2016 Toyota RAV4 AWD Review - Competent Guy Gets the Reward

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
Fast Facts

2016 Toyota RAV4 SE AWD

2.5-liter DOHC I-4, (176 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 172 lbs-ft torque @ 4,100 rpm)
Six-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
22 city / 29 highway / 25 combined (EPA Rating, MPG)
26.7 (Observed, MPG)
Base Price (LE FWD)
$25,235 (U.S.) / $27,100 (Canada)
As Tested (SE AWD)
$31,550 (U.S.) / $36,730 (Canada)
All prices include $885 delivery fee (U.S.) or $1,860 destination/PDI fee and A/C tax (Canada).
“Competent” — it’s one of the least sexy words in the dictionary. Hell, the word “dictionary” is arguably sexier. You’ll find the term next to “cardigan” and “financial adviser,” which are probably familiar words for someone known to be competent.Competent Guy is that dude in the office who doesn’t cause you any grief. He never fails to complete a task, doesn’t cause any drama, and avoids pissing everyone off. He’s the reliable friend people ask to help them move. It’s guys like this who keep an operation humming along, and their reward is being able to put down roots, grow old, and enjoy the spoils that come from being a respectable member of society.The Toyota RAV4 is the Lucy fossil of crossover SUVs, and it didn’t get there by making a bad impression. No nameplate reaches 22 years of age by frustrating owners, and you don’t become (and stay) the top-selling crossover by being hard to live with. For volume-hungry automakers, the RAV4 (aka. Competent Guy) is a rolling how-to guide for sales success — do the basics well, avoid controversy, don’t offend with styling, and make a good enough impression during the test drive that buyers take it home after the date.It’s after the vows are exchanged that Competent Guy starts to show off his quirks.
This tester wasn’t the RAV4 you see in every parking lot in the known universe. With Toyota buyers, the sexiest date seems to be the LE — pick any vehicle model, and that’s the trim suitors flock to. His value is just … irresistible. The new-for-2016 SE, however, is Competent Guy on the weekend, when he dons sharper duds for a sensibly priced and not-too-raucous night on the town.There’s more flash with the SE, but don’t wish for more dash. Underneath it all, the SE’s drivetrain is the same as the value pick, but good on Toyota for making the RAV4’s packaging more diverse. Its edgy 18-inch rims, selectively blacked-out body panels and jutting front spoiler is the equivalent of a band t-shirt or tank top with factory-ripped jeans. The message it sends? Look out — I’m feeling responsibly wild today.It helps that Toyota worked a little Transformers into the RAV4’s front fascia when it updated the model’s styling for 2016. That helps Competent Guy’s game every day.Inside the roomy cabin, the weekend continues. Soft-touch surfaces with red stitching, gunmetal gray trim, leather-wrapped steering wheel and sport-trimmed shift knob and SofTex faux leather seats make a good impression. Not too frumpy or plain, but not too gaudy. Perfect to lure ’em in. The massive air vents flanking the dash resemble either the intake of a jet engine or the taillights of a Ford GT — very brawny things, either way.
Any buyer considering a RAV4 already has their mind three-quarters made up, but the seats are enough to seal the deal. Incredibly supportive and sport bolstered, they’re the firm, warm embrace that every single person buyer wants in their life. A couple Patriot and Rogue owners both agreed that the SE’s seats easily topped their own. And the reclining rear seats? Positively napworthy. Don’t wait up.But what about sportiness? It’s a sport edition, after all, though these days the term has more to do with appearance than power. Strip away the t-shirt and the faded jeans with one, maybe two, holes in them, and you’re left with a powertrain straight out of the “office attire” closet. There’s nothing wrong with that, as the single engine and transmission choice is perfectly competent. Not sexy, but no slouch, either.With 176 horsepower and 172 pounds-feet of torque on tap, the SE’s stock 2.5-liter four-cylinder shuns all that fancy direct injection and turbocharging stuff, but it motivates the crossover just fine. Acceleration is acceptably brisk, passing is easy, and because buyers clearly haven’t demanded more cylinders or a turbo, Toyota feels just fine offering the one powerplant. (The automaker offers a hybrid drivetrain in other trims, but it’s meant to satisfy the EPA as much as the marketplace).
The reasonably robust four-banger gets along fine with the six-speed automatic, which isn’t a technological marvel but shifts smoothly and when you want it to. Why add complexity if it isn’t needed? We’re talking about a volume crossover that’s bought to carry two kids and (maybe) a dog, not recreate scenes from Furious 7. No, a gear-holding sport mode, 55-series rubber, and a slightly stiffer suspension are the only performance bits you’ll get in the SE.Spending about 99 percent of its time driving over broken pavement, this tester’s suspension had some definite bounce in its step, but the ride evened out at highway speeds. The SE handles fine, but even with sport mode engaged, the “higher rollover risk” warning sticker on the sun visor (coupled with vehicle feedback) suggests that aggressive cornering isn’t a great idea. Sure, he visited a gym once, but Competent Guy can’t be expected to learn parkour.Sporting pretensions aside, owners stand to get more use out of the vehicle’s “Eco” mode, which slips electronic eggshells under the accelerator to speed upshifts and prevent downshifts. (That feature soon feels as pointless as sport mode.)
Over a week of city-heavy driving (avoiding rush hour when possible), the SE took a page from Competent Guy’s restrained weekend boozing regimen, matching the automaker’s combined fuel economy rating of 25 miles per gallon. Putting the SE’s highway legs to the test, a 200-mile weekend trip to cottage country — a journey that included crawling through forests where even banjos fear to tread — returned a reading of 29 mpg, the same estimated highway figure offered by Toyota. No secret drinking problem with this guy.Only once, on a sandy forced road, did I ever feel the rear axle try to take over from the front. All-wheel drive is fine for a vehicle of this class, because only the foolhardy (or brave) try to take a RAV4 off-road. There’s Jeeps for that kind of thing.Speaking of bumming around in the sticks, much applause goes to the SE’s standard LED headlights. They’re so bright, and cast their glow so wide, you’ll be able to paint those deer from memory. Hell, you’ll be able to spot that dime you dropped earlier in the day.
Overall, Competent Guy seems like a fine fellow to bring home to meet the parents, but spending long periods of time with anyone increases the odds that quirks, foibles and eccentricities they dutifully keep hidden will finally start to emerge. The road trip made a few things clear.For starters, what’s with the door handle seriously cutting into the armrest space? Reaching the window switches from a relaxed position requires a Linda Blair-like wrist contortion. The door panel looks good and the handle is easy to reach, but the armrest is like 1980s Berlin. Mr. Toyoda, tear down this wall!There’s also a lack of keyless entry and pushbutton ignition. Sure, this feature isn’t a necessity for anyone and it sounds elitist to gripe about it, but there’s plenty of downmarket vehicles offering it. It won’t be long before that ignition key is as dated as a telegraph key.Despite its refreshed looks and that all-important t-shirt, the RAV4’s infotainment system seems a little dated. When the stereo was tuned to a radio station (who still does that, seriously … ), weird hiccups arose. The wrong song title often appeared, or the name of the song was only partially correct. “34 Hour Party People”? Huh?
Out in the boonies, the navigation system’s maps proved primitive, though the voice commands worked well. Call it anachronistic, but I still like navigating with big, detailed maps. The remaining infotainment and safety technology — and there’s a laundry list of it — seemed up to par, so it doesn’t really matter that weekend Competent Guy isn’t a perfect Millennial. With so much to offer, no one’s going to turn him down just because of a few quirks. That’s just being hard to please.The Toyota RAV4 boasts such massive sales numbers and boffo name recognition, it’s hard to imagine many buyers don’t just take a cab to their local dealer and drive away with one, no shopping around required. Other crossovers offer similar (or better) room for a lower price, or have more power and better handling, but the RAV4 checks enough of the major boxes during that first date to convince most buyers that the relationship will work out.How else could one vehicle score with 315,412 Americans in one year?Toyota Canada provided the vehicle and insurance for this review.[Images: © 2016 Steph Willems/The Truth About Cars]
Steph Willems
Steph Willems

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  • N8iveVA N8iveVA on Jun 22, 2016

    The hybrid interested me for the mileage and added power, but after driving it I put it at the bottom of my list. They really tried to give me a great deal to sway me, but I just couldn't. I drove a loaded Limited Hybrid. Sticker was $36,600 and they came down to $31,999. It had everything. The seats were surprisingly comfortable compared to the lesser models but the interior shapes, design, and materials were a deal breaker. Not to mention there are no sporting pretensions to this vehicle. Cargo room was fantastic and the 2016 restyle improves the looks. I ended up ordering a 2017 Escape Titanium. 90% of the CX-5's handling and a quality feeling interior. Plus I like a big sunroof so that panoramic roof swayed me a bit too.

  • CrackedLCD CrackedLCD on Jun 23, 2016

    The song/station data displayed when listening to the radio comes from the radio stations themselves and I've seen more errors in song titles over the years than I care to admit. The data displayed via RDS is just pulled from mp3/wav metadata which means if it's entered in by a drone it may suffer in accuracy. The radio itself may also try to display RDS data by showing received data before error correction can be applied. It gets text on the screen faster but with many more errors. Frankly, I'm surprised to see radio text on any Japanese car; my previous experience was they avoided it like the plague because it wasn't used widely in Japan. Contrast that to German/Euro cars which had it before it became widespread in the US, because RDS goes back to at least the early 90's in Europe, where radio networks are more common.

  • Ajla Tim, any chance when you "pop on" you can have someone look into why comments under your authored posts don't allow any formatting, links, or editing?
  • Rick Old I.T. security weenie here.Not only can I live without it, I recently boughta 2024 Civic sport touring because the 2025 did awaywith a couple of things I wanted.First no manual transmission.Second the Garmin map went away and Google apps willcome installed. Google apps are a big security hole.Android auto and Apple Play just end up sending even more info off to Apple or eventually Google. I will spend extra for Sirius XM to avoid any google routed audio. or Apple Itunes. I never pair my phone to any car I own or rent and I leave locationservices disabled.
  • Aja8888 How old was the Evil gm Vampire product? 15 yr -oh well. 5 or less - unacceptable!Well, it is 4 months old.
  • Master Baiter Slavery and any legacy thereof already get too much attention in the United States. We don't need a holiday reminding everyone about slavery, even if it's to celebrate the end of it.
  • Slavuta "Juneteenth is a celebration of the ending of slavery, and without getting too political, I think we can all agree that that is a good thing." -- I must remind that slavery is bringing cheap labor at a production site. While globalism is bringing production site to a cheap labor. Hence, slavery never ended. It lives under guise.