Is the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid my next vehicle?

Just wrapped up a week with the 2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid – Limited AWD and was particularly interested to give it a solid test drive because of all the cars on the market, this is the one that seems the most logical choice for the next vehicle after I’ve finally burned out on my Toyota Highlander Hybrid. With 119k miles, it’s still going great, but as my oldest child heads off to college, it’s feeling unnecessarily big when I spend a lot of time driving either solo or with just one passenger.

In a lot of ways the RAV4 is the junior edition of the Highlander, with its smaller wheelbase and smaller overall size. Surprisingly, the base cost isn’t that much less, however: before you start adding trim packages, the RAV4 is only about $5000 less than the Highlander. Still, my days of needing a third row seat and space for tons of gear have eased a bit, so the RAV4 in its hybrid version with the terrific Toyota CVT (continuously variable transmission) seemed like a win.

2016 toyota rav4 hybrid

And after a week of driving the 2016 RAV4 Hybrid, I can report that it’s a great little car with a few quirks and oddities in its design that are more than made up for by its super zippy performance and general comfort. Oh, and the blue? Love it. As did everyone else who saw it! The color’s called “Electric Storm Blue” if you’re curious, and it’s an eye-catcher, as you can see in the photo.

The two-tone interior (“Cinnamon” in Toyota color parlance) was just as striking, as was the entire dashboard design:

2016 toyota rav4 hybrid interior layout

Let’s stick with the interior for a minute, though, and talk through some of the design choices that Toyota made.

First off, the main dashboard control is clean and easy to read, for the most part, though the central message screen can get rather confusing with its acronyms. For example, look on the lower right. “BSM” seems like it’d be part of the Toyota lane monitoring system, but it’s not, it’s actually the blind side monitoring system that flashes an amber alert light on the side view mirror when there’s a vehicle detected in your blind spot. The lane monitoring system is just represented by the car out of lane picture itself:

dashboard controls, 2016 toyota rav4 hybrid

And of course, any time you start up the car, your average trip speed and fuel efficiency is going to be, well, all zeroes. Darn efficient!

Across the week that I drove it, the vehicle actually averaged 34.7 mpg, which is quite a bump from my 2008 Highlander Hybrid which can attain 26mpg if I work at it. Still, with a hybrid and a mostly flat terrain, it’s hard to understand why it’s not closer to 50 mpg as Toyota attains with the Prius line. Perhaps the 2017? Or the 2018?

Modern vehicles are so complex, it can be difficult for car designers to know where to put – and how to label! – all the necessary buttons. For example, here’s the steering wheel, with no less than 16 different buttons and controls under thumb:

2016 toyota rav4 hybrid steering wheel

You get used to the controls in your car, but the RAV4 has a lotta different buttons! Some are tucked to the left on the dashboard and door, including the button that lets you disable the lane monitoring system:

2016 toyota rav4 hybrid controls, left dashboard

While others are actually tucked deep in the shifter well, including a second power outlet that I didn’t even know existed until I was editing the following photograph on my computer.

Can you see it? Just under the three driving mode buttons?

2016 toyota rav4 hybrid controls, dash well

This speaks to a general design problem with vehicles as they become more sophisticated and our expectations of integrated technology increase too, and so far it doesn’t seem like any of the car manufacturers are doing a particularly great job figuring out how to make it all fit elegantly. Indeed, in the RAV4, it’s quite possible that owners don’t even realize that there are these three drive modes as the buttons are hard to see from the driver’s seat and require a sort of “underhand” gesture to control.

And then there’s the entire entertainment system:

2016 toyota rav4 hybrid entertainment navigational gps system

Nicely designed, and the Cinnamon interior colors really give the vehicle an elegant appearance. I found the navigational system a pleasure to use as it was a clear evolutionary journey from the nav system in the 2008 Highlander, and XM radio was well integrated too, as shown above (the song playing is “Love Will Find a Way” by Pablo Cruze on 70s on 7). An oddity, though: There’s no way to have the nav map be the full screen without tapping on the map region itself. Every time you start the car. Sure, a first world problem, but an odd one when the older version of the nav system has a dedicated “MAP” button that immediately moves you to a full screen map and stays there across vehicle restarts.

With everything else in the 2016 RAV4 Hybrid being so thoughtfully designed, it was a surprise to find the LCD temperature readout screen on the environmental controls area (immediately below the entertainment system in the above photo). Felt rather retro, rather late 90’s, and seems like it should be wired into the nav system and displayed on-screen. Not sure what the design decision was, but it’s clear that the environmental controls are a completely separate and isolated unit from the main entertainment system. Perhaps modularity? Wasn’t a fan.

The RAV4 has decent back storage too, but the thickness of the rear seats meant that when folded down they were still at a 20-30 degree angle, as you can sort of see in this photo:

rear cargo area, rav4 hybrid

In most vehicles, dropping the seat down for cargo or oversized gear results in it all laying flat, but that’s definitely not the case in the 2016 RAV4. Definitely something you’d get used to after a few weeks, but a surprise nonetheless.

Still, notice the generous storage space in the back even when the second row seats are in their upright position. It’s ready for even a serious Costco run, though don’t expect to store an adult-size bike in the back while the second row seats are upright. Two words: bike rack.

Now let’s check out the exterior because there are some nifty technology elements worth highlighting.

exterior front corner, 2016 rav4 hybrid

There are a number of technological marvels visible in this photo, but you need to know where to look. With its adaptive cruise control, the car uses a variety of radar systems to function on the road, one of which is tucked behind the rear view mirror on the windshield:

adaptive cruise control radar system, toyota rav4

The other radar sensors are on the front bumper, little circles that look more like mounting bolt covers. Here’s one up close:

front radar sensor, toyota rav4

Now that you know what they look like, check out some of the brand new cars in your parking lot, and you’ll see that they show up on those vehicles too. This means that a bumper-damaging collision might prove a lot more expensive to fix, but the benefit of driving a smart vehicle is more than enough compensation, in my opinion.

The adaptive cruise control wasn’t as useful as that in the Mitsubishi that I last drove [my review: 2016 Mitsubishi Outlander] and while it helped you not crash into the vehicle in front while cruise control was enabled, the Toyota system also quit when you got below about 30mph, far less useful than the Mitsubishi version which would take you to a full stop if needed, then disable itself. Generally, the Toyota smart controls all seemed a bit less capable than on other 2016 vehicles I’ve driven, quite a surprise for a company so advanced in its other (esp. hybrid) tech.

Still, I really liked the 2016 RAV4 Hybrid, and it’s a bit of a drag that as configured, the vehicle I drove has an MSRP of just over $34,000 for a compact SUV. And surprisingly, adding the hybrid only adds about $2000 to the sticker price, a reasonable trade-off for another 10-12 mpg (though you can do the math too: at $2.50/gal that’s a lot of driving to pay back the difference). Will it be my next car? Quite possibly. I’d just like to see Toyota address a few of the quirks noted.

Disclaimer: Toyota Motor Company loaned me the 2016 RAV4 Hybrid for a week for the purpose of this review and writeup. My opinions are my own, however.

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