The 2016 Toyota RAV4 is the latest update to the smallest utility vehicle in the company's lineup. This year, there's a mild refresh of a handful of styling and interior features, but the big news is the addition of a RAV4 Hybrid model. That gives the RAV4 not only a version with better fuel economy, but the only hybrid in the smaller SUV segment, and a possible replacement for the much-loved Ford Escape Hybrid sold from 2004 through 2012. There's also a new RAV4 SE model, designated the sportiest in the lineup.
Toyota spent most of its effort revising and updating the interior this year, which it says came in response to customer feedback. The 2016 RAV4 uses better-quality materials, including more soft-touch surfaces. It adds trim around certain dashboard and console elements, a digital display in the revised instrument cluster, an available 7.0-inch touchscreen display, and a 12-volt outlet for the rear plus another USB port.
The RAV4 emerged in the 1990s as part of the first wave of compact crossovers—small SUVs build on car underpinnings—and it's grown up some. It's now technically a mid-size, though Toyota's Highlander seven-seat model is really the company's entry in that segment. But the RA4 has become one of the consistent best-sellers among small crossovers, popular with families and a strong competitor for the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, and Subaru Forester, among others in the hotly contested segment.
The current RAV4 is the fourth year of a model redesigned for 2013, when it lost the options of a vestigial third-row seat and a V-6 engine. It offers more room inside than some of its competitors, and a dash of driving enjoyment—though it's the balance of space, features, and Toyota reliability that keeps it selling well year after year.
The 2016 RAV4 retains its familiar small-SUV shape, shared among essentially all compact SUVs. The tailgate-mounted spare that gave it faux-truck credentials is long gone, and its profile now matches those of the Escape, the Hyundai Santa Fe, even the sportier Mazda CX-5. Its front end shares design notes with Toyota's latest passenger cars, but the rear is chunky, upright, and has unusual taillights that stand proud of the body. Inside, the dashboard is busy; to our eyes, the simplest RAV4 LE is more coherent than the many trims and surfaces of the top-of-the-line RAV4 Limited.
Only two powertrains are offered in the RAV4. The base engine is a 176-horsepower 2.5-liter inline-4 paired with a 6-speed automatic transmission. For the few families concerned about sporty driving, the automatic's sport-shift mode makes it more enjoyable. A 0-to-60-mph time of less than nine seconds is acceptable; while the RAV4 isn't fast, it's quick enough for most family needs. All-wheel drive (AWD) is a $1,400 option.
The new RAV4 Hybrid is actually more powerful than the base RAV4, with a combined peak power of 194 hp from a 154-hp 2.5-liter inline-4 paired with the latest generation of Toyota's two-motor Hybrid Synergy Drive system. The RAV4 Hybrid's standard AWD is not mechanical—as in the gasoline model—but instead uses a 50-kw (67-hp) third electric motor on the rear axle to provide the rear wheels with torque when its control system senses power is needed. The hybrid RAV4 is the quickest model in the lineup—capable of getting to 60 mph in 8.1 seconds, which is about a second less than with the base engine. And it gets EPA ratings of 33 mpg combined, more than a 30 percent improvement over the 25 mpg delivered by the other RAV4 AWD models.
On the road, the RAV4 is responsive, but far from as sporty as a Mazda CX-5, a Subaru Forester XT, or even the base Ford Escape. It rides lower than other compact SUVs, and the AWD version improves on-road handling as well as providing better traction in inclement weather. The well-weighted electric power steering provides a good sense of center. For a slightly better ride, we suggest sticking with the 17-inch tires on LE and XLE versions.
The new 2016 RAV4 SE model doesn't change the standard powertrain, though it adds paddle shifters behind the steering wheel and a sport-tuned suspension to the compact crossover. It also comes with 18-inch alloy wheels, a unique front bumper and grille design, interior finishes that include a black headliner and contrast stitching on the seats, and red lighting and needles on the instruments. It also bundles a host of features that are optional on other models. Those include LED headlights and taillights, power driver's seat, and the option of a black-and-tan interior.
Base versions of the RAV4 have seats that we found less supportive than the firmer bolsters offered in the XLE version. Seating space in the RAV4 is about on par with the equally large CR-V—and clearly more generous than that of the Escape. But the back bench is less supportive than many adults will prefer, and its flip/fold mechanism is one step shy of the Honda's. Cargo space is cavernous, and RAV4 Limited versions get a power tailgate.
The 2016 RAV4 buffs up its safety credentials, with a five-star overall rating from the NHTSA and a Top Safety Pick+ designation from the IIHS. An optional Toyota Safety System is new this year, and standard on the RAV4 Limited. It includes forward collision warning, followed by automatic pre-collision braking if the driver doesn't take action. It also wraps in lane-departure alert, a radar-based adaptive cruise control, a pedestrian pre-collision system, and automatic high beams. A new surround-view camera system gives drivers a 360-degree view of their surroundings using four cameras, mounted on the front, side mirrors, and rear of the car. Limited models include blind-spot monitors with cross-traffic alerts as well; a rear-vision camera is standard on all models, as are eight airbags.
Audio systems are noteworthy in the RAV4. There are four different levels of Entune touchscreen audio, with the top two levels incorporating the App Suite—Bing for search; iHeartRadio and Pandora for audio streaming; MovieTickets.com, OpenTable, and Yelp for going out; and real-time traffic, weather, fuel prices, sports and stocks. Toyota remains stubbornly resistant to both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, however.
Front-wheel-drive models of the 2016 RAV4 manage fuel economy numbers of 23 mpg city, 30 highway, 26 combined. Upgrade to all-wheel drive and you'll lower the gas mileage one click, to 22/29/25 mpg. Those aren't class-leading numbers, with competitors like the Mazda CX-5 and the most efficient versions of the Ford Escape topping the RAV4's ratings, but the hybrid RAV4's numbers bring it more closely in line. That model is rated at 34/31/33 mph.