2019 Toyota Rav4 Hybrid: Best of the best-sellers?

The 2019 Toyota Rav4 is an impressive effort that should put up a strong defense of the model’s “best-selling vehicle in America that’s not a pickup” title this year. But you may want to hold off on buying one. At least for a few more days.

That’s when the hybrid versions start hitting dealers, and I don’t expect they’ll be sitting around very long. The gas-electric model delivers an unmatched blend of performance and efficiency among small SUVs.

(Toyota)

The Rav4 Hybrid starts at $28,795 for the LE trim level, which is just $800 more than the equivalent conventional model. For that, you get all-wheel-drive and a year-appropriate 219 hp to go with an EPA combined rating of 37 mpg. That’s an additional 16 hp and 25 percent better efficiency than the standard Rav4 can muster.

(Toyota)

The fuel economy figure is just an estimate, of course. In the real world, it can be better.

I drove one over 500 miles of highways, mountain roads and city streets in sub-freezing temperatures, and when I finally handed the keys back to Toyota I’d averaged 39 mpg. Based on current fuel prices, that’d save enough at the pump to cover those eight bills in less than three years.

Regardless of what’s powering it, the new Rav4 is substantially better than the one it replaces. Built on the same bones as the latest Camry sedan, which saw a similar boost in refinement last year, it’s solid, quiet and feels premium at the price in every way.

(Toyota)

The only step backward is a slightly smaller cargo area. Since the old one was roughly the size of a shipping container, the few cubic feet that it gives up are hardly missed, and they still managed to find space for a spare tire. Passengers will find plenty of legroom at all stations and reclining rear seats.

(Toyota)

The boxy styling is more evocative of Toyota’s trucks than its cars and represents a significant departure for the original “cute ute.” Four trim levels are available, with the top of the line Limited ringing up at $36,795. The variety of offerings show Toyota’s confidence that this is now a mainstream model, rather than a niche green offering.

The $34,795 XSE that I tested is the Sporty Spice of the bunch and comes with a tighter suspension, unique steering and drivetrain tuning and racy styling cues. The last of those include a two-tone interior trimmed in SofTex synthetic leather, which may be better than the real thing. The deep front buckets are soft and comfortable, yet supportive. Like a big hug.

While the driving experience is straightforward, the all-wheel-drive system that provides it is anything but. Like the last Rav4 hybrid, this one is essentially a front-wheel-drive vehicle with a remote electric motor that only powers the rear wheels when needed. That happens mostly under acceleration and on slippery surfaces, such as the snow-covered parking lot I played on for a while. The transitions between the drive modes are seamless when you do that sort of thing, and the traction unflappable.

(Toyota)

All Rav4s come standard with Toyota’s Safety Sense package of driver aids. It includes automatic emergency brakes, radar cruise control and what Toyota calls Lane Tracing Assist, which can self-steer between the lines painted on the road as long as you’re touching the wheel. Toyota doesn’t hoot and holler loudly enough about it. Instead of swerving side to side like many similar systems to, it locks the vehicle dead center as well as Nissan’s much-ballyhooed ProPilot Assist can. Maybe better.

The one problem I discovered while I had the Rav4 Hybrid may be the only thing Toyota can’t do anything about: The vents for the battery pack, which is located under the rear seats, blew cold air on my whiny passengers’ legs.

Maybe that’s why they waited for spring to put it on sale.

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2019 Toyota Rav4 Hybrid

Base price: $28,795

As tested: $34,795

Type: 4-door, 5-passenger all-wheel-drive SUV

Powertrain: 2.5-liter inline-4 with electric motor assist

Transmission: CVT automatic

MPG: 37 combined