Is the Toyota RAV4 hybrid enough in a fast-changing new car scene?
Reflecting on the development of Toyota’s important midfield model is like taking a trip to the origins of the crossover sector, writes Iain Robertson, as RAV4 was the innovator that proved difficult to quantify, or qualify, 25 years ago, when it made its exciting debut.
It was a brave new world that Toyota dabbled with. SUVs were American off roaders. Crossovers had not been invented. This was the car that had so few potential rivals, even motoring magazine Autocar was forced into comparing the puckish RAV4 with the Ford Escort RS2000 of the day. From a purely personal viewpoint, I really loved the original model. It was light, chuckable and immense fun to live with.
While the second generation kept some of the qualities of the first, it was clear that RAV was entering a more serious and much accelerated market, with both three and five-door versions. The third-gen concentrated on diesel variants and mostly 2WD, while the fourth gave us petrol-electric hybrid technology. While now into its fifth generation, it has bucked trends and expectations by having offered 2WD, 4WD and both diesel and petrol power units, latterly in hybrid and, for some markets, even fully electric forms. Today, your choice is petrol-electric hybrid and a toss-up between front, or four-wheel drive only.
In its earliest guise, it was a cheery, compact runabout, an image it has now shed in the latest variant. Based on the TNGA-K platform, which it shares with the latest Camry and Lexus ES models, it is produced in North America and Japan for a world market that is highly receptive to its sometime broad appeal, although the company appears to be narrowing it for the UK market.
For the UK, it is available in Design, Excel and Dynamic trim levels. The test example is the most expensive (priced from £36,945; the range starts at £29,940) and there is not much else that needs to be added to its complement of high-end detailing, latest driver aids and semi-autonomous features, as well as modest connectivity, although it lacks both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which is a sizeable omission these days. Therefore, this RAV4 almost has it all.
Of course, Toyota is the world-leader in hybrid technology and the test car is powered by its latest 2.5-litre, four-cylinder engine that develops a healthy 219bhp and a decent slug of torque (221lbs ft, between 3,600-5,200rpm). While it does not need to be encouraged to despatch the 0-60mph benchmark in a zesty 8.1s, or to reach its posted (and restricted) top speed of 112mph, it seldom feels as though its reserves of punch are enough, despite the on-paper specification. It is a factor exacerbated by Toyota’s reliance on CVT (constantly variable transmission) technology.
Hit the ‘loud’ pedal, which is a misnomer, because the car is actually very refined and well insulated, and the engine revs soar, as they wait for the car to catch-up. Around town it is virtually silent and the way its hybrid system works (totally imperceptibly) means that the driver never needs to intervene. Yes. You can modulate the throttle to reduce its revvy insistence but it can be annoying at times. Yet, I could never state that I was upset by its fuel economy, returning 45mpg almost regardless of how it was driven, against a stated WLTP figure of 47.8mpg, while emitting a mere and tax-friendly 101g/km CO2. It is almost as frugal as my 1.0-litre Suzuki Vitara!
Driving it normally on the roads of Lincolnshire, with the Power Delivery page on the touchscreen, and you can, traffic conditions allowing, monitor the hybrid’s use of petrol, electric, or coasting capabilities, while admiring the speed with which it recharges its on-board Nickel-Metal hydride battery pack. There are other methods of measuring the vehicle’s overall efficiency using the available pagination. The car uses two electric motors, a prioritised 88kW unit on the front axle and a 40kW on the rear, and their status can also be checked on-screen.
The overall handling balance of the RAV4 is confidence inspiring. Pleasantly weighted and quite direct steering is matched to a surprisingly sporty, yet very comfortable suspension set-up. Body roll is well controlled and there are few signs of fore and aft pitch, from which the previous generation car suffered slightly. It is abundantly clear that Toyota’s engineers went to town on the dynamics front, as it is possible to cover ground at surprisingly high average speeds. More importantly, the ride is controlled, which means that comfort levels are uncompromised. Although I only indulged in some very light ‘soft-roading’ on a gravel track that I know quite well, the RAV4 felt more than up to the task, its 57% more rigid body shell absorbing shocks more resiliently than ever before.
Personally, I love RAV4’s angular exterior detailing and style. It looks like and is the big brother to the charming C-HR model and does possess a 4×4 system that works properly and will add to the car’s safety margin in adverse conditions. Its interior is spacious, being significantly roomier than the previous generation model and it possesses a cavernous boot capacity from 580-1,690 litres, depending on whether the rear seats are being used or not.
Cabin comfort is exemplary, the driver’s seat feeling more like a comfortable but well-sprung armchair and the range of adjustability between steering column and seat is enormous. The dashboard is tidy, if a little fussy in the current Toyota manner, with plenty of soft touch surfaces that add to its luxury appeal and exceptional fit and detail finish of the rest of the trim. The minor switchgear can feel a little scattered to begin with but familiarity still breeds and you soon get used to reaching on either side of the steering column, or clicking the touch-sensitive switches in the centre console.
Conclusion: Tolerate RAV4’s typical gearless transmission and the car will satisfy totally in almost every respect, with the exception of its lack of connectivity options. Yet, it is a likeable and totally dependable machine covered by a comprehensive five years warranty.