Sunday 15 September 2019

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New RAV4 makes part-electric motoring painless

Wednesday, 4th September, 2019 4:43pm

The Toyota RAV4 has often courted a little gentle controversy.

When it was first introduced, in the early 1990s, the idea of a small, tall, crossover that was supposed to be fun to drive was, to be honest, a touch risible. Why would anyone buy a car that looked like a 4x4 and only ever drive it on the road? How times have changed…

These days, the RAV4’s (still mild) controversy comes from two areas. Its styling, first of all, will not be pleasing to everyone. Toyota has decided to definitively move away from the almost-MPV, slightly amorphous, shape of the previous RAV and instead go for something that’s most definitely a 4x4.

So you get hard angles, flat sides, a big, castellated, bonnet and that angry-looking ‘Kabuki mask’ front end. Not everyone’s going to like this — and it’s most definitely highly colour sensitive — but there’s something rather pleasing about the fact that Toyota has taken what was once the softest of soft-roaders, and made it a bit more chunky and aggressive looking.

Step inside, and you’ll find an interior that seems a little plain at first. As with the exterior, that was a deliberate act on Toyota’s part.

The RAV4, you see, is meant to slot into the huge gap between the compact C-HR crossover, and the huge, traditional, Land Cruiser off-roader. So the RAV can’t have the almost Lexus-like cabin of the C-HR, with its dramatic diamond patterning. Nor can it be quite so utilitarian as the Land Cruiser inside.

Instead, it actually treads a rather successful middle-ground between the two — not as overtly stylish as the C-HR, but equally not as farmer-spec as the Land Cruiser. So the cabin is initially quite plain, but you soon start to notice pleasing little details — the rubberised controls for the infotainment system and the air conditioning. The multiple storage shelves, also rubberised, which hold loose items nice and snug.

The best part of the cabin, arguably, is the seats. At first, you might be mildly suspicious of them.

As you sit down, they feel like big, over-stuffed armchairs, and such seats would for many people be too soft and unsupportive for a long journey.

Toyota has clearly engineered the RAV’s seats carefully, though, as actually they’re perfectly supportive, and hugely comfortable. They make the RAV4 a very relaxing car in which to travel.

Relaxing is a pretty good summation of the hybrid powertrain, too. Anyone who is concerned that a big, chunky SUV that doesn’t offer a diesel option is somehow missing the point can check their worries at the door. The RAV4 Hybrid (and there is, currently, no other engine option for the RAV) is a consummate success.

It starts with refinement — although, as with other Toyota and Lexus hybrids the RAV4 uses a CVT transmission, you can tell that the engineers have carefully worked on both the software and the soundproofing to keep the traditional high-revving effect down to a minimum when accelerating.

The RAV still revs high when you ask for all of its 218hp, but it’s rarely, if ever, intrusive.

Drive in a more relaxed fashion and you’d hardly ever know that this wasn’t a conventional gearbox.

Stick to relaxed mode, and you’ll achieve impressive fuel economy. Over more than a week with the RAV, we managed to get 6.0 litres per 100km on the motorway (that’s 47mpg), and even better around town — as good as 5.5 litres per 100km (51.3mpg).

That’s thanks to the fact that the RAV4’s hybrid system allows it to run on just the battery for significant periods in urban conditions, as much as 70 per cent of the time. So it’s three-quarters of an electric car, much of the time.

The way the RAV handles is a touch...interesting. If I were to be totally honest, I’d say that the RAV isn’t all that good to drive. The soft suspension allows it to roll quite a bit, and without the all-wheel drive model’s extra rear electric motor the traction control light is a surprisingly frequent companion. The steering, although well-weighted, is also rather mute. Yet I actually, actively, enjoyed driving the RAV.

I’m not 100 per cent sure I can explain why. It’s not a car for flinging around a favourite back road, but at all other times there’s a sort of solid satisfaction about driving it, a sense of unburstable strength, and no little comfort. It’s all rather satisfying.

Indeed, aside from some slightly iffy and old-fashioned graphics for the big, central touchscreen, I’d call the RAV4 a car that’s rather hard to beat as an all-rounder.

It’s hugely spacious inside and in the boot (not something you can automatically say of all rivals), it’s satisfying to drive, very refined, almost surprisingly economical. You won’t miss diesel if this is your next SUV, that’s for sure.

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