2020 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid XSE: Making Hybrids Cool

When it comes to the wonderful worlds of compact SUVs, the Toyota RAV4 is king. Even outside the little compact bubble, the SUV world bows to the might RAV4, which sits on an oddly shaped throne with a gold-plated plaque of versatility. The RAV4 has always been one of Toyota’s best sellers, but the automaker introduced the redesigned 2019 model like it had a grudge on its shoulder. The varsity player wasn’t content with being the team captain. Oh no, larger dreams were on the horizon.

Part of those larger goals for Toyota is more hybrids. Sure, the Prius may be the great grandfather to nearly every hybrid out there, but Toyota wants you to know that even the best-selling-vehicle outside of trucks has room to grow upwards. That growth and need to make a product that wants to continue to carry its crown has created a RAV4 Hybrid that’s fantastic.

The great thing about the RAV4 Hybrid is that it’s still a RAV4, which is a great vehicle, but it has a hybrid powertrain to make it so much more efficient. No wonder it’s usurped the Prius to be Toyota’s best-selling hybrid and the champ of all electrified compact SUVs.

Toyota dropped off a RAV4 XSE Hybrid for us to test for a week. That model wears a starting price tag of $35,170. The tester we received had quite a few options, which raised the price up to $38,499.

Performance

The RAV4 has never been a strong performer, but the hybrid powertrain brings more power to the party while being more efficient. Power comes from a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and two electric motors (one on each axle) for a combined output of 219 horsepower. A modest bump up from the non-hybrid’s rating of 203 hp. While the regular RAV4 uses an eight-speed automatic, the RAV4 Hybrid comes with a CVT. All-wheel drive is also standard for hybrid variants – an upside of the electrified powertrain.

While the extra 16-hp bump is sure to be enjoyed, the main reasoning behind opting for the RAV4 Hybrid is its fuel economy. The RAV4 Hybrid gets an EPA combined rating of 40 mpg. After our week with the brand-spanking-new vehicle – it only had 400 or so miles on it when it arrived at our doors – we averaged around 37 mpg. That’s not as good as the EPA’s rating, but it was a new vehicle and we weren’t exactly driving in an efficient way. Still, 37.4 mpg combined from a compact SUV like the RAV4 is fantastic.

Good fuel economy is one of the expectations when one gets into a hybrid, like the RAV4 Hybrid. What one doesn’t expect, is to have something that’s pretty punchy off the line. The electric motors add a boost to the naturally-aspirated engine when it needs it the most – when starting off from a dead start. Pin the throttle, and you get a little chirp and a hint of torque steer. The SUV does run out of grunt at higher speeds, like when passing on the highway. Under load, the internal combustion engine also sounds like an asthmatic squirrel that’s having a breakdown after running away from a rabid dog.

Most of the time and for most consumers, the RAV4 Hybrid performs admirably. But there are a few issues that stop us from truly loving the SUV. The way the powertrain goes from gas to electric is smooth enough, but the CVT continues to showcase all of the reasons why automakers should come up with a different transmission. It drones, it’s dull, and it’s clunky. Artificial gear changes happen well enough, but we can’t help but want a regular transmission.

Then, there’s the brake pedal, which provides zero feedback and is wonky as heck. The first 20 percent of the brake pedal results in good stopping power and a nice firm pedal. But dig a little deeper, and nothing really happens. That is until you reach past 60 percent or so. At that point, the bite comes back and the brakes come on. In the middle, a panic is sure to set in, which it did for me a few times. It’s one of the strangest brake pedals I’ve ever come across.

The RAV4 Hybrid made up for the CVT and the horrifying brake pedal with a cool “EV Mode.” I don’t remember if I’ve ever seen an electric-only mode in a hybrid before, but this little SUV has it. If there’s enough electricity in the battery, the SUV will automatically switch to only running on electricity. But you can also request that the vehicle only uses electricity in certain circumstances. For us, we did most of our driving in the city on electricity.

Exterior

Well I’ll be damned. Toyota finally made a hybrid that manages to look cool. This might just be the first hybrid from Toyota where you won’t have to turn away or cough into your fist when you tell people that you’re the owner of the hybrid that was clogging traffic in the left lane on 95. It could just be the XSE trim that we tested, with its two-tone paint scheme and black wheels, but it just looks good. There’s no obvious styling for the sake of aerodynamics or to shout that this is a hybrid. I like that. And so do other people, apparently.

Cleaning is a major aspect of this gig that no one really talks about. If you’re not driving a car, you’re either taking pictures of it or cleaning it to take pictures of it. While I was preparing for a photoshoot, since that’s 30 percent of what goes on behind the scenes, a woman pulled up in an older Subaru Forster and asked what kind of car this was. I didn’t want to be rude, although Toyota had put a “TOYOTA” license plate on the front and the Toyota badge is as big as a softball on the grille, I kindly responded with, “It’s a Toyota RAV4.”

“No way,” she replied. “I thought for sure that this was a Land Rover.” At first, I thought she was under the influence. I do live in Baltimore, after all, and a Toyota being mistaken for a Land Rover? That’s a first. But, after a whole thing about what I do for a living and how she really likes Toyotas, I pulled a picture of a Land Rover Discovery Sport with a white body and a black roof up on my phone and sure enough, they do look similar.

But hey. The main thing is that if people are mistaking a RAV4 with a Land Rover, it’s a good thing.

Interior

By far, the most impressive thing about the interior of the RAV4 is just how spacious it feels. Line this thing up with a compact SUV from a few years ago, and you’ll notice just how big it is. More than anything else, the extra bigness translates to more interior space. It’s spacious, even for four adults, and the cargo area is commodious, as well. First and foremost, the RAV4 Hybrid shines as a comfortable, spacious SUV. Unsurprising stuff from the best-selling vehicle outside of pickup trucks.

The XSE trim also comes with a nifty camera in the rearview mirror. If you happen to have three adults in the back, seeing out of the vehicle can be an issue. With a flip of a switch on the mirror, it turns into a camera, providing a clear view of what’s behind. This isn’t the first application for the tech, but it’s so cool to see in an affordable, mainstream SUV.

The infotainment system and instrument cluster have really nifty graphics. Engaging Trail Mode, for instance, brings up rocks in the instrument cluster. The cluster also has a cool graphic that displays how power is being split between the front and rear axles. For the nerds out there, like me, that want to get an even more detailed look at how power is being distributed can check out the Energy Monitor on the main screen that shows an even more informative breakdown.

For the most part, the RAV4 Hybrid does everything well. But there are a few things that stopped me in my tracks. For one, the cabin is darker than Dracula’s coffin. Seriously. It’s so dark in there, that I actually had to use my iPhone’s flashlight to be able to clean the cargo area. It doesn’t help that everything is black. The only pop of color throughout the interior are areas of blue stitching on the seats, dashboard, and doors.

The second issue is the passenger’s seat. It lacks the same adjustability as the driver’s seat, which isn’t terrible, but it is when you feel like you’re perched atop of a treehouse. The poor passenger sits so much higher up than the driver that it’s kind of funny. Tall passengers may notice that their head brushes up against the headliner.

Another issue is road noise. This seems to be an issue with the majority of Toyota’s I’ve tested, but the RAV4 Hybrid is one of the worse ones I’ve ever experienced. At highway speeds, so much noise enters the cabin, that it becomes difficult to have a civil conversation. During one of the first trips I took my wife on, she actually asked me if a door was open. That’s how loud it is on the inside.

One last gripe of mine is kind of an isolated thing. We have a beloved pit bull named Boh. Boh comes with us practically everywhere. Boh, bless is heart, is a nervous passenger. Boh, despite having his own seatbelts and a nice mat for the rear seats, refuses to sit still. Boh will pace back and forth in the rear seats throughout the entire journey, regardless of how short it is. Boh is also Houdini and always manages to find a way to unbuckle his seatbelts. Boh doesn’t understand that this is insanely annoying in the RAV4 Hybrid.

You see, the SUV has a system that senses when someone or something is on the rear seats. If it senses something’s there, it emits an incredibly loud, irritating noise to remind passengers that their seatbelts have to be on. Unfortunately, if you have a dog, like Boh, who likes to roam around, you have to have all three of the rear seatbelts buckled to turn the system off. The system even freaks out if it senses two people in the back and wants the middle seatbelt buckled. Eventually, it got to the point where we took Boh out of his belts and buckled the car’s physical belts in to shut the system off, safety be damned.

Conclusion

It doesn’t take long to see why the RAV4 Hybrid is Toyota’s best-selling hybrid. It’s doing things people never thought possible for hybrids. It’s comfortable, doesn’t have outrageous styling, has a spacious cabin, can actually hold a decent amount of cargo, and offers all-weather capability. I’d love to take this thing off-roading to see how well Trail Mode works. But that will have to be saved for another day. As a whole, there’s quite a lot to be impressed with when it comes to the RAV4 Hybrid.

I have no trouble believing that the RAV4 Hybrid is the perfect vehicle for a lot of modern consumers. With a difference of $2,250 over a similarly equipped model, the hybrid powertrain in the RAV4 makes a strong case for itself as the option to get and a worthy upgrade. At the end of the day, if you want a compact SUV with a hybrid powertrain from the automaker that practically invented the hybrid, the RAV4 Hybrid sits in a market of its own. It’s also one heck of a compelling package.