IT’S a little known fact that Toyota has had a battery-powered RAV 4 in its range for more than 20 years.

The first all-electric RAV (which stands for Recreational Active Vehicle with 4-wheel drive) was a winner before it went on sale. Designed and built in record time, Toyota’s engineers entered and won the Scandinavian Electric Car Rally with a pre-production prototype in 1995.

Originally a three-door only, the electric RAV was so popular Toyota also added a five-door variant and the first of these appeared on Jersey (!) in 1997 where they glided silently back and forth between the island’s main hotels in a pilot scheme sponsored by British Airways.

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One famous celebrity owner was the actor Tom Hanks who went on a US talk show and evangelised his RAV 4 EV.

Sadly, with a starting price of $42,000 only the likes of Tom could afford to buy one.

But times and technology change.

The latest RAV 4 is a snazzy petrol-electric hybrid (like the Prius) and with prices starting at a far more agreeable £24,205 all of us can afford to join the green car RAV-elution (sorry).

ON THE ROAD:

The great thing about hybrid technology is how unthreatening it is - you can climb aboard the RAV4 and drive it like any other SUV. The various computers do all the hard work for you, shuttling the power between the front and back, switching from battery to petrol completely seamlessly. It just feels like an exceptionally smooth petrol drivetrain.

The hybrid system combines a 2.5-litre ‘lean burn’ Atkinson cycle petrol engine with a powerful electric motor. It is used in both front and all-wheel drive configurations, the latter using a second electric motor at the rear to provide automatic electronic all-wheel drive for greater traction on loose or slippery surfaces without the need for a heavy propshaft. Total system power is 194bhp (145kW), making this the most powerful RAV offered in Europe. The electric motor’s ability to instantly deploy maximum power gives the RAV impressive in-gear acceleration.

The automatic gearbox has three modes - sport, eco and EV. The sport mode sharpens the throttle response and holds the intermediate gears longer but I suspect most owners will prefer the more languid drive offered by the RAV’s eco mode which prioritises soothing power delivery and fuel economy.

Whether you opt for two wheel or four wheel drive, the RAV hybrid undercuts its diesel-powered cousin for emissions although things are less clear cut in terms of fuel consumption. If you spend a lot of time in slow moving traffic (and thus on battery power) the hybrid can rack up some serious mpg figures. But out on the highway a diesel is likely to be the more economical choice.

There’s no body roll to speak of and the vehicle responds smartly to your commands. Only the typically grabby regenerative brakes - which generate electricity to boost the RAV’s battery pack - spoil an otherwise very smooth driving experience.

The Northern Echo:

ON THE INSIDE

The RAV borrows widely from the Lexus playbook - prioritising comfort and refinement over excitement - and that’s fine by me. Underfloor noise insulation has been increased by 55 per cent, the instruments are better sealed off from the engine bay and the door seals are more efficient.

The new instrument pack incorporates a 4.2-inch TFT display which can be configured via steering-mounted buttons. Many of the alerts are coordinated with the seven-inch touchscreen in the centre console. It’s possible to call up a screen which shows power flowing around the hybrid powertrain in real-time which encourages you to make the most of the battery pack. Big analogue dials are a welcome ‘old school’ throwback in an otherwise futuristic cabin.

The Northern Echo:

HOW PRACTICAL IS IT?

With the rear seats in place the boot can swallow 501 litres. This extends to 1,633 litres with the rear seats folded down.

There are plenty of cubbies inside. Improvements for ‘17 include a second inner tray added to the console box and a new cup holder design. The centre cluster tray has a useful anti-slip liner and there’s a modest overhead storage point.

WHAT DO YOU GET?

Comfort and convenience features include automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers, electric windows, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and push button start, a DAB digital tuner with Bluetooth, six speakers, satellite navigation, online connectivity, reversing camera, front/rear parking sensors and ‘follow me home’ headlights.

Exterior features include rear privacy glass, a power tailgate, 17-inch alloy wheels and LED daytime running lights.

The test vehicle’s eye-catching pearlescent paintwork is a £795 optional extra.

RUNNING COSTS:

Official combined cycle fuel consumption is from a best-in-class 57.6mpg for the front-wheel drive model and 55.4mpg for the AWD version. We managed a smidge over 40mpg in real world conditions. CO2 emissions start at 115 and 118g/km, respectively.

Every RAV features a 100,000-mile 5-year mechanical warranty and don’t worry about the complex hybrid drivetrain - Toyota says it has never had a failure.

VERDICT:

With diesel technology facing political headwinds in Europe, the Toyota RAV 4 hybrid feels more like the future than ever. Drivers will appreciate the smooth ride and excellent refinement, but high miles motorists will probably still be better off with a noisy old DERV unit. If, however, you do a lot of driving around town the hybrid powertrain is capable of very impressive fuel consumption. If this is the 21st Century motoring revolution then bring it on.

Car tested: TOYOTA RAV 4 Business Edition Plus Price: £28,530

SPEC: Engine: 4-cyl in-line, 2,494cc + electric motor Power: 195bhp Torque: 270Nm Top speed: 112mph 0-62mph: 8.4 seconds CO2: 115g/km Fuel consumption: 57.6mpg (official)/38.9mpg (on test)