Editor's note: This review was written in April 2016 about the 2016 Toyota RAV4, but little of substance has changed. To see what's new for 2017, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
We tested a 2016 Toyota RAV4 in the new, sporty SE trim level, also equipped with the optional Advanced Technology Package that includes sonar parking sensors, 360-degree cameras, forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control. The test SUV cost $34,595 including a $900 destination charge. The RAV4 also is sold in a new-for-2016 hybrid version, which is reviewed here.
Exterior & Styling
The 2016 RAV4 is sleeker with a more angular, creased grille area than the previous RAV4. In profile and from the rear, the changes are subtler. The SE models get unique bumper and lower grille designs, plus 18-inch wheels and LED headlights and taillights.
The design changes are so subtle that unless you're viewing the RAV4 from the front, it's hard to tell that any changes were made. That's not a bad thing: I think the more fluid, wildly styled designs — for example the Nissan Rogue — might look more modern now, but that the RAV4's more conventional, angular design will wear better. You can compare the 2016 redesign to the 2015 model here.
How It Drives
If you're driving on rough roads, it becomes apparent quickly that the SE models are different from other RAV4s. The SE versions get sport-tuned shock absorbers and coil springs in addition to the 18-inch wheels, and the result is a ride that's jarring on rough roads.
Non-SE models already felt more composed and sporty than the Equinox, Rogue and CR-V. By trying to "dial up" the suspension performance in the SE, Toyota seems to have gone too far. It jiggles a lot over rougher roads and greets potholes with a noticeable crash. The compliance that makes the other RAV4 trim levels enjoyable to drive is largely gone.
What doesn't help is that all RAV4 models are powered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 176 horsepower and is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. While the SE models do get paddle shifters, there's no improvement in engine response to make the pain of the ride worthwhile. I couldn't help wondering if I'd accept the rough ride more if I knew that I was getting more power.
With all-wheel drive, the RAV4 gets an EPA-estimated 22/29/25 mpg city/highway/combined, and front-wheel-drive versions are rated 23/30/26 mpg city/highway/combined.
Looking at the combined mileage figures, the RAV4's 25 mpg beats the four-cylinder, all-wheel-drive Equinox (23 mpg), but it trails all-wheel-drive versions of the CR-V (27 mpg) and Rogue (28 mpg).
SE models get a power driver's seat, contrast stitching and a choice of two interior colors — black and black/cinnamon. For 2016, all RAV4s have a more uniform interior appearance across all trim levels. Gone are the sometimes mismatched trim pieces and, in a move that's particularly welcome to my eyes, the faux carbon-fiber inlays around the door lock switches are history.
I was comfortable both as a passenger and as the driver during my time in the RAV4, and the new upper door padding (on all but the base RAV4s) played a part. I also think the materials choices look at least as good, if not better, than what everybody else is offering in this class.
The Nissan Rogue is the most luxurious of the competitors, and the Honda CR-V comes closest to matching the Rogue's styling. The Equinox, depending on its trim level, can look pretty fancy, but base models are more utilitarian — like the RAV4 — than dressy.
And while Toyota has made a number of changes to the interior design, it still will look familiar to RAV4 owners, so those who wanted a complete transformation will be disappointed.
Toyota increased the amount of sound-deadening material in all RAV4 models for 2016, and it largely has paid off. There's very little wind noise, and while the road noise still is noticeable, it's improved over the previous model.
Backseat room is very good, with lots of room for knees, legs, hips and shoulders, though the seat itself is firm.
Ergonomics & Electronics
The RAV4 SE has a 7.1-inch touch-screen for controlling various functions. I found that the screen had good resolution and, just as important, responded quickly to inputs. I think Ford's revised Sync 3 system in the Escape is the best in the class, and I'd say the Toyota system is almost as good, both in responsiveness and also in the ease of switching among menus such as navigation and audio, for instance. The GM systems trail, owing mostly to a bit of lag, and I find the Honda systems almost unusable because of a pronounced lag. The Nissan Rogue is OK in this regard, but I give the edge to the RAV4 for general speed of response and graphic sharpness.
Our test model included a 360-degree around-view monitor that's noteworthy because it's one of several cameras systems — mostly found on luxury vehicles — that offer a true view of what's around the car, without black lines that segment the image. You really feel as if you're looking down from the top of the car at what's around you.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are, as of this writing, not available on the RAV4.
Cargo & Storage
Toyota also has worked a bit on the 2016's cargo area, and a height-adjustable power liftgate is standard on all RAV4s except in the base LE trim (where it's not offered as an option, either). What's neat about the Toyota feature is that you can adjust from the front seat how high the liftgate opens so that if you've pulled into a garage with lower clearance, you can make that adjustment without getting out.
Toyota also reworked the in-cabin storage with new cupholders, a no-slip mat on the center console tray and a few other tweaks. I've always found the RAV4 to be good at providing storage places for all the things you need during your daily life, and this updated version is no different.
The 2016 Toyota RAV4 got the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's highest rating in all tests, including "superior" performance in front-crash avoidance when fitted with the optional forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking.
This feature, which was included in our test model's Advanced Technology Package, detects pedestrians as well as cars, and it has active lane keeping assist. Browse through the complete safety feature list here.
The collision warning system kicked on a few times when I was driving and it was just obtrusive enough to get my attention. It flashes a block of bright orange warning lights on the instrument panel and center screen, as well as sounds an audio alarm. It was not, however, so sensitive or so jarring that I ever wanted to turn the feature off, which speaks well to how Toyota has executed the system. What's the point of having a system if you turn it off?
Value in Its Class
Our test model cost nearly $35,000 because of options, but starts at around $30,000 for the SE model. That's almost $5,000 more than the base LE version of the RAV4.
"Value" doesn't always equal lower "cost," but in this case, the RAV4 SE's high price really hurts it against the competition.
Comparing the RAV4 SE with competitors in the same price range — the Chevrolet Equinox LT, Honda CR-V EX-L and Rogue SL — the Toyota rides the roughest and has the interior that looks the least luxurious, though it must be said the RAV4 is closer to the Equinox in terms of quality than Chevrolet should be comfortable with. The CR-V and especially the Rogue manage to look much richer. Compare their specs here.
The RAV4 is able to claw back an advantage in the utility area; the Equinox is the only one of the competitors that would rival the RAV4 in terms of a useful cargo area. Both the CR-V and Rogue have cargo areas that are not as easy to load things into and that also appear to show dirt more than the RAV4 did during my test.
The real rub with the SE is that it attempts to do something the competitors don't by offering a sportier version.
Unfortunately, since the focus of the sporty tuning is the ride, and the result is a ride that's not great, it's hard for the RAV4 to justify the SE's price premium.