2016 Toyota RAV4 SE AWD: A roomy crossover it is, a sports car it’s not

By Bruce W. Smith   Special to GCN    9/12/16

Four years ago when I had the pleasure of spending seat time behind the wheel of a 2012 Toyota RAV4 I looked for every excuse possible to be out driving. Its 269hp V6 responded quickly to driver input and the overall ride, handling and roominess of Toyota’s crossover SUV combined for a very rewarding driving experience.
That was then. This is now. The newest generation of RAV4s has been here since the 2013 model year—and my first time behind the wheel of Toyota’s sportier upper-mid-level 2016 SE all-wheel-drive model is a bit of a let down.

First off I was expecting the loaded $37,022 SE AWD I tested to be on par with the SE of old. It’s not. Toyota nixxed the V6 option in 2013, so now RAV4 buyers can have any engine they want as long as it’s the 176hp 2.5L four-banger. It’s not a bad engine by any means. But it sacrifices sportiness for fuel economy, getting an EPA 25mpg combined, 22 city and 29 highway numbers.

The slightly “refreshed” 2016 model, which has a crisper, more angular body, also has paddle shifters tucked behind the steering wheel, which one would think adds sportiness to the drive experience. They don’t. Using the “up/down” paddles to shift, even in “Sport” modes, results in gear changes just as sluggish and uninspiring as they are using the six-speed automatic’s notchy console shifter in “D.”
The engine redlines at 6,300rpm, but the lack of torque and its buzzyness as the rpm climb above 5,000rpm doesn’t impress. I clocked 0-60mph times in the mid-8s and a ¼-mile in 16.8 seconds at 83mph, which places it way down in the speed pack of other compact sport crossovers.

Another aspect of the SE model that’s a bit of a downer is the ride is firmer than the other RAV4 models, which means very few bumps, expansion joints and road imperfections go unnoticed. The firmer ride doesn’t really translate into any meaningful aspect of going faster than you will in an XLE or Limited version.

But for the everyday driver who doesn’t care about performance, the 2016 RAV4 SE does have a lot going for it. First there’s the Toyota build quality, which has always been top-shelf. Then there’s the edginess of the design that is sure to appeal to the younger buyers.
The interior is roomy, the heated front seats are great on old days, they are comfortable on long drives, it’s easy to get in and out, headroom is abundant, and the dash layout doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out. The headlights do a great job penetrating the night along twisting country roads and bad weather, and all around visibility is very good. The RAV4 also darts in and out of tight spaces, perfect for mall hoppers and purveyors of crowded parking lots.

The rear cargo area, with the fold-flat rear seats up or folded down, is as spacious as you’ll find in today’s small crossovers.

It’s also rated to tow up to 1,500 pounds, which means a couple ATVs, personal watercraft, or small tow-behind hard-sided tent trailer could be locked on a hitch. The all-wheel-drive system is perfectly adequate for boosting driver confidence and safety in foul winter weather or driving in heavy rains.

Safety ranks high in the RAV4 SE AWD I drove. It was optioned out with the $3,030 Advanced Technology package, which seems to include every item under the sun related to the advanced electronics. The package includes a seven-inch touch screen display, 360-degree birds-eye view camera system, radar-assisted cruise control, pedestrian detection, front/rear parking assist, voice recognition for the amped-up 11-speaker JBL sound system, Bluetooth connectivity, and a long list of other connectivity and safety features.

The uptake of the 2016 RAV4 SE AWD is to think seriously about spending the money on on this package, opting instead for an XLE version ($26,270). The overall ride will be a more pleasing and you won’t be disappointed with the SE’s lack of “sport” performance.

Basic Specifications

Model: 2016 RAV4 SE AWD (4-door, 5-passenger all-wheel-drive)
Base Price: MSRP $30,665
Price as Tested: MSRP $37,022
EPA MPG: 22/25/29
Observed: 21.7/24.2/28.7
Engine: 176hp 2.5L DOHC I-4
Transmission: 6spd Automatic
Basic Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles
Drivetrain Warranty: 6 years/60,000 miles
NHTSA Crash Ratings: Overall: 5 star