2017 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Review – Top-Selling Toyota Offers Hybrid Synergy Drive

By Steve & Tamami Laser

We first met the Toyota RAV4 as a concept vehicle during the 1993 Tokyo Motor Show. Toyota called it an “innovative urban 4WD designed to match the lifestyle of city dwellers with a taste for the outdoor life.” The small crossover went on sale in Japan in 1994 and made the journey to the U.S. two years later. Fast-forward a couple of decades and the RAV4 has become the top-selling Toyota in America.

Let’s look at the numbers: In Toyota’s U.S. sales report for the first six months of 2017, RAV4 totaled 184,766 units including hybrid models. That tops Camry at 176,897 and Corolla with 176,527. Crossovers like the RAV4 are becoming more popular than sedans which traditionally have been America’s best sellers.

Why is the RAV4 so popular? It would be easy to say “because it’s a Toyota” yet there are many more reasons. It’s affordable, offering a wide array of trim levels, options and packages, plus the choice of front- or all-wheel drive. The RAV4 Hybrid joined the line last year. For 2017, customers can select three different Hybrid trim levels: XLE, SE and Limited.

Join us for a test-drive in the RAV4 Hybrid XLE AWD in our above video as we highlight the hybrid powertrain, three drive modes and more. (video © CarNichiWa.com)

We decided to test the RAV4 Hybrid XLE that carries a base MSRP of $29,030 in the U.S. Our tester added the Entune Premium Audio system with navigation and 7-inch touchscreen display, plus destination and handling for a very reasonable bottom line of $30,495 (not including tax, license, etc.).

Our walkaround video (above) takes a closer look at some of the key features of the RAV4 Hybrid on the outside, under the hood, and in the passenger and cargo compartments. (video © CarNichiWa.com)

Let’s start on the outside, as most folks do when new-car shopping. The current-generation RAV4 received a styling refresh last year, gaining a bolder looking front fascia. It can be enhanced with available LED headlights and Daytime Running Lights. Other changes include new rocker panels (lower side moldings), a restyled rear bumper and available LED taillights.

Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive blends output from a 2.5-liter Atkinson cycle 4-cylinder engine and a small high-torque electric motor through a special transaxle. The result is surprisingly agile performance with a combined 194 horsepower and potential 0-60 mph sprint of 8.1 seconds, nearly a second quicker than the gas version.

As a parallel hybrid, the system varies power between the gas engine and electric motor, or combines the two for virtually seamless acceleration. Regenerative braking changes the electric motor to a generator to harness energy when the brakes are applied and store it in the nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery pack.

Another plus is that all RAV4 Hybrid models are fitted with an electronic on-demand All-Wheel-Drive system with intelligence (i-AWD). A second electric motor drives the rear wheels when needed to assist traction on wet or dry roads.

Like the Prius and others, the RAV4 Hybrid’s driver can select from three different driving modes. “ECO” mode optimizes throttle response and air conditioning output to help conserve energy. In “EV” mode, the RAV4 can operate only on the electric motor for up to half a mile or so at low speeds. We used “Sport” mode on the steep hills in our neighborhood to help increase performance.

On the inside, the driver and front passenger for the XLE are treated to comfortable bucket seats with sport bolsters trimmed with good-looking black fabric. Those seeking more can move up to the SE and Limited trim levels that offer power-adjustable seats with SofTex® trim in a variety of interesting hues including “Cinnamon” and “Nutmeg.”

The rear seat offers plenty of space for three. 60/40-split seats fold down to increase cargo space and recline for increased comfort on extended journeys. A third-row seat is not offered on the RAV4. Those who need to transport more than five passengers are advised to check out the larger Toyota Highlander.

The cargo compartment offers plenty of space for gear or groceries with the rear seat up (35.6 cu. ft.) or down (70.6 cu. ft.). That’s a bit less than the non-hybrid model (38.4/73.4) due to the hybrid’s battery pack. The split rear seat allows extra-long items to be carried inside the cabin while still offering space for three or four passengers.

Up front, the dash and instrument panel are designed for ease of use with well-positioned displays and controls. Our tester featured a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio, Multi-Information Display (MID), Bluetooth and cruise controls. Dual-zone climate control with air filter is also standard on the XLE.

Located in the center of the instrument cluster, the 4.2-inch MID allows the driver to view pages of information and customize the operation of some vehicle features. Among the selections are trip and hybrid system info, Hybrid System Indicator, energy monitor, AWD status and warning messages.

The centrally mounted 7-inch touchscreen display is a joy to use. While the vehicle is in motion, we can clearly see energy flowing from the battery to the electric drive motors and from the engine to the front wheels using the Energy Monitor display (above).

We also liked the sound quality from the premium audio system and the flexibility to select features like HD Radio™, Predictive Traffic, weather forecast, SiriusXM® Satellite Radio and more. As we showed in our walkaround video, we used the voice-command button to access the navigation system and search for the nearest Starbucks.

Those who select the RAV4 Hybrid versus the regular gas models expect to achieve better fuel economy. So how did we do? The above screen, that displays 15 minutes of driving, shows that we topped out briefly at 60 mpg with light pedal application in ECO mode, and a low of 18 mpg when putting the pedal to the metal in Sport mode.

During our week-long test covering a couple hundred miles we scored 29 mpg. That’s a bit lower than the EPA ratings of 34 city, 20 highway and 32 combined. Of course, we spent lots of time driving up-and-down steep hills and also used the “Sport” mode and air conditioning a lot.

We can see why the RAV4 is so popular: It’s easy and fun to drive, spacious and comfortable inside, and offers lots of high-tech features. It also gives shoppers the choice of three hybrid and five gas models that start out at just $24,110 for the base LE FWD. If we were in the market for a compact hybrid crossover, we’d put the Toyota RAV4 at the top of our shopping list.

RAV4 Hybrid press fleet vehicle provided by Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. Prices and vehicle information applies to models sold in the U.S. at the time of publication. All product information including prices, features and specifications is subject to change without notice by the automaker.

Story, photos and videos © 2017 CarNichiWa.com