I CAN remember the launch of the original Rav4. I can also remember the motoring journalists of the time going mad for it. Here was a car that ticked all the boxes of the emerging small SUV market, but one which finally handled like a sporty hatchback.

In fact, such was the fun that could be had with the Rav4 that it was often pitted against coupes and hot hatches in group tests – partly for a laugh but also partly because it really was an absolute hoot to drive.

31893307But that was over 20 years ago and a lot has happened to the industry in that time. The Rav4 might have been one of the pioneers of plonking a practical SUV body on a sweet-handling chassis, but it certainly wasn’t the last.

And over the years it’s had a tricky upbringing. The second generation continued the theme and, although it was a very pretty car, it lost a bit of the original magic through safety regulations and a demand for greater efficiency.

By the third generation it seemed to be losing its way. It had gone from being the best small SUV on the market to being a reasonably capable car with a huge amount of competition on its hands.

31878178And so the new model had to have some pretty impressive tricks up its sleeves to escape the clutches of mediocrity. And, after spending a week in the latest version, I’m pleased to say it does.

Chief among these new additions is the option of a hybrid system. Anyone familiar with the Toyota hybrid setup – it’s similar to the one in the Prius, for example – will already know it well, but it fits the Rav4 like a glove.

The latest incarnation is very stylish, even a bit futuristic in some aspects of its design, and – although other engine options are available, the hybrid drivetrain seems to fit in well with all this.

31878350It also drives very well. It’s not as fun as the original, but even with petrol/electric propulsion fighting their way through a constantly-variable glovebox, it’s far from dull.

Inside, there’s a nod towards the slightly utilitarian feel of the original, but it does feel very well put together. It’s comfortable, visibility is very good and there’s plenty of space in the five door-only cabin.

While the hybrid system is good in plenty of environments, it does trip up somewhat on the open road. Fuel economy suffers on long, motorway runs and the electric motor-only option, which can be selected by pressing a button, is only good for slow, urban crawls.

That said, hybrid cars have their fans and they’ll be pleased to see this offering in such a capable and familiar model.

31893254For me, I think the diesel is still the better overall option, but there’s no point ignoring the hybrid, especially if you live in a rural area and only use the car for short runs.

This being merely a revamp of the fourth generation of the Rav4, it’s fair to say there’s still some work to do to bring back the sparkle of the original car, but it’s certainly moved with the times and it’s now growing old gracefully.

The multitude of rival models that followed on from the success of the first generation of Rav4 might be enjoying bigger slices of the market share, but you’d be foolish to overlook the Rav4. It’s still a capable, stylish and agile contender.