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Silvio Calabi: RAV4 Hybrid is a fuel-sipping sophisticate

 
Silvio Calabi
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Posted on 2/15/2016, 12:30 PM

About the heaviest thing I've lifted all winter is a martini, so after the last snowfall I left my Honda (snowblower) in the garage and dug out the driveway by hand. Puff, puff. In the aid of research, I also fired up, if that's the word for a gas-electric car, this week's Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Limited AWD. I wanted to de-ice the windows, and to see how a hybrid warms up at idle. Does it just sit there like a toaster oven until the charge dwindles?

Basically, yes. Periodically the gasoline engine wakes up and runs long enough to top off the batteries, and then it goes quiet again. When I got back in the car, the cabin was 72 degrees, the glass was clear and the front seats were warm. In early hybrids, seat heaters were taboo--too much power drain!--and we got the feeling that the engineers really didn't even want air-conditioning, much less the weight and friction of all-wheel drive. But that was almost 20 years ago (yes) and this is a fresh, well-appointed $34,000 compact crossover sport utility with a $1,435 Advanced Technology Package.

If we know anything about advanced technology, it's that much electricity will be required--but even with a nickel-metal hydride powerpack (instead of the new Prius's lithium-ion unit) I was able to toddle to the library and back--about a mile each way on snowy streets--with warmed buns, via electrons alone. Of course dipping into the throttle immediately fired up the gas mill, but as in all of Toyota's hybrid fleet, the transition is nearly seamless. You have to watch the "EV" light in the instrument cluster to tell when you're running on batteries only.

The 2.5-liter gasoline Four under the hood drives the front wheels; the rear wheels have their own electric motor, dubbed MG2 for Motor Generator No. 2. Together they deliver a combined 194 horsepower. (A second electric motor, MG1, starts the engine and powers the generator.) Whenever the vehicle brakes, the AWD system regenerates electricity through all four wheels instead of just two, for faster recharging. Internal combustion provides up to 152 lb-ft of torque; judging by the way the RAV-h accelerates, I estimate the additional electric torque as "plenty." Still, even with some muscle and a retuned suspension, driving isn't much fun; with all the electric add-ons and the driven rear axle, this RAV weighs two tons and leans like a sailboat in fast corners. As well, the occasional droning from the continuously variable transmission is annoying. However, the wooden brakes, scary steering and hit-or-miss throttle of old hybrids are gone. In Limited trim, with its soft-touch, two-tone interior and silent demeanor, this RAV feels upper-middle-market--about halfway between the ultralight-aircraft Prius C and the luxurious Lexus RX 450h.

The RAV's optional tech package includes bird's-eye and rear-view backup cameras with sonar all around (brush the snow off or the sensors will be blinded and beep frantically at you), an 11-speaker JBL stereo and Toyota's Entune Multimedia navigation and infotainment system, with its seven-inch touchscreen and a bundle of hands-free and wireless apps. The RAV4 Hybrid Limited is well outfitted anyway, with all the usual traction and anti-skid software plus pushbutton ignition, a power tailgate, blind-spot monitors, rear cross-traffic alert and a new suite of active aids called Toyota Safety Sense. TSS can detect pedestrians and stop the vehicle automatically--just the thing for digital-device-obsessed drivers and walkers--and it also includes automatic high beams, adaptive cruise control and, at speeds above 32 mph, lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assistance. These last two are so unobtrusive that they're easy to overlook, and they can be shut off.

Toyota has axed the wacky all-electric RAV EV--it was Tesla-powered and cost 50 grand--and replaced it with this more sensible hybrid, which shares its platform and drivetrain with the Lexus NX300h. The RAV-h weighs slightly less than its Lexus cousin and should manage one more mile per gallon: 34 city MPG, 31 highway and 33 overall. (A gas-only RAV4 is rated for 23/30 MPG, city/highway. Note that hybrids do better in urban traffic than on the highway.) Yes, gas is cheap now, but this is also about reducing tailpipe emissions and atmospheric carbon.

Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of the International Motor Press Association whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at calabi.silvio@gmail.com.

Plus

Newfound sophistication throughout

Limited's cabin is handsome, comfortable and practical

New safety aids for the gadget-distracted

Entirely winter-capable, thanks to AWD, seat heaters and extra charging power

Minus

CV transmission gets noisy

Still not rewarding to drive (as if RAV buyers care)