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By Charl Bosch

Motoring Journalist

Toyota RAV4: Hybrid version of world’s best seller shows why

Droning CVT the party pooper in an otherwise well thought-out package.

When it was launched in 1994, the Toyota RAV4 caused something of a revolution that has become very much the norm today.

Though based on the same platform as the contemporary Corolla of the time, it effectively created the compact SUV at a time when most off-roaders were huge leviathans still at home outside the urban jungle than inside.

Setting the pace

Despite having the availability of a four-wheel drive, hence the “4” in its name, the Recreational Activity Vehicle very much had the city in mind and in spite of initial scepticism, it became a runaway success.

Five generations later, the Toyota RAV4 is nowhere near the compact city dweller it once was, but that hasn’t stopped it from being popular.

ALSO READ: Hybrid spark and traction broadened on rejigged Toyota RAV4 line-up

In fact, a painfully compiled report last week confirmed it as the world’s best-selling vehicle of 2021 in front of heavyweights such as the Ford F-150 and even its stablemates, the Camry and Corolla – the latter having topped the list in 2020.

No more wanting for more

On South African soil, the revolution is however better illustrated by the recent addition of the reimaged hybrid model.

Introduced for the first time last year, the initial petrol/electric model used the entry-level GX derivative as a base with drive going to the front wheels only.

Toyota RAV4 Hybrid road test South Africa
Little has changed around the rear, bar the blue Toyota badge and tailgate identifiers.

A surprise but also clever approach to broaden the appeal of hybrids often restricted to flagship models, the GX wasn’t to last long as the complete restructuring of the Toyota RAV4 line-up in March saw the hybrid taking centre stage.

Now available in GX-R and VX guise, the hybrid has a smidgeon more grunt, and thanks to the inclusion of a second electric motor on the rear axle, a four-wheel-drive Toyota called E-Four.

Toyota RAV4 Hybrid road test South Africa
The new E-Four badge signifies the electric four-wheel-drive system.

Able to vary the power by sending up to 100% to the front wheels, or as much as 80% to the rears, the system impressed during the national media launch in said month.

It was therefore a no-brainer not to get reacquainted when an Urban Khaki coloured GX-R arrived for the usual seven-day stay.

Still has the looks

Still one of the marque’s most eye-catching models, the mid-life update unsurprisingly didn’t spur Toyota on to fettle too much with the RAV4’s exterior.

In the GX-R, the tweaks amount to new 18-inch alloy wheels and LED headlights, while a new grille takes centre stage on the VX. As befitting of Toyota’s hybrid models, the corporate logo now sports a blue background.

Toyota RAV4 Hybrid road test South Africa
New additions are the orange inserts and improved materials to an otherwise unchanged and functional cabin.

Given the GX-R’s initial emphasis as the off-road-focused model of the range, it retains the chunkier front bumper and satin silver skid plate, as well the air inlet underneath the grille not offered on the VX.

Tough unlikely to meander on any rough road bar one coated in a thin veil of gravel, it, in this writer’s opinion, rates as the better looking, more purposeful and feistier derivative of the range.

More kit

Aside from fetching orange inserts, Toyota has kept the overall design of the interior unchanged but added a few niceties previously not offered on the GX-R.

These include leather seats, up to five USB ports, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and leather seats with the fronts being electric, ventilated and electric in the case of the driver’s chair.

Toyota RAV4 Hybrid road test South Africa
Front seats are comfortable, supportive and heated as well as cooled.

Adding on to the spec sheet is a wireless smartphone charger, automatic air-conditioning with rear vents, a 4.2-inch TFT instrument cluster display, keyless entry and push-button start, rain sense wipers, a reverse camera, rear parking sensors, Trailer Sway Control, Hill Start Assist and Downhill Assist Control.

As per its off-road credentials, the GX-R also sports a trail function that dictates torque from wheel to wheel on loose surfaces.

… but not all good

Unfortunately, despite the welcome addition of plusher materials, plus the retention of the chunky switchgear, the seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system continues to look outdated with its old-fashioned graphics and CD receiver.

It does, however, counter by being easy to navigate through and now more acceptable from a connectivity standpoint thanks to the inclusion of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Toyota RAV4 Hybrid road test South Africa
The boot can take 580 litres with the rear seats up.

Never found wanting is the amount of space on offer for those seated in the front and rear, while at 580-litres, the boot is conservatively measured, as is the 733-litres with the 60/40 split rear back folded down.

This head-scratching foible aside, the seats are comfortable and the overall layout functional with an element of funkiness as per those orange inserts.

The hybrid shove

As mentioned, the standout remains the hybrid drivetrain that banishes memories of the lacklustre, conventionally powered 2.5 VX that served in our long-term fleet three years ago.

Toyota RAV4 Hybrid road test South Africa
Those seated at the rear are unlikely to complain over a lack of head or legroom.

Still consisting of the 2.5-litre petrol engine combined with an 88 kW electric motor at the front, as indicated earlier, the newly included 40 kW unit on the rear axle automatically results in the E-Four designation, as well as a three-kilowatt power increase to a combined 163 kW.

Toyota RAV4 Hybrid road test South Africa
Unlikely to get old is the readout of how the hybrid system works displayed on the infotainment system.

Despite weighing 1 730 kg, the GX-R doesn’t feel ponderous or lethargic. In fact, it feels perky and with a good deal of shove as a result of the immediate response associated with the electric motors.

Consumption, yes; CVT, no

Letting the side down though is the CVT, which in typical fashion is seamless and smooth at lower speeds, but drones at higher RPMs or with the supposedly more responsive PWR mode engaged.

It remains one of the better options available though and despite the GX-R offering four driving modes; EV, Eco, Normal and Sport, the latter was rarely used as it prompts a terrible-sounding ruckus without much in the way of slicker performance or improved response from the transmission.

Toyota RAV4 Hybrid road test South Africa
Four modes are on offer, including an all-electric EV setting.

The default Normal option remains the best setting and with tabs being kept on how the system works by virtue of the dedicated hybrid readouts on the infotainment system, the weeklong stay netted an indicated best consumption of 5.2 L/100 km in mixed conditions.

In spite of Toyota’s rather dubious claim of 1 146 km on a single tank, a more realistic estimation is around 800 km to 900 km, still impressive for what is still a petrol-powered SUV with a host of batteries plus two electric motors.


Its droning CVT aside, there is little else to fault the Toyota RAV4 E-Four GX-R from a comfort, ride and features perspective.

Toyota RAV4 Hybrid road test South Africa
GX-R sits below the top-spec VX, but can be argued to represent a better overall package.

At R663 400, is it admittedly a lot dearer than its other hybrid stablemate, the segment lower, locally build Toyota Corolla Cross XR, but offers more in space, power and capability when the mood arises.

It, therefore, ticks a lot of boxes and given the appeal of the RAV4 a name, an ultimate package hard to beat.

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