Toyota RAV4 Hybrid — Fuel efficient performance photo

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Many things have changed in the nearly two-and-a-half decades since the original RAV4 kicked off the crossover craze — including the RAV4 itself, which entered its fifth generation with the 2019 model. It has reinvented itself with a bigger, more fuel-efficient 4-cylinder engine; a more rugged appearance; more driver assist technology; and with a new very fuel efficient hybrid powertrain that feels quicker than the gas-only version.

Not only is the RAV4 now the nation's top-selling crossover, it has eclipsed the vaunted Camry midsize sedan and compact Corolla as Toyota's best-selling nameplate. Toyota designers and engineers faced a daunting task in a complete redesign walking a tightrope between too much and too little.

Although the RAV4 continues with basically the same dimensions as the outgoing vehicle — it has a 1.2-inch longer wheelbase, a wider track and more ground clearance — it is endowed with a beefier and more substantial look. Built on Toyota’s New Global Architecture (TNGA) that underpins the Camry, Avalon and Lexus ES, the new RAV4 sheds about 100 pounds while increasing passenger and cargo space over the outgoing model.

The SUV gains 27 horsepower and 12 pound-feet of torque over the outgoing vehicle, having been endowed with the same powertrain as the current Camry. The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine generates 203 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. It's rated at a near-class-leading 27 mpg city, 34 highway and 30 combined in front-wheel drive burning regular gas. Mileage suffers just slightly with all-wheel drive at 25/33/28.

The 2021 RAV4 hybrid with a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder gas engine paired with two electric motors makes 219 horsepower routed through a continuously variable transmission instead of the eight-speed automatic found in the standard edition.  The hybrid model surprised us after a week behind the wheel with a sophisticated ride, better performance than the standard gas-engine model (0-to-60 has been measured at around 7.5 seconds), and with the prospect of delivering a gas-stingy 41 mpg city, 38 highway and 40 combined, topping the standard RAV4  by 11 mpg in combined driving.

With crossovers now the flavor of the decade, the RAV4 hybrid has become Toyota's best-selling hybrid vehicle topping the iconic Prius.

The hybrid gas engine produces 176 horsepower and 163 pound-feet of torque and the electric motors add 118 horsepower and 149 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels and 54 horsepower and 89 pound-feet to the rear wheels for a combined system output of 219 horsepower, 25 more than the last-generation hybrid. We particularly felt the impact of the electric motors in around-town driving where they provided gratifyingly immediate power from a stoplight.

The RAV4 cabin has a more spacious feel with improved materials that look and feel better to the touch than the outgoing model, and the dashboard's cleaner design is an improvement. Seating is comfortable, and rear-seaters will find ample legroom. There are three audio systems to choose from with the premium option featuring 11 speakers and 800 watts. All have Apple CarPlay, Wi-Fi Connect, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.

The touchscreen is flanked by easy-to-use volume and tuning knobs for the radio, and big rubberized knobs along with a series of buttons for climate-control. Storage spaces abound thanks to the two-tiered dashboard and large center console.

To Toyota's credit many standard safety features are bundled into what Toyota calls its Toyota Safety Sense package. The package includes pre-collision warning with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist, automatic high-beams, lane tracing assist, and road sign assist. One sour note, however, blindspot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert is not included in the package and is available only on top trim models.

There are five RAV4 Hybrid trim levels — LE, XLE, XLE Premium, XSE and Limited. The LE starts at $29,675 including destination charge with a decent amount of standard equipment including all-wheel drive, which comes on all hybrid models, and the aforementioned suite of safety features.  The base hybrid runs only about a $1,000 more than the LE standard gas engine model with all-wheel drive, which begins at $28,625 including destination.

Other standard equipment on the LE includes LED headlights, dual-zone climate control, a 7-inch touchscreen display, 17-inch wheels and Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Amazon Alexa smartphone integration.

We think either the XLE or XLE Premium (new for the 2021 model year) is the sweet spot depending on your pocketbook and needs. The XLE starts at $30,970 and the XLE Premium at $33,675. The XLE comes with things as keyless start and entry, several USB charging ports, projector-style headlights, and blindspot monitoring. The extra cash for the XLE Premium brings 18-inch wheels, power liftgate, upgraded climate control, and simulated leather upholstery.

What we liked about our XSE test vehicle was its standout looks with black-painted 18-inch wheels and two-tone paint with black trim. The Magnetic Gray and Metallic Black exterior paint combination was a head turner. Bottom line of our test car was $38,760, which came with several options including the $1,600 Premium Audio package featuring an outstanding JBL system and Dynamic Navigation.

2020 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid


Base price: $29,675; as driven, $38,760
Engine: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder, 2 electric motors
Horsepower: combined output 219
Drive: all-wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 105.9 inches
Length: 180.9 inches
Curb weight: 3,755 pounds
Turning circle: 36.1 feet
Towing capacity: 1,750 pounds
Luggage capacity: 37.5 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 69.8 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 14.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 41 city, 38 highway, 40 combined
0-60: 7.5 seconds (observed)
Also consider: Ford Escape hybrid, Honda CR-V hybrid

The Good
• Excellent fuel economy
• Quiet interior
• Easy-to-use controls
• Costs only slightly more than gas model

The Bad
• Artificial brake-pedal feel

The Ugly
• Noisy transmission during acceleration