Hybrid Reins
A funny thing happened last year when I drove the all-new Lexus NX compact crossover (which shares part of its platform with its RAV4 corporate cousin): I ended up enjoying the Hybrid model more than the turbo purely from a driving perspective. After splitting time between the 2016 Toyota RAV4 SE and the RAV4 Hybrid, I find myself coming away with an almost identical impression.

Part of the reason why I'm more enamoured with the Hybrid has to do with horsepower, as its 2.5L 4-cylinder engine works together with a pair of electric motors to produce 194 ponies and 206 lb-ft of torque in total. This is a nice boost over the base RAV4, and the near-instant delivery of its battery-assisted drivetrain means that the SUV is almost a full second quicker when accelerating to 100km/h than the SE (even when taking into account the extra weight of the battery and its related hardware). The Hybrid's more formidable acceleration was easily verified on several uphill sections of my drive, and its smoother character, assisted in part by softer shocks and a more compliant on-road manner, had me preferring it over the pokier SE.

The Hybrid's charms don't come cheap, of course. You'll pay almost a full $10k over the base RAV4's $24,990 MSRP to get into the most affordable edition of the battery-assisted model, but it's not entirely a fair comparison: the Hybrid comes standard with all-wheel drive and a longer list of standard gear (and is in fact only available in XLE and range-topping Limited trim, skipping out on the LE and SE models altogether). There's also the question of diminishing returns at the fuel pump, as the gas-only Toyota RAV4 is thrifty enough to match the Hybrid on the highway with a rating of 7.6L/100km (with the latter pulling ahead by only 1.2L/100km in combined driving).

Destined for Success
I'm not sure how many compact SUV shoppers are hitting up Toyota showrooms in the search for thrills behind the wheel, but the automaker has definitely found a way to link the built-in RAV4 audience that I mentioned earlier with the even more rabid hybrid fanbase it has developed through its Prius family of cars. 

I've no doubt that the 2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid will draw a crowd based on the brand's reputation for fuel efficiency, and then close more often than not once a little seat time reveals just how pleasant it is to drive. Staid, reliable, and practical, there's a lot to like about the rest of the RAV4 lineup too, as Toyota has only strengthened its successful family formula with the updated SUV; but the Hybrid model gives the people-mover a new killer app that should help it gain even more momentum in Canada.

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2016 Toyota RAV4 and RAV4 Hybrid