Los Angeles Times



- 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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