First Drive: 2016 Toyota RAV4 & RAV4 Hybrid [Review]

Toyota refreshed its compact CUV for 2016.

If you buy Toyota's version of history, it was 21 years ago that it created the compact SUV segment with the introduction of the original RAV4. Whether it was a genuinely new idea or just a soft approximation of the wildly successful Wrangler and the Suzuki Samurai is a judgment we'll leave up to you, but there's no arguing with the impact this class of vehicle has had on the modern automotive industry.

For 2016, Toyota decided it's high time the RAV4 got higher mileage, and with the mid-cycle overhaul of the O.G. cute-‘ute, the lineup now incorporates its first-ever hybrid offering. While this formula may not be anything new or unique for the segment (Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute, anybody?), it's a first for Toyota, and if Toyota has proven anything over the past two decades, it's the company's acumen when it comes to building and selling hybrids.

By the numbersThe 2016 model represents the mid-cycle refresh of the fourth-generation RAV4. The hybrid model is the 8th to join Toyota's lineup, and it's available in two of the four available trim levels.

Yes, four trim levels. While the all-new hybrid may be the star of this particular show, it's not the whole story. Toyota is also testing the waters at the other end of the spectrum (the fun end, if that's not clear from context) with an all-new, sport-oriented trim: the SE.

What else is new?Since this is a mid-cycle refresh, the RAV4 gets some exterior and interior updates up and down the line. In what may seem to run contrary to the styling goals of most small crossovers, Toyota decided to emphasize the RAV4's SUV-like roots.

Aiming for a higher, wider stance, Toyota took some of the rake out of the RAV4's front end, making it more upright and abrupt rather than swept and car-like. The front and rear bumpers got new treatments to emphasize this, including body-coded paint in the rear and a skid plate "finish” in the front that has become standard, which Toyota believes will emphasize the RAV4's ruggedness. Unrelated to any image needs, the 2016 also gets shark-fin style antennae across the board.

Inside, little has changed. Materials have been upgraded, especially in common contact points (upper doors, etc.), but the layout is essentially identical. Toyota's Entune infotainment suite has been made standard as well, though there are tiers to it. Mid-tier models get Entune + connected apps; top-tier models round that out with full-blown navigation.

S.porting E.lementsAs we mentioned before, Toyota has decided to take a stab at adding a little pizzazz to its otherwise fairly middle-of-the-road offering. The result is the SE model, which is more than a simple trim package.

The SE gets unique wheels, a beefed-up sport suspension, paddle shifters and some unique exterior dress-up (blacked-out mesh grille, etc.). Like the other non-hybrid trims, the SE is available in either front- or all-wheel-drive. What you won't find in the SE model is the most powerful engine. That honor goes to the hybrid, which Toyota claims is also the quickest to 60 mph.

Here, we get the RAV4's standard 176-horsepower, 2.5L four-cylinder. It produces 172lb-ft of peak torque at 4,100 RPM—somewhat lofty for a small SUV, but certainly manageable. This combo is rated for 24 mpg city, 31 highway and 26 combined.

Toyota gave us a handful of Southern California routes to choose from in testing the various RAV4 models they brought along, and we elected to take the dynamically oriented Ortega Highway loop to see if the SE made for a worthwhile drive. We came away pleasantly surprised.

We mentioned several of the RAV4's updates for 2016 above, but we haven't yet talked about the chassis improvements. Toyota went through the RAV4 from front to rear with an eye on improving dynamics. As a result, the rear subframe was stiffened up, new digressive-valve shocks were fitted, and the steering rack was revised to provide more direct feedback.

Combined with the SE's more aggressive wheel/tire package and sport-tuned suspension, these upgrades make for a very competent, confidence-inspiring package. Later on, we drove out to Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, where Toyota had a SE model available for runs through a dynamic handling course, and what we felt on fast roads showed through there too.

This may not be the fastest RAV4 money can buy, but it's certainly the most entertaining to drive. We'd consider it a worthy competitor to the Mazda CX-5 when equipped like this, but keep in mind that Mazda doesn't have an SE equivalent. Any CX-5 you buy is the sporty one.

The party pieceWhile the SE may have won us over, nobody shows up to a wedding for the hors d'oeuvres, right? The 2016 RAV4 hybrid is the main event, and all were eager to see what it could do.

If you're familiar with Toyota's Highlander hybrid or the Lexus NX of the same stripe, the RAV4's configuration will ring some bells. The gas engine sits in the front. There are two electric motors—one in the front and one in the rear. While the gas engine charges the battery which powers both electric units (as is the case with any parallel hybrid), there's no physical connection between the axles.

Instead, the rear electric motor is activated when traction, acceleration or stability demands it. This is Toyota's AWD-i, or all-wheel-drive with "intelligence.” Our primary concern was how the battery's state of charge would impact all-wheel-drive operation if it is dependent on an all-electric component, but Toyota insists the gasoline engine will keep it juiced sufficiently to prevent any degradation in performance. "No impact.” Their words.

As we mentioned before, the hybrid is endowed with the highest power output of any 2016 RAV4—194 total system horsepower. It's also rated at 206lb-ft of torque, giving it the most grunt, and as we also mentioned before, supposedly the quickest acceleration of the bunch. Naturally, it also boasts the highest EPA mileage ratings at 34 city, 31 highway and 33 combined. The eagle-eyed among you may note that the highway rating matches that of the regular gas models. A diesel, this is not.

It is also not the SE, which means you get no sport suspension or "performance” wheel/tire package. The hybrid is here to be comfortable and efficient. Indeed, it soaks up bumps far more agreeably than the SE, making long hauls more pleasant. Our drive to El Toro in the hybrid was far more relaxed than our trip up and down Highway 74.

When we reached the runway and took the hybrid out on course, the differences between it and the SE became even more clear. The hybrid doesn't roll that much more, but it certainly feels like it does. Add to that, the hybrid's torque and horsepower advantages don't really seem like advantages when things get tight. After all, the hybrid system adds weight. The snappy torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive in the SE makes for some entertaining corner-exit shenanigans, even in this heavy machine, but the hybrid has no such aspirations. And after some spirited driving, the hybrid system starts to fell, well, gassed. No surprise, really.

But that's the way the game is played. The hybrid isn't completely hopeless, and the extra thrust is certainly welcome, but remember what duty the previously mentioned Ford Escape hybrid did so well. When was the last time you sat in one that wasn't yellow and blaring Conan O'Brien clips at you worked your way toward (or out of) a hangover?

Leftlane's bottom lineThe 2016 RAV4 offers a little something for everyone, whether you're looking to carve canyons or curtail your carbon contribution. The hybrid is a rather unique proposition in this segment for the time being, and from what we can tell, a worthwhile purchase. The SE? It may be the enthusiast's RAV4, but nimbler (Mazda), faster (Kia, Ford) and more comfortable (Nissan) options exist. Toyota may want a piece of that pie, but it remains to be seen whether Toyota can lure buyers away from brands that have been doing this for a while.

2016 Toyota RAV4, from $24,350.

As-tested:RAV4 SE AWD: $30,665RAV4 XLE Hybrid: $28,370

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