The 2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid offers better acceleration, more horsepower and torque than the gas-only RAV4, but in the compact SUV class, its calling card is its mileage, not its overall competitiveness.

The hybrid powertrain, available only on the upper XLE and Limited trim levels, is part of an overall light restyling of the RAV4 for 2016.

As a small hybrid SUV, the RAV4 Hybrid faces competition only from the all-wheel-drive Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid, which is technically a subcompact. Compare the RAV4 Hybrid and Crosstrek Hybrid here. The RAV4 Hybrid also competes against a number of gas-only compact SUVs, including the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V and Chevrolet Equinox. You can compare them here.

I drove both the XLE and the Limited RAV4 hybrids, as well as a gas-only RAV4, on a mix of highway and residential streets. Like the larger Highlander Hybrid, the RAV4 Hybrid comes only with all-wheel drive.

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 more subtle.

In general, hybrid models look like their grille and other openings have been closed off more, and the headlights taper at the edges into the grille. There's a similar treatment around back, where the brake lights taper at their edges. Finally, there's a rear skid plate look that's got a metallic gray finish on it for 2016.

These changes will largely carry over to gas-powered 2016 RAV4 models, as well, though the hybrids will have different badging and unique 17-inch wheels.

How It Drives


The 2015 gas-powered RAV4 was described as "competent" in our recent $28,000 Compact SUV Challenge, and that's also a good way to describe the overall driving experience of the hybrid version. Yes, there's more horsepower (194 horsepower in the hybrid versus 176 in the gas-powered version) and torque (206 pounds-feet compared with 172). But owing to the hybrid's extra weight of about 320 pounds, the RAV4 Hybrid isn't thus transformed into a rocket ship. It does feel quicker than the gas-powered version, but only slightly.

There's good, sharp acceleration in the hybrid from a standstill, and any acceleration from low speed is acceptable for the class. At highway speeds, however, when you need to pass you'll need to anticipate and plan your moves.

Though it's not a typical continuously variable automatic transmission, Toyota's hybrid system uses continuously variable gear ratios rather than separate gears. The RAV4 Hybrid's response is better than a lot of CVTs and hybrids I've tested; instead of the "elastic" response of the worst models, the power comes on more directly, with a predictable response. The RAV4 Hybrid does sound harsher, though, with a flatter engine note, than the gas-only RAV4.

You never forget you're driving a hybrid, either. There's a persistent whine and/or whistle that comes from the hybrid system and is most noticeable during acceleration and braking. The noise is pretty faint when you're coasting along, so if you're the sort to listen to music when you drive, you might not notice it at all.

The RAV4 Hybrid's ride is no different from the previous generation's gas-powered version. Of its competitors, I find the Escape has the best ride, with a great ability to soak up bumps and still allow for quick changes in direction. The CR-V and Equinox trail a bit because, while comfortable, they don't inspire confidence when pushed. The RAV4 Hybrid trails all of them in the ability to absorb bumps, but it's competitive with the CR-V and Equinox in the handling department.

The RAV4 Hybrid gets EPA-estimated gas mileage of 34/31/33 mpg city/highway/combined. By comparison, the gas-powered RAV4 gets an estimated 22/29/25 mpg with all-wheel drive and 23/30/26 mpg with its standard front-wheel drive.

Comparing the RAV4 Hybrid's combined fuel economy of 33 mpg with its all-wheel-drive, four-cylinder competition, the Toyota easily bests the Equinox (23 mpg) Escape (25 mpg with the 1.6-liter engine) and CR-V (27 mpg). The Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid is rated 30/34/31 mpg city/highway/combined, so the RAV4 Hybrid bests its city and combined figures but trails it on the highway. It's been our experience that combined mileage figures are closest to what drivers get in the "real world," so the RAV4's victory there is significant.

Interior


For 2016, all RAV4s have a more uniform interior appearance across all trim levels. Gone are the sometimes mismatched trim pieces, as are — in a move particularly welcome to my eyes — the faux carbon-fiber inlays around the door-lock switches.

I was comfortable both as a passenger and driver during my day in the RAV4 Hybrid, and the new upper door trim padding on all but the base model played a part in that. I also think the material choices — especially the new mocha-colored interior — look at least as good, if not better, than what anybody else is offering in this class. While Toyota has made a number of changes to the interior design, it will look familiar to RAV4 owners. So anyone wanting a complete transformation will be disappointed.

Toyota increased the amount of sound-deadening material in all RAV4s for 2016, and it's largely paid off in the hybrid version. Yes, there is the odd, persistent drivetrain noise, but there's very little wind noise. While road noise is still noticeable, it's improved over the previous model.

Finally, backseat room remains very good, with lots of knee, leg, hip and shoulder room.

Ergonomics & Electronics


The RAV4 Hybrid is available with either a 6.1-inch (XLE) or 7.0-inch (Limited) touch-screen for controlling various functions. I found both screens to have good resolution and, just as important, to respond quickly to inputs. I think the revised Sync 3.0 system that Ford uses is the best in the class, but Toyota's system is almost as good, both in terms of responsiveness and in the ease of switching between menus, like navigation and audio. The GM systems trail thanks mostly to a bit of lag, and the Honda systems are almost unusable because of pronounced lag.

RAV4 Hybrid buyers who've had experience in Toyota hybrid vehicles will find familiar screens to check energy use, battery power regeneration and fuel economy. For 2016, though, those screens now are color, both in the Prius and in the RAV4 Hybrid.

Sadly, though, even in the top-of-the-line Limited trim I tested there was only one USB port in the car. That doesn't cut it in the days when everybody has a device that seems to constantly need charging.

Cargo & Storage


Toyota has also worked a bit on the cargo area, and a height-adjustable power liftgate is standard on all RAV4s — hybrid or otherwise — except the base LE trim (where it's not even optional). What's neat about the Toyota system is that while sitting in the front seat you can adjust how high the liftgate opens, so if you've pulled into a garage with lower clearance, you can make that adjustment without getting out of the car.

The RAV4 Hybrid loses almost 3 cubic feet of cargo space compared with the gas-powered RAV4 because of the hybrid system's batteries. For reference, a cubic foot is about the size of a basketball, so the overall loss of space isn't enormous.

Toyota also reworked the RAV4's in-cabin storage, giving it new cupholders and a no-slip mat on the center console tray, plus a few other tweaks. I've always found the RAV4 to be good at providing storage space for all the things you need during your daily life, and this version is no different.

Safety


The RAV4 Hybrid has not been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. According to IIHS, though, the 2015 results should carry over to both the gas and hybrid versions in 2016. Check here for more safety information and for IIHS results when they become available.

Beyond the required front airbags, antilock brakes and electronic stability system, safety options include a Toyota Safety Sense option package that's standard on the RAV4 Limited (hybrid or otherwise) and available on XLE and SE models. Bundled in that package are a precollision braking system that's designed to recognize pedestrians and apply the brakes, lane departure alert that will also steer you back into your lane and adaptive cruise control. There's also trailer-sway control on all hybrid and gas-powered RAV4s except the SE. Take a look at the RAV4's other safety features here.

Value in Its Class


The RAV4 Hybrid is a smart car for Toyota to make, as the 2015 RAV4's mileage was toward the back of the pack when we tested it against competitors. Now it leaps ahead of those competitors while offering all-wheel drive.

The quieter interior is most welcome, and the fact that the RAV4 Hybrid gets more enjoyable performance while delivering better mileage is great.

The issue is that the RAV4 Hybrid could be seen as just an option package on the most well-equipped — and therefore most expensive — trim levels. There's no option to get the Hybrid in a less-expensive model. (Hybrid RAV4 models cost about $700 more than their conventional counterparts.)

Overall, while the RAV4 Hybrid isn't a bad vehicle, it's not a clear winner in its segment in any area except mileage. When gas prices are low, that might not be enough to attract shoppers.

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