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The Toyota RAV4 SE Hybrid: Is the Alternative Powertrain Worth It?

I got to spend the last week commuting to work and running errands in a 2018 Toyota RAV4 SE Hybrid. The RAV4 this past year overtook the Toyota Camry as the best-selling non-truck in the United States, and I found myself intrigued by the hybrid drivetrain in the example I drove — here’s the most technologically advanced version of the best-selling passenger car in America.

It led me to ponder a question that many before me have likely asked themselves — should you buy the hybrid or the regular version?

How do you decide? The hybrid should achieve better fuel economy, right? While this is in fact the case, there are always other things to consider, whether you’re looking at the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, or any other hybrid.

Figuring out how many miles you have to drive to pay back the hybrid price premium is still the first order of business. This can be challenging, as there may not be a perfect non-hybrid comparison. The closest non-hybrid trim level might also include a panoramic sunroof unavailable on the hybrid, or the hybrid could come with a better infotainment system than its non-hybridized counterpart; more often than not, the vehicles’ respective trim levels make it difficult to compare them apples-to-apples.

Luckily for the RAV4, the SE and SE Hybrid trim levels look to be almost identical, save for the presence of paddle shifters on the non-hybrid SE. Assigning a somewhat arbitrary value of $100 to these paddle shifters, we can calculate that the SE Hybrid carries a $1,015 price premium over the purely gas-powered SE.

The EPA claims overall average fuel economies of 25 miles per gallon for the RAV4 SE and 32 mpg for the SE Hybrid. Assuming fuel prices of $2.66/gallon for regular gas (the current national average) this all works out to a hybrid payback mileage of just under 44,000 miles. In other words, assuming consistent gas prices, once you’ve driven a RAV4 SE Hybrid 44,000 miles, your fuel savings have amounted to $1,015; enough to cover the premium you paid for the hybrid version. If gas prices were to go up, this 44,000 mile figure would decrease; if gas prices were to go down, the figure would increase. In other words, as gas prices climb, the hybrid becomes even more enticing.

This amounts to a rough calculation, though, and there are still other, more subjective variables to consider.

A lot of these variables have to do with driving experience. Due to the assistance of an electric motor, some hybrids like the RAV4 feel faster at lower speeds, thanks to the electric motor’s ability to deliver torque earlier in the power band than a gasoline engine. With the RAV4 Hybrid, depressing the pedal at lower speeds resulted in a momentary ‘whoosh’ in acceleration. Many hybrids will also travel solely on electric power until a certain speed is reached. This was the case with the RAV4 Hybrid as well. As a result, I found myself using gentler throttle application in order to keep the gasoline engine from kicking in, in an effort to save fuel.

Another facet of a hybrid drivetrain that will catch many people off guard is the braking. Hybrids use what is referred to as "regenerative braking," a system that captures the vehicle’s momentum as it’s brought to a stop and uses it to recharge the hybrid batteries, rather than letting all that kinetic energy go to waste. This can result in a strange feeling any time the vehicle is coasting. Rather than rolling along freely, the car might hold back as if it’s in too low of a gear. This is the regenerative braking system at work.

With the RAV4 Hybrid, I found these systems to be novel, and they motivated me to drive more efficiently. That said, there’s a tradeoff to be made for efficiency, and I felt the hybrid drivetrain to be lacking when the need for power presented itself, like when merging onto an interstate, passing, or climbing a steep hill.

One thing to consider when buying a new car is how quickly it will depreciate. A fear among many in the auto industry when hybrid and electric cars began to gain popularity was that they would lose value due to their use of new and still-evolving technologies. Recently, though, studies have shown that newer hybrid vehicles have held their values slightly better than their non-hybrid counterparts. As Toyota is a leader in hybrid technology and is already famous for its high resale values, I suspect this will be the case with the RAV4 Hybrid as it ages.

As a result of its relatively small price premium over its non-hybrid sibling, a full payback on the RAV4’s hybrid powertrain comes fairly early in the vehicle’s life, which means it’s probably a good buy for anyone planning to keep their car for more than a few years, especially knowing that depreciation in this time period should be moderate.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always such a simple decision. Since there’s a chance the payback period on the hybrid trim level of a particular model may be longer than many people would keep a car today, it’s important to look for other intangibles that give the hybrid appeal over a non-hybrid counterpart. Whether these intangibles are enough for you to opt for the hybrid trim level of any new car you might be considering is up to you to decide. Find a Toyota RAV4 for sale

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