Compact crossovers remain a red-hot segment , but only one can earn the honor of 'top-seller.' For the 2017 calendar year, Toyota's RAV4 took the top spot as the best-selling crossover of any size.
In fact with 407,594 U.S. units sold last year, RAV4 supplanted Toyota's own Camry sedan (387,081 units) as the best-selling non-pickup-truck transport in America. The past half-decade has experienced a seismic shift away from mid-size sedans and towards the versatile crossover with RAV4 along for the ride.
The RAV4 did not invent the uni-body, car-based compact crossover, but certainly helped popularize the trend.
In 1996, Japan's largest automaker introduced the fuel-friendly RAV4 (Recreational Active Vehicle, 4 doors) crossover in three- and five-door versions. Only the five-door survives today.
In the 2013 model year, a fourth-generation effort arrived with a mid-cycle update in 2016 for the five-passenger vehicle. Also coming on board that year was a gas-electric hybrid RAV4. Toyota offers and has sold more gas-electric hybrids than any other automaker.
The 2018 version of the gas-electric RAV4 hybrid builds on the successes of the past two years. It's a self-charging 'Hybrid Electric Vehicle' (HEV) requiring no nightly plug-in.
For 2018, RAV4 hybrid adds an entry LE trim, joining XLE, SE and top-shelf Limited. All hybrid trims include electronic all-wheel drive, differing from the gas-exclusive version offering either two-wheel or all-wheel drive. During early February snows, the sure-footed all-wheel drive came in very handy.
This gas-electric hybrid delivers best-in-class miles per gallon estimates with notable acceleration characteristics since two technologies (a gasoline engine and electric motors) perform in tandem.
The hybrid's gas engine is similar to the conventional RAV4's: a 2.5-liter, double overhead cam four-cylinder. The RAV4's hybrid system combines a sealed 125-pound nickel-metal hydride battery pack (stored under rear seats) with a two electric motors/generators. One drives the front wheels while a second drives rear wheels. These generators also capture energy during the braking process (referred to as 'regenerative braking') helping increase fuel economy.
Regenerative braking occurs automatically during daily drives. With the brake pedal pushed, electric motors switch duties, acting as generators, capturing energy that otherwise would be lost as heat and stored in the nickel metal hydride battery for later use. A third generator assists starting the engine, and supporting start-stop technology, resting the gas engine at extended stops to conserve fuel.
RAV4's smooth and seamless start-stop technology operates better than similar systems found in recently tested luxury vehicles which noticeably shake and rattle when stoping or when restarting.
Compared with the conventional RAV4's fuel economy (22 miles per gallon city, 28 mpg highway with all-wheel drive), the hybrid version bumps up numbers substantially to 34 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. While gas-exclusive vehicles generally boost higher highway mileage, gas-electric hybrids tout superior city mileage since dual technologies work together more often at lower speeds.
As with many gas-electric hybrids, RAV4 includes a fuel friendly electronic continuously variable transmission (CVT). Toyota's design, however, includes a planetary gear set assisting in quicker low-speed activity.
Sluggish 0-to-60 speeds remain a common criticism of rival CVTs, but not the RAV4 hybrid though. The combined 194 horsepower is 18 more than a conventional RAV4 delivering a zero-to 60 mph time in 8.1 seconds, besting the gas-exclusive version. All RAV4s utilize 87-octane regular fuel.
Starting price for our SE trim checked in at $32,186. A $1,310 option package included an upgraded sound system and three-month subscription to satellite radio. After adding $90 for inside hatch-area tonneau cover and $995 delivery charge, the bottom line reached $34,580. The new-for-2018 entry LE RAV4 hybrid checks in at $27,235.
RAV4's front end resembles a nose more than a traditional flat-front grille, contributing to an eye-appealing exterior design. The circular Toyota logo includes a tinge of blue, indicating hybrid status. The SE's power rear hatch lifts with enough head clearance for those six-feet two inches and shorter.
Since its arrival in the mid-1990s, each successive generation has increased in size. While still considered a compact, RAV4's dimensions skew towards the larger end of the segment. Thus, if three adults find themselves together in row two, it's more pleasure than punishment.
Drivers enjoy an elevated seating position compared with compact sedans while providing plentiful headroom. RAV4 minimizes side blind spots thanks to generous side window sizing.
Anchoring the comparably narrow, serpentine, soft-touch and stitched upper dash is a seven-inch multi-function touch screen with a column of quick-press buttons on each side. Below the color screen is a rectangular ventilation center with dual temperature-zone dials anchoring each end and large, well-marked toggle-type buttons monitoring fan speed and direction.
The dashboard-mounted push-button start, left of the screen, locates far enough from the steerin column for an un-obstructed reach for the captain. Below and inward of the serpentine dash are temperature settings for the heated front buckets along with iPod and USB ports.
When starting this hybrid, expect audio pings and bings along with an illuminated dash, but little gas-engine rumble as the electric system hops to life first during most situations. If temperatures are below zero, the gas engine turns over sooner rather than later.
The easy-glance instrument panel includes a multi-panel rectangle digital window surrounded by two circular analog gauges. "Power," "Eco" and "Charging" segments frame the outside left gauge, while a red needle indicates the hybrid system's current phase. One of the selectable center window panels provides a visual tutorial of the vehicle's energy flow.
The three-spoke steering wheel includes a 5 o'clock appendage controlling the radar-based cruise control, automatically speeding or slowing down RAV4 based on the distance from the vehicle ahead.
It's part of Toyota's Safety Sense-P, banding together an impressive list of radar-enhanced safety nuances, and standard in all Toyotas. The TSS-P bundle also includes a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with steering assist and automatic high-beam headlights.
For a brief time, Toyota tested the waters with an all-electric RAV4. In 2010, Toyota and Silicon Valley electric-car maker Tesla announced a three-year collaboration whereby Tesla agreed to supply pure electric drivetrains for a three year, limited-production run inside RAV4 EVs.
About 2,500 RAV4 EV plugins were built from 2012 to 2014 with sales centered in California.
2018 RAV4 Hybrid
Price as tested: $34,580
Gas engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder
Combined horsepower: 194
Overall Length: 183.5 inches
Wheelbase: 104.7 inches
Overall Height: 65.9 inches
Overall Width: 72.6 inches
Fuel economy: 34 mpg city/30 mpg highway
Curb weight: 3,950 pounds
Hybrid component warranty: 8 years/100,000 miles