Model year 2017 changes:
Editor's note, December 22, 2016: This review was written based on an evaluation of the 2016 Toyota RAV4. See the changes for the 2017 model year above.
Inside a half-mile of driving Toyota's RAV4 SE over Michigan's crumbling roads, I make a mental note of its firmer bump stiffness. The ride isn't brutal, but it's rougher -- enough to turn off consumers shopping the compact crossover segment who put more stock in a compliant ride, flexible interior space and fuel economy. Lucky for those people, Toyota's midcycle RAV4 update includes a new hybrid version that caters to those wants, and there's always the model's more traditional LE and XLE models.
Clearly, Toyota's RAV4 range has grown to include flavors for all types of buyers.
Dig deeper into the freshened RAV4 lineup, past the typical changes like new light housings, bumpers, rocker panels and wheel designs, and you'll also find the new SE model for people who still want flexible interior space and good fuel economy, but prefer their vehicles to be a bit more engaging from behind the wheel. As the athlete in the RAV4 family, the SE gets a sport-tuned suspension; unique 18-inch wheels and a specific styling treatments to give it a little extra visual edge.
Notice that list of SE changes doesn't include a power increase. Like the majority of sport versions of mainstream vehicles, it doesn't get upgrades to the drivetrain, meaning the SE works with the same 2.5-liter four-cylinder making 176 horsepower and 172 pound-feet of torque as other non-hybrid RAV4s. That power makes it competitive with heavy hitters in the segment like the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue and base Ford Escape. While fuel economy for the RAV4's full-gas drivetrain understandably isn't up to the hybrid model's impressive 34 mpg city and 31 mpg highway EPA fuel economy ratings, the SE's 2.5-liter four- and six-speed automatic transmission combination returns a respectable 22 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway with all-wheel drive. If front-wheel drive is all you need, then efficiency climbs to 24 mpg city and 31 mpg highway.
Instead, the SE's performance changes center on the suspension, which improves the RAV4's handling reflexes, making the small crossover a bit more fun to toss around. Turn-in response is fairly quick, and there's some weight tuned into the wheel. Grip through corners is good for spirited drives, with not much body lean. The wider footprint from the 18-inch Bridgestone Ecopia H/L 422 Plus all-season rubber deserves some credit for the increase in handling prowess, but don't be under the illusion that the SE is a skidpad hellion, or that it's ready to stand at the top of the timesheets at your next local autocross, because that's not what it's about. The biggest downside to SE is the aforementioned harsher ride quality, a byproduct of its stiffer springs and shock absorbers.
Those looking for a more comfortable ride should try the top of the line Limited model, which boasts a cushier ride and supportive yet comfortable seats. While not nearly as fun as the SE, it still holds its own when the road turns twisty, albeit with more body roll and a lighter steering feel.
Regardless of which model you choose, you may be surprised at what the RAV4 can handle when the pavement turns to dirt. At the touch of a button, the all-wheel drive system locks into a 50/50 front to rear torque split at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour, helpful when you're stuck in the snow or when the road to the cabin turns treacherous. I was well surprised when the RAV4 scampered up a steep hill at Hollister Hills off-road park in California, behaving more like a 4Runner than a RAV4.
Unless you're buying a Ford Escape or Kia Sportage with their available 2.0-liter turbo engines, you'll have a hard time finding a compact crossover that one might call quick. Instead, most entries in this very popular segment pack serviceable power similar to this Toyota, which motors away from stops in a brisk-enough manner and pulls well throughout the rev range, with its gearbox cycling through the gears smoothly. The RAV4 never feels underpowered. If you want, the SE includes steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, but unfortunately they aren't particularly responsive. I abandoned their use after only a couple of miles.
Visually, the 2016 RAV4 lineup looks significantly better than before, with new exterior fixings turning what was a previously really bland-looking crossover into a not-at-all-as-bland-looking crossover. That's especially true with this trim, as it takes things a little further with its standard LED lighting, SE-specific front bumper with larger, honeycombed lower grille insert and 18-inch wheels with black-painted spoke insets. The SE looks particularly sharp with the Electric Storm Blue paint seen here, even if it stands out a little more than I generally prefer. I can't remember the last time I had random people in parking lots come up and ask me about a compact crossover, but that happened with this RAV4, and a lot of that has to do with its vibrant paint job.
The interior features a clean design, with nice touches including numerous wrapped surfaces with contrasting orange stitching. The SofTex seats -- also with contrast stitching -- are quite comfortable, with slightly larger side bolsters for additional lateral support. The center stack houses large, clearly marked climate and infotainment buttons that are easier to use than touchscreen controls.
With a warehouse club shopping trip on the agenda, I threw in an impressive amount of stuff with the second-row seats down, giving the RAV4's 73.4 cubic feet of cargo space a true workout. Looking over a few spec sheets shows that the Toyota is tops in the class when it comes to the cargo department, bettering the Jeep Cherokee (54.9 cubic feet), Mazda CX-5 (64.8 cubic feet), Escape (68 cubic feet), Rogue (70 cubic feet) and CR-V (70.9 cubic feet).
When carrying human cargo, my backseat passengers found sufficient leg- and headroom, and insulation from wind noise was quite good. However, it's not whisper-quiet inside. There was a bit of tire-noise roar in the cabin, but that wasn't nearly as annoying as the creak emanating from the driver's side B-pillar of my test vehicle. It haunted my week of evaluations, going away and coming back randomly.
An optional $3,030 advanced technology package adds a variety of infotainment and safety technology to the RAV4 SE. In place of a standard 6.1-inch infotainment touchscreen, there's a responsive 7-inch unit. The navigation system is intuitive to use, Bluetooth phone pairing is easily accomplished and the premium JBL audio system sounds crisp. Toyota's Entune multimedia bundle is also here, letting you connect your smartphone to run features such as Bing destination search and Pandora through the dashboard, but sadly, the system isn't compatible with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Unfortunately, Toyota hasn't given any indication if either is coming soon.
Advanced safety and driver-assist goodies include a bird's-eye camera that performs a slick perimeter scan to give a clear view of your surroundings, augmented by parking sensors that make getting in and out of spaces easier. Also helping to safely back out of parking spots is rear cross-traffic alert, which warns of oncoming cars. It's an increasingly common feature that I'm beginning to like a lot. Lane departure alert notifies drivers when they are veering outside of the lines, and steering assist inputs small corrections to keep the RAV4 within its lane.
A precollision system with pedestrian detection uses radar and a camera to monitor for possible impacts, giving an audible warning if it senses a potential collision and automatically braking if you don't react in time. Unlike many systems from competing carmakers, the RAV4's is well tuned and didn't go off unless I was coming up behind another car very quickly. Even then, I never came close enough to have the vehicle engage its brakes autonomously.
A few years back, Toyota added an SE trim to its Camry sedan, and it's proven to be quite popular. I won't be at all surprised if the same thing happens with the RAV4. The SE's styling changes are noticeable and attractive, the model has some small but meaningful performance hardware differences, and it also has a larger standard features list that includes things like heated outside mirrors, blind-spot monitoring and push-button starter to help justify the $3,000 premium the SE carries over the XLE trim.
Of course, I'd still like a bit more power in any model that claims to be sportiest example in its lineup, but the SE's dynamic improvements do provide a more entertaining driving experience, and this trim looks sharper, too. Even with the SE's poorer ride quality over crummy Michigan roads, its tradeoffs will likely be worth it for a pretty sizable chunk of buyers, just like they're worth it to me.