While many automakers are diving headfirst into the EV end of the automotive pool (despite modest consumer interest) Toyota is doubling down on its tried-and-true hybrid powertrain technology with its latest Corolla and RAV4 hybrid models.

After a week with a brand-new XSE-trimmed RAV4 Hybrid, it is clear that this compact crossover is not yet perfection. However, it is the new class benchmark.

Essentially the same size as the previous rendition – 181 inches long on a 106-inch wheelbase – the latest RAV4 is packed with new features. There are now nine – NINE! – distinct models.

Five models (including off-road capable Adventure trim) use the revised 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine teamed with a new 8-speed automatic, plus optional AWD with traction-select modes; four models are Hybrid-powered with the same gas engine complimented by two electric motors powered by a 1.6kW metal-hydride battery pack running through a CVT transmission.

Pricing reflects the inclusion of Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 on all models, as well as a host of previously optional conveniences. Base LE model begins at $25,650; popular XLE is now $27,450, and the LE hybrid starts at $27,850.

The best value – AWD, Hybrid-economy, features, performance – is the XSE Hybrid, starting at $33,850. On this trim level, the hybrid powertrain adds only $800 to a comparable gas-engine only model.

This is important for two reasons. The new hybrid powertrain makes 25 hp more than the last RAV4 hybrid while delivering an EPA rating of 41 mpg city, 38 mpg highway, and a combined rating of 40 mpg – a whopping nine mpg more than the previous RAV4 hybrid. The RAV4 Hybrid is quicker than the gas-only model, too.

In the real world, the RAV4 backed up the claims. Day One, Richmond to Bath to Belfast, Bucksport and Ellsworth – 42.5-mpg in a car with fewer than 1,000 miles on the odometer.
Day Two, commuting to work – 41.8 mpg, measured, not the trip computer. Subsequent fill-ups included high-speed highway travel for almost 700 miles, yet the calculated average at the end of a 900-plus mile week remained a very impressive 38.5 mpg.

The 7-inch info screen center dash ahead of the driver tends to capture your attention and seduce you into exceeding the bold mileage numbers displayed. You start to play a mental game of how to increase your efficiency – you glide more, you accelerate more smoothly, you try to brake less so that you don’t lose momentum and waste accelerative energy.

You curse drivers who alter your pace, cut you off, or force you to brake. You do all of this hyper-miling in the name of penny-pinching fuel-efficiency so you can brag to friends who didn’t buy a RAV4 Hybrid that you can go almost 550 miles per tank – and you never plug in.

And then you tell them about the dodo-bird driver you had to pass, and BAM – the hybrid Toyota’s electric motor supplied so much torque that you inadvertently squealed the tires. Your crossover is that powerful. Power, fun and efficiency: Did Toyota change overnight?

Well, yes. Remember, this is the brand that has re-introduced the Supra – a sports car designed with BMW.

Day Four, the Navigator took the RAV4 for her errands, shopping, and general tasks usually handled by her crossover. Her feedback is essential; not only because most RAV4s are bought by women, but because she is very critical of the functionality of our sample vehicles over their form.

She loved the lower rear load deck, the flat, wide floor inside, and the power liftgate. The rear seating is also ample for people and parcels, while the drivability factors matched the best crossovers sampled – a sentiment shared here.

Her mom loved the styling and the easier ingress and access over the navigator’s heavily bolstered seats, and both remarked on the stellar fuel economy and the impressive around-town pep.

And bless Toyota – the RAV4’s 8-inch info/entertainment screen (the latest Entune 3.0 with Apple and Navigation here) has knurled control knobs and buttons! Two gold stars for the design team.
F

rom optional two-tone paint schemes (navigator didn’t like, but I did) to optional panoramic roof, cold weather package, new digital rear view mirror, and heated rear seats, Toyota has measurably increased the RAV4’s bandwidth.

Big pluses: the fluid controls, the comfortable space inside, expansive standard safety gear, and the impressive hybrid powertrain performance.

Cons: While the vehicle is generally quiet, highway noise suppression could be better still; no power passenger seat at this price; level, wimpy single-note horn; the top of the dash is swathed in soft-touch material, but the side of the console where your right leg rests is not.

The RAV4 is America’s best-selling SUV/Crossover and Toyota’s best-selling product in America. Hybrid RAV4 production will soon move to Georgetown, Ky., giving Toyota 50 percent of the total automotive workforce in America as GM.

Two thumbs up to Toyota for the new RAV4 Hybrid. Everyone else is now chasing this crossover.


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