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Can the 2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid’s Odd AWD System Really Handle Snow?

Toyota’s RAV4 Hybrid has an unusual all-wheel drive setup. How does it do in harsh New England weather?

During our April testing of the 2016 Toyota RAV4Hybrid about nine inches of snow fell over two days here in our part of the snow belt of New England. It was an ideal scenario to test Toyota’s ingenious all-wheel drive system it calls All-Wheel Drive With Intelligence, or simply, AWD-i.

Unlike most crossovers its size, the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid does not connect the front and rear wheels with a drive shaft. Rather, the front wheels are driven by the RAV4’s 2.5-liter gasoline engine and constantly variable transmission (CVT). A separate system can drive the rear wheels using the hybrid drive’s electric motor when slippage is detected. Although the conventional RAV4’s system spanks the competition in third-party testing, we wondered how well the RAV4 Hybrid’s different system would work in the real world.

Fantastic is the conclusion. Just as advertised, the rear wheels augment the front wheels when snow and ice mean that front-wheel drive alone is not enough. We tested the RAV4 Hybrid on a variety of snowy and icy surfaces including a steep hilly road that had received about four inches of snow, but had not yet been plowed. On the steepest hill in my area, I found myself able to stop safely half way up. I then did the exact wrong thing. I moved my foot from the brake to the gas pedal and floored it to see the result. The gas engine’s CVT wound to its “Power” setting on the “Tach” and the rear wheels were powered as well. The RAV4 slowly started forward then rapidly gained speed. There was no drama, and the vehicle did not step to the side as I expected it might.

Stopping and turning are almost entirely tire related in bad weather and the RAV4 Hybrid's Bridgestone Ecopia H/L 422 tires did a commendable job. The generous ground clearance of the RAV4 Hybrid also meant that entering and exiting driveways that were plowed-in was no problem. Unlike some competitors, the RAV4 does not put expensive fog lights too low on the front fascia where they are susceptible to damage in that situation.

The 2016 RAV4 Hybrid’s All-Wheel Drive With Intelligence works exactly as advertised. The on-demand system marries amazing fuel economy with all-road capability. Look for our full review on the 2016 RAV4 Hybrid later this week.


Robert Gray (not verified)    January 15, 2017 - 5:30AM

If this is the same system used in the Lexus RX400h, then you have only described the "forward" power/drive system. In reverse, there is ONLY power applied to the rear wheels. No reverse function from the gas engine or front wheels. In several snow-conditions this somewhat sucks!

Brian (not verified)    January 8, 2018 - 12:11AM

In reply to by Robert Gray (not verified)

I don’t know about the Lexus, but the electric motors (there are three altogether) on my RAV4 certainly do drive the front wheels as well as the rear wheels in reverse. It’s the ICE that can’t (or more accurately, doesn’t need) to drive the car in reverse. You can shift into reverse by accident, nothing happens, unlike most cars where that would drop the tranny.

George (not verified)    September 21, 2018 - 12:00PM

I'm actually a bit concerned about one thing in this AWD system. For those who drive a lot in the hilly, snow-covered areas in upstate NY/New England, emptying the battery on a hybrid and making the car engage the engine to refill it is pretty common. There's not a lot of start/stop driving up there and that means you don't get the benefit of regenerative braking that you would in other areas. What you do have are highway ups and downs, which draw down the battery because you need to press the accelerator hard to keep up your speed up hills. Considering that the AWD system ONLY works when there's a charge in the battery, how would one deal with an empty one (if only temporarily)? There's no locked center differential here either (no center differential at all). If the front wheels lose grip, you then only have 40bhp to rely on and if the battery empties..?

T dirty (not verified)    November 17, 2018 - 8:58PM

Actually the way the hybrid drive works, the front wheels aren’t connected to the motor via a mechanical connection either. You don’t need battery power to turn the front or rear wheels. The battery is simply there to collect energy that would otherwise be waisted during coasting or braking and to power the car in ev mode.

Troy Shaddox (not verified)    December 26, 2020 - 5:44PM

In reply to by T dirty (not verified)

Maybe I don't totally understand this system.. The electric rear motor that drives the rear wheels works off the the hybrid battery? Or what charges the rear electric motor when the hybrid portion is depleted? One of my posts I was talking with a neighbor when his hybrid was depleted his rear wheels didn't turn, just the front and he got stuck in his driveway in the snow.

Troy Shaddox (not verified)    December 26, 2020 - 5:29PM

I hope that's true but I was talking to a neighbor who has a 2017 Rav4 hybrid and he said when the hybrid was empty or depleted his rear tires did not turn just the front. Something not right there?