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2020 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Test Drive Review
The RAV4 Hybrid offers a nearly perfect package of compact crossover attributes: Standard all-wheel drive, a roomy passenger compartment, and excellent fuel economy. It’s a pretty good value, too, with pricing starting at $29,470, which includes plenty of standard multimedia and safety features. It’s no wonder sales of the hybrid version of Toyota’s bestseller almost doubled in 2019.
Look and Feel
The RAV4 was completely redesigned for 2019, ditching the soft-roader styling look that Toyota’s cute-ute has carried through four previous generations. The new design is much tougher and more angular, especially in its front fascia, which has a lot in common with Toyota’s stalwart rock crawler, the 4Runner. Stacked, trapezoidal apertures and a perforated grille give the RAV4 Hybrid a mean and mechanical look. Complementary dark trim around the wheel wells and doorsills promise that the RAV4 is not just a thrifty grocery-getter, but also a real go-anywhere adventure machine able to venture off-road.
The RAV4 Hybrid is available four trims: LE, XLE, XSE and Limited. Lower trim levels have 17-inch wheels, while the 18-inch wheels and tires of the XSE and Limited do a better job of filling out space in the wheel wells. LED headlights and taillights are standard, although only the top trim can be had with adaptive headlights that automatically adjust the sweep of the beams as you steer.
Inside, the design is simple and functional, with some shiny bits of trim that look tasteful rather than cheap. While you won’t get luxury accouterments at this price point—leather upholstery is unavailable in the RAV4, for instance, so Softex will have to do—even the base fabric seats look and feel good. The interior plastics and other materials are uniformly nice, if not quite as nice as some of its competitors, such as the Honda CR-V Hybrid.
While the RAV4 Hybrid’s 219 horsepower is 16 more than the standard version, its most important specification is a combined EPA fuel economy rating of 40 miles per gallon. We routinely managed to hit that EPA number in our testing, which is not always the case with some vehicles. But the RAV4 Hybrid’s exceptional fuel economy is legitimate, and it should be attainable by almost anyone driving at legal speeds in a typical mix of city and highway environments.
It's not a Prius, but the fact that this roomy, five-passenger SUV can return such great fuel economy is fairly amazing. Compared to the previous generation of the RAV4 Hybrid, the new car's fuel economy has improved by eight mpg. The only competitor that tops the RAV4 in EPA testing is the Ford Escape Hybrid, which is rated at 41 mpg. But that’s only if you forego the all-wheel-drive (AWD) Escape Hybrid for the front-drive model. With AWD, the Escape Hybrid matches the RAV4’s 40-mpg mark.
Toyota uses a novel powertrain that combines a 2.5-liter, 176-horsepower four-cylinder gasoline engine with two electric motors to drive all four wheels. The first electric motor is inside the hybrid transaxle, where it delivers up to 118 hp to the RAV4 Hybrid’s front wheels. The second electric motor is mounted under the cargo floor, where its 54 hp turns the rear wheels. (There’s also a third, smaller electric motor, also located inside the transaxle, and used as a starter and generator.) Both electric drive motors draw power from the RAV4 Hybrid’s nickel-metal hydride battery, which is mounted under the rear seats. They also regenerate electricity while coasting to charge the battery. The RAV4 Hybrid is a conventional hybrid, so there’s no plugging it in—that technology has been saved for the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime.
What’s particularly clever about this arrangement is that the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid does away with the heavy driveshaft that usually connects the front and rear wheels of four-wheel-drive vehicles. Ditching the driveshaft means the RAV4 Hybrid weighs only about 200 pounds more than the regular non-hybrid model, which is advantageous for both handling and fuel economy. In our experience, the RAV4’s computer does such a good job sensing when to deliver power to the rear of the vehicle in slippery conditions that there is little perceptible difference between hybrid AWD and a conventional AWD system.
On the road, the RAV4 Hybrid’s engine feels well-matched to the vehicle, with the hybrid system providing plenty of instantaneous electric power to augment the four-cylinder gasoline engine. This makes it quicker to accelerate than the non-hybrid model. Regenerative braking is smooth, and the electric motor assist is nearly seamless. You can even tow up to 1,750 pounds with the RAV4 Hybrid, which has standard trailer sway control, although a hitch receiver ($295) and wiring harness ($160) are optional dealer-installed accessories. The steering is light and the suspension is soft, which makes the RAV4 Hybrid less sporty than some small SUVs but ensures everyone who slips behind the wheel will find it easy to drive.
Form and Function
Inside, the RAV4 Hybrid has excellent ergonomics. Its standard 7-inch touchscreen (a bigger, 8-inch screen is optional) is positioned prominently atop the center of the dashboard, flanked by hard buttons and a pair of knobs in the classic configuration of one for volume and the other for tuning. Climate controls sit lower in the center dash stack, beneath a pair of vents, and they are equally simple and well thought out. The center console has room for your cell phone ahead of the gearshift lever (with an optional Qi wireless charging tray), two cupholders, and a fairly large storage bin under the armrest.
If there is one complaint that can be levied against the RAV4’s cabin, it is that it could be quieter. The RAV4 Hybrid improves on the non-hybrid model in this case, principally because its electric drive mitigates the high revving of the engine and accompanying noise. But even so, some road noise still makes its way into the RAV4 Hybrid.
Yet on long trips, the RAV4 Hybrid remains comfortable from the driver's seat and pleasurable to drive. Its rear seat is particularly huge, with impressive legroom. Three adults will fit across it without immediate objection and the cargo compartment is similarly capacious. It is worth noting that choosing the hybrid model of the RAV4 doesn’t force any compromise in interior or cargo space, as the hybrid hardware is packaged without intrusion. This means you still get the same 98.9 cubic feet of EPA-measured passenger volume and 37.6 cubic feet of trunk capacity in the cargo area as the standard RAV4—both good numbers for the class.
For the first time in 2020, Toyota will offer Android Auto in the RAV4, joining the company’s recent adoption of Apple CarPlay. (All trims will also now receive SiriusXM Radio, with a 3-month free trial.) These features are standard—as they should be—providing excellent infotainment technology to anyone who owns a smartphone.
Both Android Auto and CarPlay trump Toyota’s proprietary Entune multimedia software. And although Toyota also offers navigation with its premium JBL stereo, we doubt many will prefer the low-resolution and ancient-looking maps of the in-house system to Google Maps or even Apple Maps. Similarly, we imagine most buyers will want to use their existing phone data plans, however Toyota does offer WiFi Connect in the RAV4 Hybrid, with a 3-month, 2GB trial.
With a USB-A port right on the face of the dash, plugging in your phone is convenient, although if you own an Android phone that uses USB-C, you’ll still have to have the right converter cable, as USB-C is not available in the RAV4 Hybrid. All trims above LE have an additional four USB-A charging ports; two in the bin under the armrest and another two in the backseat.
While RAV4 owners will likely be most interested in the technology that they can touch and feel—or talk to, like standard Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant compatibility—there’s another new technology operating quietly behind the scenes. Called “Predictive Efficient Drive,” it combines data from multiple sources (including driver inputs and the navigation system) to better calculate when to discharge and charge the battery, thereby improving the hybrid system’s efficiency.
Drivers can also choose to enforce efficiency by selecting the “Eco” setting on the drive mode selector. This not only causes the knob next to the gearshifter to glow green but also makes the RAV4 Hybrid’s accelerator pedal less responsive. “Sport” mode does the opposite (bringing on a red hue), while a separate button for “Trail” mode will optimize the AWD system for leaving pavement. A default “normal” mode can also be selected.
Like most automakers, Toyota offers a bundle of safety features under a single name: Toyota Safety Sense 2.0. The RAV4 Hybrid gets this technology as standard equipment, although some additional features are available only as options.
Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 includes a pre-collision system with automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection, full-speed range dynamic radar adaptive cruise control, lane-departure alert with steering assist, automatic high beams, lane-tracing assist, and road-sign assist. Toyota also includes a 1-year trial of Safety Connect, an emergency assistance service and a stolen vehicle locator with automatic collision notification.
Of course, industry-wide safety equipment such as stability control, LATCH anchors for car seats, and airbags (eight of them in this case) are all standard, as well. Blind spot monitoring and front and rear parking assist with automated braking are both optional.
When it comes to safety ratings, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gave the 2020 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid a five-star rating, its highest score. The RAV4 Hybrid scored four stars in the frontal crash test, five in side crash test, and four in rollover test. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has not tested the RAV4 Hybrid, although the standard RAV4 did will in its battery of crash tests, earning a Top Safety Pick designation.
The NHTSA has issued two safety recalls for the RAV4 Hybrid thus far. A recall for vehicles with leaking engine coolant, potentially affecting 44,191 Toyotas including the RAV4 Hybrid, began on April 3, 2020. Another recall concerning the suspension and potentially affecting 9,502 RAV4’s began on July 12, 2020.
Toyota includes free maintenance on the RAV4 for 2 years or 25,000 miles, as well as roadside assistance. The company’s standard warranties apply: 3-years or 36,000-miles on the vehicle, 5 years or 60,000 miles on the powertrain, and an unlimited-mileage corrosion warranty. Toyota also has special guarantees on the RAV4 Hybrid: an 8-year, 100,000-mile warranty on the hybrid system and a new, class-leading 10-year, 150,000-mile transferrable warranty on the battery.
As with most Toyotas, the RAV4 Hybrid you want is probably not the entry-level model. In LE trim, the RAV4 Hybrid is good, but for just a little more money, you get so much more. The XLE Hybrid, at $30,770, adds a number of desirable features, including two additional color options, fog lights, more adjustable front seats, nicer interior trim, more USB ports, a cargo cover, and a blind-spot monitoring system.
But the real sweet spot in the RAV4 Hybrid lineup is the XSE. At $35,420, it’s a significant upgrade in price, which pays for an extensive list of extra equipment: Bigger wheels, two-tone paint, a sunroof, power liftgate, panoramic backup camera, digital instrumentation, imitation leather upholstery, heated seats, a leather-trimmed steering wheel and shift lever, ambient interior lighting, and the 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system. This gets you most of the features of the loaded, top-of-the-line Limited, for $2,580 less.
This is a bit more expensive than its two primary competitors. A comparably equipped Ford Escape SE Sport Hybrid carries a $34,700 MSRP, while a similar Honda CR-V Hybrid EX-L is just $33,870. Ford’s lowest-priced Escape Hybrid model starts at $30,155, however that model is just a front-driver and doesn’t include the RAV4’s safety tech. Honda’s CR-V Hybrid LX has a base price of $28,870, which includes AWD as well as Honda Sensing, the company’s safety suite. That’s a $600 savings over the RAV4 Hybrid LE.
All three have similar running costs, with the EPA estimating an $800 annual fuel bill for the Toyota and the Ford and $850 for the Honda. (The EPA calculates that amount based on driving 15,000 miles per year, with 55 percent of the driving on the highway.) Savings over 5 years compared to the average 2020 model year vehicle would amount to $1,750 for the RAV4 Hybrid and Escape Hybrid and $1,500 for the CR-V Hybrid.
Of course, there’s also another option: Bypass the hybrid RAV4 in favor of a less expensive regular RAV4—the non-hybrid one. Combined fuel economy will drop by at least 10 mpg, but so will the MSRP, by $1,000. Although the math is not entirely cut-and-dried—there’s the fluctuating cost of gasoline to consider—at today’s prices, the buyer of a RAV4 Hybrid XLE will save a little over $300 per year against the non-hybrid XLE with AWD. We’d say that makes the hybrid the wise choice.
No matter which RAV4 Hybrid trim you choose, you’ll still be getting the same good looks, roomy cabin and excellent fuel economy, all in an adventurous package. And you’ll be joining hundreds of thousands of other buyers that have made the RAV4 the best selling vehicle that’s not a pickup truck for three years running.
Jeff Sabatini has written for many publications over more than two decades in automotive journalism, including Autoblog, Automobile, Car and Driver, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Sports Car Market magazine.
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