During my son’s lifetime (just turned 26), Toyota’s RAV4 went from tinny, mini SUV (sport-utility vehicle) to a gold-plated, flexed-biceps rig with leather upholstery, an ear-busting sound system and a bundle of technology.  There’s even a top-of-the-line hybrid version for $42,750, plus extra, fees and taxes, though a basic RAV lists for $28,090 and the starter version of the RAV4 Hybrid is a hint past $32,000.

How did all this happen? What’s happened to the RAV since the mid-1990s?

Nicely done cabin.

Well, tastes change, RAV4 buyers as a group have literally fattened up, demanding more space, and regulators keep turning the screws. The latter demand more safety features, better fuel economy and reduced emissions. Buyers expect all of it, and thanks to free money (zero interest rates) and seven-year payment plans, can budget for a luxury ride in the form of a RAV4.

Then there’s the very nature of the car business. Car companies must reinvent every model on a 3-5-year cycle. If they don’t, consumers yawn and turn elsewhere. Even Toyota customers need the periodic jolt, though first and foremost they want reliability, followed by safety features and the added comfort of strong resale numbers.

And so, the latest RAV. Frankly, I’m raving about it. Times change.

1996 RAV4.

Look, back when Jean Chretien was prime minister, the RAV joined Honda’s CR-V as novel little SUVs based on the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic underpinnings, has grown and expanded up-market. The RAV and the CR-V were instant hits because both were simple, useful wagons, tall ones, with very basic but effective four-wheel-drive systems. Both hinted at the ruggedness of a grocery getter. That was five generations of RAV ago.

Today, Toyota’s Toyota C-HR is the new RAV. About the same size, power and pricing. The 2020 RAV4 Hybrid Limited I just tested has only one thing in common with its roots – the name.

The new RAV4 is so luxurious and technologically advanced, I’m left with a question: what’s left for Toyota’s luxury brand, Lexus? You could swap a Lexus UX250h hybrid for this RAV4 Hybrid and be happier for it. The RAV is considerably bigger, much more useful and startling less expensive.

Solid seating.

Just remember: if you tick all the option and accessory boxes and add the best extended warranty, you can drive the RAV4 Hybrid’s price past $55,000, taxes, levies, freight, dealer prep and various fees included. Even here in 2020, $55,000 lives in luxury-land. Back in 1996, it would buy you a decent house in Medicine Hat, Alta.

Yes, yes, the RAV4 Hybrid range-topper gives you everything from an easy-to-use touchscreen to a full suite of Connected Services by Toyota, to a Bird’s Eye Monitor and even a digital display rearview monitor, rather than a mirror. Mirror? Passe.

Power everything is standard, as are a 360-degree monitor, heated and ventilated leather-clad seats, a hands-free power rear door, radar cruise control… The Tech Package gets you Intelligent Sonar, wireless phone charging, an 11-Speaker JBL Audio Clari-Fi Audio System… Other than a fancy brand, what more could you want?

Clear instrumentation and controls.

Everything fits inside a cabin that’s sensible in design and execution — round dials, square air vents and real buttons surrounding the touchscreen. Thankfully, there is a traditional line of climate controls. There’s lots of space for people and cargo, as well as plenty of handy storage compartments. The materials and build-quality are first rate, though I’d like a touchscreen bigger than a kiddy-sized 7.0-inches.

The RAV4 Hybrid has grown into a midsize SUV, yes, but delivers compact car fuel economy numbers: 6.0-litres/100 km combined. Not bad for a 219-horsepower (combined) rig with a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine paired with hybrid Synergy drive and AWD (all-wheel drive). The fuel-sipping is impressive, given the RAV4’s heft – 1,724 kg or 3,800 lbs.

In driving, the RAV4 Hybrid feels substantial, planted, kind of a rock. It’s not a joyous experience by sports car standards, but the cornering is controlled for an SUV and the responses are predictable. On long hauls, the RAV4 Hybrid is quiet, stable and forgiving when the roads get a bit uneven.

Cable-free phone charging. This RAV4 has loads of features.

For anyone in need of a up-market family SUV, one that delivers terrific fuel economy AND decent get-up-and-go, the RAV4 Hybrid delivers. Truth be told, I can’t imagine why anyone would spend thousands and thousands more for a Lexus or a Cadillac or a BMW or an Audi  of comparable size, with similar equipment.


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