The 2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid is the first mass-market crossover utility with a hybrid powertrain since the demise of the Ford Escape Hybrid in 2012.
Granted, there's the luxury Lexus NX hybrid (using some of the same underpinninngs), and the low-volume Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid, with a mild-hybrid powertrain.
But in terms of mainstream compact crossovers, the new RAV4 Hybrid is pretty much it.
And with recent rumors that the hybrid RAV4 may supplant the Prius V wagon in Toyota's hybrid lineup, it's a doubly important niche in the burgeoning SUV market.
With an EPA fuel-economy rating of 33 mpg combined (34 mpg city, 31 mpg highway), the RAV4 Hybrid improves on the 29 mpg combined of the departed Escape Hybrid AWD (30 mpg city, 27 mpg highway).
The RAV4 Hybrid comes only with all-wheel drive, at least this year, and it's a larger, more spacious SUV than the old Escape, with far better feature content.
2012 Ford Escape Hybrid
One difference between the two is that the hybrid Escape used mechanical all-wheel drive, whereas the hybrid RAV4 blends torque from the gasoline-electric powertrain up front and an additional electric motor between the rear wheels.
We first drove the RAV4 Hybrid in November, during the launch of the all-new 2016 Toyota Prius Liftback in sunny Southern California.
Now we've had a chance to spend a long weekend and 450 miles with the car, in blustery Northeastern winter weather with temperatures from 25 to 40 degrees F.
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On our first drive three months ago, our impressions of the RAV4 Hybrid suffered somewhat after driving it at the same time as the all-new fourth-generation Prius.
The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and Hybrid Synergy Drive system in the RAV4 are similar to those used in the hybrid Camry sedan and Lexus NX, whereas the Prius has an entirely new next-generation powertrain.
Back to back, the Prius felt smoother, quieter, far more refined, and generally more competent in its powertrain than the compact crossover.
2016 Toyota RAV4 AWD 4-door Limited (Natl) Dashboard
That impression isn't as prevalent when evaluating the hybrid RAV4 on its own merits.
It's still not a new vehicle, since it comes as part of a mid-cycle refresh on the RAV4 generation that dates back to the 2012 model year.
But it remains one of the larger vehicles in the "compact crossover" segment, along with the Honda CR-V, even though it now technically qualifies as a mid-size SUV.
CHECK OUT: 2016 Toyota Prius: First Drive Of 56-MPG Hybrid (Nov 2015)
Over our usual test route, comprised of about two-thirds highway miles and one-third city and suburban traffic, the trip computer showed an average of 30.4 mpg.
It may well have been 10 percent or so higher in more temperate summer weather, at least based on our experience with other Toyota and Ford hybrids, which would bring it to the rated 33 mpg combined.
That's still a far cry from the 40 mpg we got in our winter test of the Prius V wagon three years ago, but the hybrid RAV4 is a more confident and less underpowered vehicle--and, of course, it has that AWD.
2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, Catskill Mountains, NY, Feb 2016
A few random notes from our time with the 2016 RAV4 Hybrid:
- Toyota put a lot of effort into upgrading the interior, but The Better Half still felt the hard plastics and general design looked cheap
- (We liked the white stitching on the soft-touch padded dash rail, but that wasn't quite enough)
- The hybrid RAV4 will accelerate on electric power alone from 0 to 20 mph, but it requires a lighter foot on the pedal than did the Prius--and you won't make any friends among the cars behind you
- It will frequently drop into "EV" mode under light loads between 20 and 40 mph
- That led us to adopt the "pulse and glide" technique used by efficiency drivers: Accelerate with the gas engine to steady speed, then lift off and let the battery take over from there
- We noted that the power display showed the rear wheels engaging frequently for acceleration and on hills, so the AWD isn't just a last resort
- The RAV4 retains the usual numb Toyota electric power steering--something the new Prius considerably improves on
- When the engine is under full throttle, the car can get noisy inside, but otherwise it's suitably muffled and pleasant to travel in
- The low 24-inch liftover height for the cargo bay really counts when you're lifting heavy car parts in and out
WATCH THIS: 2016 Toyota Prius Vs 2016 Chevrolet Volt: Video Test (Dec 2015)
Our test car was a 2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid XLE, painted in a vivid color called "Electric Storm Blue"--perhaps the brightest blue car we've ever tested.
With a base price of $28,370, it came with only three options. Two were minor: roof-rack cross bars ($315) and mudguards ($129).
The big-ticket item was the so-called Convenience Package, at $2,060, which bundled a host of electronic active-safety options (blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, front and rear parking sonar, pre-collision sensing with pedestrian detection, and radar-based adaptive cruise control among them).
2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid - 2015 NY Auto Show
It also included the Entune premium audio system with navigation, the Entune Multimedia bundle with a 7-inch color touchscreen, split-screen display, and backup camera, and a host of other infotainment functions.
With a mandatory delivery fee of $900, the bottom line on our hybrid RAV4 as tested was $31,774.