Los Angeles Times - - EMJOY THE DRIVE - BY MARK MAY­NARD May­nard is the au­to­mo­tive editor at the San Diego Union- Tribune. Mark.May­nard@sdunion­tri­bune.com

The 2016 Toy­ota RAV4 Hy­brid has the small­est life- cy­cle car­bon foot­print of any model year 2016 SUV, ac­cord­ing to a study by the Au­to­mo­tive Sci­ence Group, based in Santa Rosa.

But the dilemma for buy­ers to go with an elec­tri­fied ve­hi­cle is still eco­nom­ics vs. en­vi­ron­ment. It is some­what re­as­sur­ing that the RAV4 Hy­brid is some of both.

Sold in two all- wheel drive trim lev­els, the en­try XLE AWD gaso­line- elec­tric hy­brid tester is just $ 700 more than the tra­di­tional in­ter­nal- com­bus­tion, four- cylin­der AWD model. The stan­dard equip­ment list al­most bal­ances the pre­mium, with such ex­tras as a power moon­roof, power tail­gate and smartkey en­try and push- but­ton ig­ni­tion. With the use­ful Con­ve­nience pack­age, $ 2,060, the tester was $ 31,330, which seemed a good value be­tween price, con­tent, driv­abil­ity, func­tion and fuel econ­omy. ( The more fea­ture- rich Hy­brid Lim­ited starts at $ 34,510)

The hy­brid’s fuel econ­omy num­bers are ac­cept­able for a small, five- pas­sen­ger AWD SUV that weighs 3,900 pounds: 34 mpg city, 31 high­way and 33 mpg com­bined, on 87 oc­tane. The best I man­aged in a cou­ple hun­dred miles was a com­bined 30.7 mpg. Com­pare those num­bers to the gaso­line RAV4 AWD at 22/ 29/ 25. The 14.8- gal­lon tank gives a good cruis­ing range.

The hy­brid sys­tem com­bines a 150horse­power, 2.5- liter four- cylin­der en­gine with the elec­tric driv­e­line of three mo­tors and a nickel- metal- hy­dride bat­tery pack of 244.8 volts. The com­bined power rat­ing is 194 horse­power.

One mo­tor charges the hy­brid sys­tem, one drives the front wheels and one drives the rear wheels. And while that may seem like a net­work­ing night­mare, it func­tions with in­vis­i­ble pre­ci­sion. Nickel- metal- hy­dride bat­ter­ies are al­most yester- tech when com­pared to the now more com­monly used lithium- ion bat­tery. But the NiMH bat­ter­ies will be less ex­pen­sive to re­place. ( The bat­ter­ies are war­ran­teed for 10 years or 150,000 miles in Cal­i­for­nia and other states with sim­i­lar emis­sions stan­dards or eight years or 100,000 miles else­where.)

A con­tin­u­ously vari­able trans­mis­sion ( CVT) dis­trib­utes the power. In stan­dard driv­ing mode, the per­for­mance is typ­i­cally CVT with mushy rubber-band­ing as the en­gine revs to catch up with the power de­mand. But hit the but­ton for Sport mode and hold on for some hy­brid hus­tle. It gives a big lift to this lit­tle SUV that can at times feel heavy and du­ti­ful. Sport is the ideal per­for­mance mode to keep pace in the daily com­mute of heavy traf­fic — and to pre­vent that other driver from cut­ting you off as if you are just some green geek.

All of the hy­bridiza­tion el­e­ments work seam­lessly, from the au­to­matic stop- start at idle to the brake re­gen­er­a­tion sys­tem to cap­ture lost en­ergy. Four- wheel disc brakes ( 11.6- inch vented ro­tors front with 11.1- inch solid ro­tors rear) are hefty for the task and en­gage with a re­fined but strong touch.

The on- de­mand AWD sys­tem is a valu­able as­set that re­quires no ef­fort for the driver to en­joy the ben­e­fits. And it’s a good in­sur­ance for South­ern Cal­i­for­nian’s who may get sur­prised in rainy weather on oil roads by a sud­den loss of front wheel trac­tion.

For a fairly in­ex­pen­sive small SUV, the RAV’s in­de­pen­dent sus­pen­sion is sur­pris­ingly lithe and f lex­i­ble. There is min­i­mal head- toss when en­ter­ing drive­ways or cross­ing speed bumps and there is lit­tle harsh­ness trans­ferred from the road, but the upright body shape does cre­ate some wind noise at high­way speeds. An acous­tic noise- re­duc­ing wind­shield helps in­te­rior sound­proof­ing.

The cabin is clev­erly func­tional with good sight­lines, plenty of head­room ( 39.8 inches) and lots of durable black plas­tic. I like the hand park­ing brake at the shifter con­sole, which is just easy to use and doesn’t com­pro­mise us­able space. Toy­ota was still able to carve in a charg­ing bin, good cup hold­ers and a cen­ter arm­rest with stor­age.

The back seat has a firm bench, f lat f loor, good legroom of 37.2 inches and a re­clin­ing seat­back. The seat rides tall be­cause it is above the bat­tery pack, which also pre­vents the seat­back from fold­ing com­pletely f lat. The loss of cargo space is just 2.8 cu­bic feet, com­pared to the stan­dard RAV4. But the cargo area has a low and wide liftover, which is a huge as­set when load­ing bikes and other gear and then be­ing able to sit and change shoes or suit- up.

The RAV4 Hy­brid makes it easy to be green, though what it lacks in so­phis­ti­ca­tion it over­com­pen­sates in work­ing- class func­tion and dura­bil­ity.

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