Greatest Road Test Ever
I recently spent two weeks circumventing the entirety of Iceland on vacation. Considering Iceland is basically the most expensive country in the world, my wife and I thought it may be a solid idea to attempt to not spend a grand on fuel while driving 2000 odd mile loop. Wise idea in a nation that operates on “airport pricing” on absolutely everything.
We also read that much of Iceland is covered in unkept, unpaved roads that will destroy a normal passenger car, so while we didn't go full body-on-frame rock crawler, we opted for something with a bit more tire and ground clearance. What we ended up with was a 2022 Toyota RAV4 AWD Hybrid. It was the most boring vehicle I've ever driven and also nearly perfect for our journey on what would be arguably the best road trip in the world.
The proper way to see Iceland is to do a “Ring Road” tour - basically a big loop that roughly follows the outer perimeter of the country through its various regions starting and ending in the capital city of Reykjavik. It can be done in about a week but truthfully is best if given a bit more time so you aren’t rushed. We did it in 2 and the pace was just about perfect.
Iceland as a land mass is roughly the size of Ohio. It resides JUST below the Arctic circle and as you may imagine, gets a pretty fierce winter. Honestly, the temperatures aren’t nearly as extreme cold as I am used to in Chicago to be honest, but they stay in that perfect snow temperature for about 6.5 months each year so it is just brutal on the roads.
We were told that you can absolutely make the trip in the summer season (which in mid-September were just barely making it) in a small FWD car, but everybody recommended at least some taller 4wd vehicle. This is because much of the things you want to see on your trip is off the beaten path, and in Iceland that can mean AWFUL road conditions.
We took the advice and were VERY glad we did. Over the course of our two weeks, we put right around 2,000 miles on the Toyota - and I'd say about 500 of them were unpaved. The RAV4 had no issues going over the unpaved roads that were COVERED in cantaloupe-sized pockmarks and burrito sized rocks. I would’ve hated to get all the way there and cheap out by getting a compact car and not be able to go to certain areas without ruining the rental car.
There were all sorts of surfaces to cover - smooth asphalt, well kept concrete, chip-sealed, small loose gravel with good coverage and then down to something that looked like it had been shelled in a bombing run. For the most part, the main “Ring Road” was beautifully paved but once you ventured off that it went south pretty quickly. One day I spent a good 3 hours on what looked like a rally circuit. Either way, for a majority of the entire journey, the roads were EMPTY and terrific.
Now living my entire life in a place that I have to drive an hour away just to see an unpaved road, you may imagine that I don’t have tons of experience on loose-surface roads and you’d be correct. In the early parts of our trip, I was gingerly going down these side roads, hovering at 60% of the marked speed limit. As I got more comfortable with the conditions (and thanks to the trail mode setting on the AWD of the RAV4) I eventually attacked these mountain passes at a rapid pace like a local. It was terrific fun.
Well, I could go on and on about my trip here… Iceland is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. We saw more unique natural occurrences and natural wonders in one place than you’d think existed anywhere. We drank fresh melt water as we hiked over top of the largest glacier in Europe. We saw the Aurora Borealis numerous times during our stay. We saw Humpback whales, Orca and dolphins in the surrounding sea. We filled our water bottles with fresh water from 330ft tall waterfalls and ate amazing food every day and hiked in some of the most astounding landscapes imaginable.
These pics have NOTHING to do with the Toyota but Iceland is awesome so enjoy:
But, how about the car? Let's get the bad out of the way first. I don’t particularly like the way the RAV4 looks. It’s very overstyled and has a really aggressive look that is common in Toyota’s lineup and just doesn’t do anything for me. But visual taste is subjective so obviously we can all make up our own minds there. It honestly doesn’t matter. It's not really bad just not a car I think looks particularly good. The styling wouldn’t be something that kept me from owning one.
That would be the seats. I absolutely HATED the seats. They were very simple manual adjustment units with barely any actual adjustments to be had - the main issue was zero lumbar support to the degree that it felt like the seat caved out backwards in a place where I needed it to come to meet my back. As a result, it really messed up my lower back each night. This was a rental-spec car so perhaps higher trims would have better seating options (talking seat design, not just surface upholstery), but as-is these seats would absolutely negate the possibility of buying this thing for me. They were truly THAT bad.
Lesser annoying but still something of a head-scratching choice - the windscreen. I don't get in as many new cars as other journalists, so this may be more of a common thing than I realize, but the embedded defroster coils in the front windscreen were obnoxious. Now, they worked very well when the window was foggy in the cool morning, but the issue is that the windscreen ALWAYS seemed dirty. The coils are impressively small and subtle, but they are still quite visible at all times and in direct sunlight it's as though the whole front view is obstructed. Unlike the seats, this wouldn't keep me from buying this vehicle but it was VERY annoying and I really wondered how the minor benefit of better defrosting is offset by the always there visibility demerit it brings.
Aside from the seats and the windscreen, the interior is otherwise great. Spacious room for 4 adult passengers with a decent cargo area. Cubby holes, pockets and cup holders for front passengers everywhere and a wireless charging pad for your phone as well! The controls are a bit dated by some standards but that also has the upside of nearly everything uses physical controls and the layout/feel of those are fantastic. It’s a huge plus to not have to learn a new infotainment system for basic functions on a car you’re in short-term. The seat and steering wheel heaters worked beautifully and were welcomed in such a place.
The engine/CVT combo was a mixed bag. I currently own 2 cars that have gas-guzzling v8 engines. I promise that I have no hatred towards hybrid vehicles, but have honestly never spent 5 minutes driving one until recently. I think it’s that while I have nothing against hybrids, I am NOT much of a fan of the boring/appliance vehicles they tend to build them into. I don’t expect such a vehicle to engage/enthrall me but this was largely as dull as they come. Toyota has been the king of hybrid powertrains for about as long as anyone has done them, and by and large it works brilliantly.
MOST of the time you don’t really notice what it’s doing and it just…works. Once you get a bit of juice in the battery stored up, the car can operate in EV-only mode at lower speeds as long as you don’t mash the accelerator too hard - but even when not in EV-only mode, it decides certain situations to shut the gas engine down and use the electric motor to power the car for moments at a time. Of the many instrument cluster screens, I found myself fond of watching the drivetrain status diagram most. Watching the front/rear axles go on and off, and also switching from gas power to electric power and back seamlessly was very impressive.
The CVT honestly is a Drone-y mess but given the complication of this drivetrain and powertrain combo - it makes sense to use it and largely didn’t deter anything from the experience. I couldn’t care less - which is the first time I've said this about using a CVT. It definitely works, doesn't hurt anything and as this isn't a vehicle I'm expecting driving bliss from, it's absolutely fine.
The AWD system was a HUGE plus. Most FWD-based vehicles that have AWD tend to just act like a FWD car until it all goes wrong and then it kicks a bit of torque to the rear momentarily and then goes back to FWD mode as soon as it goes away. Meaning 99% of the time you’re hauling around a heavy drivetrain that doesn’t do a single thing for you. The AWD system in the RAV4 Hybrid was constantly active. It definitely leaned on the front axle a lot of the time, but I was pleasantly surprised how often it took advantage of the rear wheels. It’s not a wrangler, but did a pretty convincing impression of a WRX on the many gravel roads I came across.
Add to that, the drive selector mode which cycled between Eco, Normal, Sport and Trail. They all did what they promised, and felt unique and suited to their intentions. Eco mode was reluctant to use power (engine or battery) unless you REALLY asked it. Braking regen was high and I tended to use it during longer stints of smooth simple highway driving. Normal is just that - normal. This mode saw the most active swapping around of engine/battery power, FWD/AWD drive and the full EV mode turning on and off at certain times. It behaved “normally” but behind the scenes there was a LOT of wizardry going on. Sport mode was surprisingly good - along with the dash color turning red there was a surprising amount of passing power. I’m not certain about manufacturer claims but in sport mode with your foot to the floor I'd say it felt about 250hp and about that same number in torque figures if not more. Not fast but plenty quick for overtaking.
Trail mode (which changed the dash cluster to have a pile of loose boulders behind the display) was very impressive. I’m not sure WHAT it did in terms of AWD locking or whatever but when it wasn’t on, the RAV4 would plow the nose in the gravel a bit longer than comfortable before the rest of the car sorted itself out. With Trail mode engaged, the car rotated under throttle with ease. I’ve found that it’s best to be a bit assertive with AWD systems like this - you can’t be timid and scared of the car moving - you have to kind of ride the wave of traction, keep the front wheels pointed the direction you want to go at all times and use the throttle and momentum to turn the car if it doesn’t immediately follow the turning of the steering wheel. That is hard for somebody not used to loose surfaces, but once I got used to it on this trip, I was HAULING down quite awful terrain with sheer cliff drop offs on the side of the road with little to no worry. Toyota may have taken a long time away from Rally racing but it seems like they never forgot how to do it.
All in all, my time in the RAV4 was among the most enjoyable I have ever spent in ANY car. To be fair, much of that has to do with spending that time with my lovely wife on her birthday in the amazing country of Iceland, but I did have concerns that doing it in a hybrid appliance CUV would ruin the experience. I am happy to say I was wrong. The RAV4 did the perfect Toyota thing - served as a dead-reliable tool that did whatever I asked of it without a peep so I could enjoy what I was doing and not get caught up worrying whether it would get in the way of our fun.
For those of you still with me: Go to Iceland. Have an adventure. Drive around in a RAV4 and have the best road trip of your life.
I write and I know things. I am also the resident motorcycle expert at Everyday Driver - check out the Cycle Report - www.thecyclereport.com - on our YouTube channel. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.