The progenitor of the hottest segment in today's U.S. vehicle market, Toyota's RAV4 has been around for two decades, and the 2016 model year marks a new dimension for this popular compact crossover SUV. Along with various cosmetic updates, and the addition of a sporty SE version, the 2016 line will include a hybrid for the first time.

The RAV4 is propelled by the company's solidly established gasoline-electric Hybrid Synergy Drive, primarily driving the front wheels. On-demand all-wheel drive is standard equipment, but it will differ from the system available with the regular RAV4. Instead of a mechanical connection between the front and rear axles, the new hybrid will employ an electric motor at the rear that kicks in on demand. No center differential. No driveshaft.

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Peak 194 horsepower

Although it's new to the RAV4, the system is not new to Toyota, having made its debut with the mid-size Highlander SUV. Like other Toyota hybrids, the synergy drive combines the output of an internal combustion engine, in this case a 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle 4-cylinder, with the thrust of an electric motor, for a peak system output of 194 horsepower.

The hybrid weighs in some 320 pounds heavier than a standard RAV4, and yet it is quicker than its conventionally-powered stablemates, hitting 60 mph in 8.1 seconds according to Toyota. And of course it will also be much thriftier-34 mpg city/31 highway, according to the EPA, compared with 24/31 for a conventional front-drive version, 22/29 for one with mechanical all-wheel drive.

On the road, the hybrid conveys a sense of solid structure, slightly diminished by suspension tuning that's on the soft side. There's a hint of reluctance when the driver demands quick directional changes, and the steering is a little numb in the first 10 degrees off center in either direction. 

The casual responses were particularly tangible after pushing the new SE model over the same sets of twists and turns. Thanks to firmer suspension tuning, the SE's transient responses are more decisive, and the steering feels more precise.

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Pleasant ride, quiet comfort

On the other hand, hybrid ride quality is pleasant indeed-soft, but not 1950s Buick soft-and the cabin is commendably quiet at all speeds. The function of the all-wheel drive system is totally subliminal, or would be if there wasn't a little gauge to tell the driver when the rear axle is participating in propulsion. The regenerative braking system function, which converts recaptured kinetic energy to electricity to replenish the hybrid battery pack, is transparent.  And the hybrid's extra punch makes shorter work of two-lane passing.

Like other RAV4 offerings, the hybrid features exterior freshening, interior updates, and new safety features, including the Toyota Safety Sense system which entails automatic emergency braking and pedestrian recognition. The addition of the new model to the RAV4 lineup brings Toyota's hybrid count to eight in the U.S. (plus six others from the Lexus side of the house).The new hybrid is offered in the top two RAV4 trims, XLE (MSRP $29,270) and Limited ($34,510).The 2016 RAV4, including hybrids, is in showrooms now.  


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