Ford’s Escape used to be Canada’s most popular compact SUV (sport-utility vehicle). But now the Escape has been pushed aside by Toyota’s RAV4 – and for good reasons.

2016 hybrid logo for WEB

First among them, Canada’s most fuel-efficient all-wheel drive SUV (sport-utility vehicle) is the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid. This version of the RAV has been a surprise hit for Toyota. And if sales trends continue, by the end of 2016 this new hybrid will have played a starring role in the race to No. 1 among compact SUVs.

The RAV4 Hybrid, new for 2016 and an essential piece of the RAV’s most recent makeover, is not cheap at $34,715 to start and $40,000-ish as tested. But it is thrifty and loaded with technology – much of it aimed at stretching your fill-up dollars.

The 2016 RAV4 Hybrid got a shout-up for its styling during my test -- but not from me.

The 2016 RAV4 Hybrid got a shout-up for its styling during my test — but not from me.

Consumer Reports says the RAV Hybrid has the best overall fuel economy of any SUV that doesn’t plug in – “better than most midsized sedans.” In Canada, the RAV4 Hybrid is rated at 6.9 city/7.6 hwy (litres/100 km).

Fuel efficiency is certainly one reason why RAV4 sales are up nearly 17 per cent this year, reports DesRosiers Automotive Consultants. The RAV’s popularity is such that it has opened up a lead over all the rival compact SUV rivals – including the Escape.

This is news, indeed. At the end of 2015, Ford Canada had sold about 4,500 more Escapes than Toyota the RAV, but sales of the aging Escape are down nearly 2.0 per cent this year. Meanwhile, sales of Honda’s CR-V are up 12.6 per cent, Jeep’s Cherokee is up 50.2 per cent and the Nissan Rogue is up 6.7 per cent.

Yes, you have plenty of choice here. Canadians, of course, love their small SUVs. Last year we bought more of them than any other type of vehicle.

There's room to lay golf clubs flat across the cargo area.

There’s room to lay golf clubs flat across the cargo area.

This year, sales keep chugging along – up nearly 10 per cent, notes DesRosiers. That even as sales of subcompact SUVs like the Mazda CX-3 and Honda HR-V have exploded – sales up 155 per cent. All this growth has come at the expense of small cars, with compacts down 1.1 per cent and subcompacts off by a whopping 14.5 per cent.

Toyota Canada officials say the RAV4 Hybrid’s success has been surprising, though not shocking. Sure, sure, up to now the quality of the entire made-in-Canada RAV4 lineup has long been good and the pricing competitive. But as CR notes, there are other good reasons for the growing popularity of the RAV4 Hybrid – which accounts for about 13 per cent of all RAV sales.

Toyota is the world leader in hybrids.

Toyota is the world leader in hybrids.

2016 hybrid readout for WEB

“For those looking for maximum efficiency in an all-wheel-drive SUV, the RAV4 Hybrid shows that there isn’t a need to downgrade to a tiny, subcompact model, such as the (Honda) HR-V or (Mazda) CX-3), nor stretch the budget into luxury territory for the Lexus NX 300h or RX 450h.”

Exactly. If you are shopping for a small sport-utility or crossover, you have a dizzying array of choices. As noted, the top seller for many years has been the Escape, a little rig that has aged well and boasts slick handling and perhaps the most modern infotainment offerings in the class – though the interface is not always easy to use and trouble-free.

2016 RAV dash for WEB

Other major contenders?

The CR-V is also Canadian-built and it received a big re-fresh for 2015, though recent quality issues have been a surprise.

Nissan’s Rogue burst through the compact SUV clutter two years ago with a re-design and clever marketing of its all-wheel-drive system. Nonetheless, I’ve always been underwhelmed by the looks and the performance.

Jeep has the Cherokee and it’s a modern-looking wagon with macho Jeep styling. I’d recommend caution here, however. Fiat Chrysler’s quality issues remain a big problem.

A backup camera is family-friendly.

A backup camera is family-friendly.

Another option is the Hyundai Tucson, which was remade for 2016 and might now be the best vehicle in this class. A hybrid version would make sense, though the available direct injection four-cylinder engine is outstanding in every way – including fuel economy.

Mazda’s CX-5 is among the most entertaining to drive, but the design comes off as a little boxy – clunky.

And Kia is launching a reinvented version of the Sportage which is very stylish and rides on the same mechanicals as the Tucson from Kia’s sibling brand, Hyundai.

You might also want to look at the Volkswagen Tiguan, also getting a remake this year, the Subaru Forester, Mitsubishi Outlander, Chevrolet Equinox, GMC Terrain and one or two others.

The list is long, but the RAV4 Hybrid stands out in this complicated mix of compact SUVs. It’s the only hybrid among all small SUVs, compact and subcompact class – though Ford at one time sold an Escape hybrid and may yet again.

The truth is, we don’t often think of Toyota as an innovator, though that’s not really fair. Toyota has sold more hybrids than anyone – some 11 million so far and growing. The RAV4 Hybrid is the 7th hybrid in Toyota’s Canadian lineup.

No doubt about it, Toyota has mastered the art and science of blending a gasoline engine with electric drive. Here, the electric motors and the battery pack work in tandem with a 2.5-litre four cylinder engine and continuously variable transmission. Combined power is 194 horsepower and fuel economy is terrific at 7.2 litres/100 kilometers.

This tall station wagon with all-wheel drive is completely functional, though the exterior design is nothing special. It’s not offensive, either. The face is all very Toyota and a blue badge tells you this is a Toyota Hybrid. The sheetmetal is smooth enough and despite my misgivings, this RAV got quite a shout-out from a young couple who waved at me during my most recent road test.

For 2016, Toyota softened the ride and made it quieter. You can dial up any of four drive modes — Normal, Sport, ECO and EV. All-wheel-drive is entirely electronic and comes into play only when needed. This is all about maximizing fuel efficiency.

RAV logo for WEB

The cabin in my tester came with dual zone automatic climate control, an eight-way power-adjustable driver’s seat. The infotainment interface was big and quite simple to use. The RAV has room for five, a 60/40 split fold-down rear seat, and room enough for golf clubs to fit perfectly in a very useful and large cargo area.

At as as-tested price north of $40,000, I got a powered rear hatch and keyless entry. The front bucket seats, I should note, were oddly lacking in long-range comfort. They felt flat and unsupportive and left me stiff after an hour’s drive.

Yes, the RAV4 Hybrid sips rather than guzzles gas, but there’s more to this rig than fuel efficiency. Toyota nailed this one.

THE LOOK: The exterior design is clean, uncluttered and inoffensive. For some this is good enough for a shout-out, but for me I can only say it’s just fine.

THE DRIVE: The ride is very quiet and comfortable. The engineers softened things and that appears to have taken a toll on handling. The RAV4 Hybrid is not a slug, but it’s not as nimble as a Tucson, a Sportage, a CX-5 or an Escape.

THE NUTS AND BOLTS: The hybrid technology here is brilliant. In driving, you cannot tell that the powertrain is a blend of gas and electric power.

THE CABIN/STORAGE: Very roomy, though seat comfort is average to poor. The cargo bay can hold golf clubs laid flat across. Brilliant for four golfers.

THE BRAND: The Toyota brand is powerful and recognized for two things above all else: quality and hybrid technology. You get the best of both in the RAV4 Hybrid.

WHY BUYS? Millennials moving into the kid stage and Baby Boomers moving into the grandkid stage.

Price range: $34,715-$38,515.

Powertrain: 2.5-litre four-cylinder gas engine (154 horsepower/152 lb-ft of torque); three electric motors and a nickel metal hydride battery pack (combined hybrid horsepower 194).

Drive: all-wheel.

Transmission: continuously variable or CVT.

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.9 city/7.6 highway using regular fuel.

Comparables: Mazda CX-5, Honda CR-V, Ford Escape, Nissan Rogue, Kia Sportage, Nissan Rogue, Volkswagen Tiguan, Chevrolet Equinox, GMC Terrain, Jeep Cherokee, Dodge Journey.





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