Toyota, Japan’s largest automaker, has built and invested in self-charging gas-electric hybrid vehicles longer than any mainstream automaker. It began near the turn of the millennia with the game-changing Prius, a compact five-door gas-electric hybrid with mileage now clocking in well over the 50-mile-gallon range.
Since then, Toyota introduced its fuel-extending technology into other products in its lineup, including this week’s tester, the popular RAV4 compact crossover. During the 2022 calendar year, RAV4 once again ranked as the best-selling vehicle in the United States not sporting body-on-frame truck underpinnings or an extended cargo bed (finishing in fourth place overall).
The RAV4 now offers three unique power sources in 2023, the traditional internal combustion engine (ICE), our gas-electric hybrid tester, and a plug-in hybrid electric version (PHEV) marketed as RAV4 Prime.
The key difference between RAV4 hybrid and RAV4 Prime is the size and purpose of the onboard battery pack. The RAV4 Prime PHEV operates as a gas-electric hybrid providing hundreds of miles of additional travel once its larger, heavier direct current battery has exhausted all its stored electric power, eliminating range anxiety, a coin termed to describe dwindling power supply with few charging stations in sight. However, when fully charged, RAV4 Prime travels up to 42 miles in pure electric mode.
Our two-row RAV4 hybrid tester’s smaller sealed 1.6 kwh lithium-ion battery pack works in tandem with two electric motors, operating in pure electric mode only when crawling at low speeds. This design appeals to shoppers desiring a greener driving experience closely mimicking a traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) since it never requires a nightly wall socket plug in. Toyota recently extended warranty coverage for these batteries to an impressive 10 years, helping make the switch to greener-operating choices easier.
All RAV4 gas-electric hybrid trims in 2023 include electronic on-demand all-wheel drive welcome in the snowy, four-season Midwest. This system provides front wheel drive in most situations, while automatically summoning the rear wheels when sensing slippage.
A new trim climbs aboard in 2023; the Woodland Edition; the most off-road capable selection in a hybrid model, but still largely designed for on-road travel. Thanks to TRD-tuned suspension borrowed from Toyota’s truck division (TRD represents an in-house shorthand for Toyota Racing Development), body-control and small-bump isolation get enhanced; most useful for multi-pot-holed streets and gentle off-road trails. Twin tube shock absorbers include internal rebound springs optimizing roll control assisting body control when traversing dips and bumps. All-terrain tires come standard.
Aside from the Woodland Edition joining the gas-electric hybrid club, six returning trims (LE, XLE, XLE Premium, SE, XSE and Limited), remain relatively unchanged from 2022.
The well-established RAV4 (Recreational Activity Vehicle with 4-wheel drive availability) was one of the first on-road uni-body crossovers to market upon its 1996 arrival. Beforehand many five-door sport utilities built from a heavier body-on-frame structure. The current fifth generation effort arrived in 2019 based on Toyota’s highly anticipated TNGA-k platform; a global architecture designed for compact rides.
Self-charging largely takes place through ‘regenerative braking,’ a technology capturing friction during the mechanical braking process, storing this energy back into the battery for reuse. Regenerative braking technology resides inside EVs and PHEVs as well.
The internal combustion engine is a 2.5-liter four cylinder also utilized in Toyota’s slightly larger three-row Highlander hybrid crossover. Flying solo, this engine produces 176 horses. Teamed with the battery and two electric motors (one front, one rear), horses jump to 219. It’s mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT) a favorite in vehicles prioritizing fuel-friendliness more than high performance.
The lowest-priced RAV4 hybrid, an LE trim with standard all-wheel drive, starts at $30,225. By comparison a front-wheel drive LE with conventional ICE starts at $27,575 and the lowest-priced Prime Plug-in SE trim checks in at $41,590. Our tester this week, an uplevel XSE gas-electric hybrid started at $35,885 and ended up at $43,151 after $1,335 destination charge and a host of extras.
Stand-alone options included a $500 panoramic power moon roof, $200 digital rearview mirror and upgraded eleven-speaker JBL sound system. A $375 weather package included rain-sensing wipers and heated steering wheel. The $2,010 technology package added a foot-activated power rear hatch, wireless Smartphone charging and front/rear radar parking assist.
The sizeable (for a hybrid) fuel tank holds 14.5-gallons of 87-octane regular fuel. With a combined city/highway estimated fuel economy of 40 miles per gallon, RAV4 hybrid provides a hearty driving range of 580 miles before petrol refilling.
Our XLE’s power hatch provided surprisingly ample head clearance, not always available in a compact product. Squared wheel wells team with hard edges, creating an edgy persona. The diminutive front grille with horizontal machine slats shares a similar girth to the oversized lower air dam. The grille’s center top includes Toyota’s circular T logo sporting a blue hue, a gentle hint to its alternative-powered hybrid underpinnings. Both SE and XSE include piano black side rocker molding and bumpers with XSE adding black A-pillars and roof.
Another XSE extra included narrow static running boards ($620) below each door. With a relatively low/manageable 8.1-inches of ground clearance, these boards mostly benefit tinier tykes.
Another part of the XSE Technology Package; an upgraded, 12.3-inch LCD gauge cluster. This easy-glance, highly animated programable instrument panel borrows heavily from the conventional, gas-powered RAV4 version save for the left-side tachometer gauge replaced by a hybrid-inspired orb pinpointing three battery states: power, eco and charge.
A flat, multi-function touch screen jets up from the dashboard, which supports a trendy step-down design. Upper trims (XSE, Limited) enjoy a 10.5-inch size while remaining trims get by with an 8-inch variant. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto Smartphone connection come standard with wireless interaction new for 2023.
The square screen finds itself on the second level from the top. A lower left volume/on/off knob remains within easy reach of the driver; a nice touch although a second orb monitoring station presets is always welcome. This styling orb, along with two larger lower level dual-zone temperature HVAC dials, include a black, tactile design not dissimilar from a tire tread. The two larger orbs flank a long, narrow digital window displaying the actions of narrow push planks below.
The stubby grab handle summoning the Continuously Variable Transmission resides between the front buckets operating with a conventional vertical slide with the brake pedal pushed. Nearby; an electronic parking brake and sizable twist/push dial for selecting three drive modes. All trims with the exception of Limited include a black interior and dash with brushed aluminum accents. Blue stitching appears on the side doors and seats in upper trims.
Above the glove box resides a long, illuminated storage cove/cave with rubber-like flooring. A smaller version resides left of the steering column above a row of push buttons (power hatch, heated steering wheel etc.) for storing odds and ends.
A minimal vertical floor hump down the center allows three riders if needed for short jaunts. Two average-size adults work best for ultimate comfort. Seatbacks manually fold down with a 60/40 split.
As with all recently introduced Toyota models, ToyotaCare comes standard, offering two years (or 25,000 miles) of complimentary maintenance covering factory scheduled items (oil changes, tire rotation) along with 24/7 roadside assistance. It’s an added value at no extra cost providing an extra peace of mind level; a great perk when shopping for entry-type transports.
Another added value, Toyota Safety Sense 2.5; a group of standard safety features Toyota includes in all its products (even lower-priced offerings such as RAV4). Our tester included pre-collision warning with pedestrian alert, radar-sensing cruise control slowing and accelerating the vehicle dependent upon the car ahead, lane departure warning, automatic high beam lights and blind spot monitoring. 2023 Toyota RAV4
Price as tested: $43,151
Gas engine: 2.5-liter four cylinder
ICE horsepower: 176
Total system horsepower: 219
Wheelbase: 105.9 inches
Total Length: 180.9 inches
Total Height: 67 inches
Total Width: 73 inches
Powertrain warranty: Five-year/60,000 miles
Battery warranty: 10-years/150,000 miles
Curb weight: 3,775 pounds
Mileage estimates: 41 mpg city/ 38 mpg highway
Assembly: Georgetown, Kentucky