So you’ve decided on a compact SUV but want to save at the pumps. Good choice.
The Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape are two of the biggest names in the segment. For 2020 both offer hybrid options, promising the same family-hauling capability with city car levels of fuel sipping. On paper they’re quite similar—in terms of size, power, and features—yet after spending a week with them, both managing editor Kshitij Sharma and I found more differences than you might expect.
Even the model structure is different for these two SUVs. Since this generation launched for 2019, Toyota has positioned the RAV4 Hybrid as the performance option of the lineup. The gas engine is the entry point, with the Hybrid adding battery power for smoother operation, more power, and better fuel efficiency. On the flip side, Ford has dropped the Escape Hybrid somewhere in the middle of its range, nestled between the entry-level 1.5-liter four-pot engine and the quick, powerful 2.0-liter EcoBoost.
Both of these little family trucklets also come in plug-in hybrid flavors. While they offer even more fuel efficiency thanks to increased EV-only range, they’re not directly comparable. Ford only offers the plug-in Escape in front-wheel drive form, and at 221 combined horsepower, it’s considerably less powerful than the all-wheel drive, 302-horsepower RAV4 Prime.
SEE ALSO: 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime First Drive Review: Plug-In Power
Sticking to regular self-charging hybrids then, both our testers arrived in high-spec trims, with only a few hundred dollars separating their stickers. Which deserves your money, the Ford Escape Titanium Hybrid or the Toyota RAV4 XSE Hybrid? Let’s see how they stack up.
Powertrain and driving feel
RAV4: The made-in-Canada Toyota uses the same 2.5-liter inline-four engine found in the gas-only model, running the more efficient Atkinson cycle. Two electric motors join it in Hybrid trim, one at each axle, which gives the RAV4 on-demand electric all-wheel drive. These two motors draw from a 1.6-kWh nickel-metal hydride battery pack, stowed away under the rear seats. Combined horsepower sits at 219 ponies. Peak torque is rated at 163 lb-ft, though thanks to the immediate response of electric motors, it feels much stronger than that.
SEE ALSO: 2020 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road Review
The RAV4 Hybrid is happiest around town, where the combined propulsion allows for decisive point-and-go squirts into openings in traffic. EV power alone isn’t quite enough for pulling away from lights: you can do it, but the folks behind you won’t like it. It’s easy to get into the silent mode once up to speed, however. Highway driving feels just like it would with any gas-powered model, like the TRD Off-Road I drove earlier this year. Okay, the Hybrid has less wind and tire noise than that one, understandably.
When the gas engine does kick in, it makes its presence known, especially under heavy throttle. The 2.5-liter is a rumbly thing, never seeming very happy to have to pull the 3,755-pound (1,703 kg) RAV4 around. You feel it in the pedals, with a very slight vibration when the dino juice is a-pumpin’. Speaking of pedal feel, the brakes on our tester are over-servoed, making them tough to modulate.
To the RAV4’s credit, pointing it into corners accurately feels natural thanks to its light steering. The suspension is the softer of the two, which provides a smooth cruising-speed ride but can take longer than expected to settle after speed bumps.
Escape: The Blue Oval has ended up on a very similar hybrid setup to its Japanese competition. The Escape also packs a 2.5-liter, Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder. There are two electric motors in here too. Where the Ford deviates is with its newer-tech, 1.1-kWh lithium-ion battery pack. While this Sedona Orange tester does employ all-wheel drive, it’s worth noting Ford will sell you a Titanium Hybrid with front-drive as well. Toyota only offers the RAV4 Hybrid with AWD.
System outputs are slightly lower than the RAV4, with a quoted 200 hp and 155 lb-ft of twist. The Escape counters with a lighter curb weight of 3,668 lb (1,664 kg), but that’s not enough to stop it feeling just slightly slower than the RAV4. Despite the smaller battery pack, the Escape finds itself running in EV mode more often than the Toyota, aiding fuel economy. Its gas engine is similarly noisy when it joins the party, but the Escape lets in more road and wind noise in general, so comparatively it’s less of a shock. That’s not really a positive though, is it?
If you’re trying to cling onto some semblance of driving excitement, the Escape’s is the better steering wheel to be slotted behind. Its steering is just as light as the RAV4’s, with more natural-feeling pedals contributing to a positive driving feel. The suspension is firmer too; better for you, maybe not so much for carsick little ones in the second row.
Bottom Line: They’re close, these two, with very similar drivetrains. The RAV4 inches ahead on that front, with its more powerful setup also feeling more eager. The Escape is tardier, even with its lighter curb weight, but it’s more willing to enter EV-only mode. The Ford also claws back some points for having the better pedal and steering feel. It’s the driver’s choice of the two, but let’s be real: nobody is buying either for that purpose, so the Escape’s firmer suspension isn’t necessarily a positive. Let’s call this category a draw, then.
RAV4: The EPA quotes the RAV4 Hybrid at 41 mpg city, 38 highway and 40 mpg combined (5.7/6.3/6.0 L/100 km from EnerCAN). Driven with a roughly even split between city and highway duties, Kshitij saw a week-long average even better than any of those figures. Thank the ideal mix of summer weather and Toronto traffic for his 42 mpg (5.6 L/100 km) average. It definitely wasn’t his light right foot—I’ve seen how he can hustle a car.
Escape: Ford says the Escape has a slight edge over the Toyota in EPA and EnerCAN ratings. American figures are 43/37/40 combined, with North-of-the-border ratings sitting at 5.5/6.4/5.9 L/100 km. Over my week with the Escape, I saw a combined average of a barely believable 47 mpg (5.0 L/100 km). Admittedly, I put on less highway miles than my colleague, but nonetheless, the Escape should be able to consistently beat its rival at the pumps.
Bottom Line: Both of these family-hauling SUVs post the sort of numbers sub-compacts could only hope to achieve a few short years ago. But this category is a pure numbers game, and the Escape has the answers. It wins.
Technology and Features
RAV4: Our RAV4 XSE tester came with the optional Technology package. That means embedded navigation for the 8.0-inch touchscreen, a Qi wireless charge pad, clearance sonar, the trick digital rearview mirror, blind-spot monitoring, and an uprated 11-speaker JBL sound system.
Beyond that digital rearview mirror, the RAV4’s tech lineup is good, not great. The analog/digital hybrid instrument panel feels a little low-rent against the Escape’s all-digital affair, though you can’t argue its functionality. That’s pretty much all we can say about Toyota’s Entune infotainment system too. It doesn’t do anything wrong, but it’s becoming harder and harder to prefer it over any other competitor’s setup. The 8.0-inch screen is legible and falls to hand easily, at least.
Escape: With the Premium Package 2.0, the Escape gains a more powerful AC outlet, that enormous panoramic sunroof, and a head-up display. Everything else you find inside is standard on the Titanium trim, and it’s obvious Ford has tilted the interior budget towards tech. The all-digital instrument panel wows, changing with the selected driver mode and allowing for more info to be displayed. SYNC3 is also a treat to deal with, offering quick and painless interactions.
Neither of us loved the head-up display, however. It’s not a windshield-based setup, instead relying on a little pop-up piece of glass. It lacks the degree of adjustability that the former style allows for.
Bottom Line: The Ford just ekes out a win here. Its full-digital instrument panel is very cool, and SYNC is a better infotainment system.
RAV4: Every single 2020 RAV4 comes with Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 as standard, including automated emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, auto high beams, lane-keep assist, and rear cross-traffic alert. It earns a 4-star frontal and rollover NHTSA rating, with 5 stars for side crashes. It’s also an IIHS Top Pick for safety, though the institute rated the XSE Hybrid’s headlights “Poor”.
Escape: Like the RAV4, the entire Escape line includes a standard suite of driver safety aids. These include automated emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, auto high beams, lane-keep assist, and rear cross-traffic alert. The Escape earns 5-star ratings for frontal and side crash ratings from the NHTSA, and a 4-star rollover rating. It matches the RAV4’s IIHS Top Pick title too, with a slightly better showing for its headlights.
Bottom Line: Both of these little SUVs feature standard driver safety aids, lots of airbags, and strong marks from both the NHTSA and IIHS. Like the fuel economy fight, this is a hard-numbers category, so the Escape wins, if only just.
Special note about the adaptive cruise control: try both before you decide. Kshitij and I have differing opinions on them: he prefers the Toyota’s more conservative car-to-car distances and the fact the system doesn’t accelerate when you signal for a lane change. I find the Escape preferable specifically because it does do the latter, and offers gaps that align more with my expectations. Your mileage may vary.
Interior and Cargo Space
RAV4: The Hybrid is the only way to get the sportier XSE trim on the current RAV4. With it, buyers get a black faux-leather interior with blue contrast stitching. It’s not as visually interesting as other trims, but the XSE feels like a quality item. Touch points are typically of the soft-touch variety, and Toyota’s design team has peppered the interior with handy storage solutions. A small cubby to the left of the tiller captures any small change, and center console storage swallows quite a lot. The seats are more heavily bolstered in the RAV4 than its American rival, too.
The RAV4 is the load-lugger of the two. With the rear seats up it will hold 37.5 cubic feet (1,062 L) of strollers, kids’ bikes, and various sports equipment. Drop the back row for a cavernous 69.8 cubic feet (1,976 L). The shape isn’t as square as the Escape’s, but it’s deeper (at nearly 39 inches), and the load lip is just 27 inches off the ground.
SEE ALSO: 2020 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Review: The Dependable One
Escape: Things I’ve grown to like in the Escape: the rotary shifter, the graduated cup holders beside—not behind—said shifter, and that huge panoramic sunroof. Things I’m indifferent about: the climate controls, the steering wheel buttons, the faux-wood in the dash. Things I still can’t abide: the cheap-feeling door panels. Even in this high-zoot Titanium trim, the Escape’s doors feel like they belong on a mid-2000s city car. It sours what could otherwise be a solid interior experience. The seats feel too high up, just like the RAV4’s, but they’re flatter, which may make them more accommodating for more people.
The Escape also just can’t match the RAV4 for space. Headroom is its only real advantage: we bust out the tape measure and found it had roughly half an inch over the RAV4, at 37.5 inches. Rear legroom was ever so slightly more than the Toyota, but that’s because the second row can slide six inches. The rear storage space gives up that much to the Toyota in terms of depth, though it’s a squarer shape, which helps. Lip height is three-quarters of an inch higher than the RAV4. According to Ford, the Escape will hold up to 37.5 cubic feet (974 L) behind the second row and 60.8 (1,721 L) behind the fronts.
Bottom Line: It’s an easy one for the RAV4 here. Sure, the Escape allows for more back-seat adjustability, but it can’t match the storage space or the feeling of space up front in the RAV4. It does benefit from a larger sunroof though. Even then, the quality of the interior fittings feels almost last-generation beside next to the RAV4. We’ll forgive the questionable fake food, but the dimpled door panels feel like cost-cutting gone too far.
RAV4: It’s taken a bit of time to grow on us, but we’re both fans of how the current RAV4 looks. This color combo, pairing dark blue paint with a blacked-out roof and wheels, is probably the best option on the Hybrid side. The very cool bright blue with white roof is still a gas-exclusive, which saddens us, even if it’s too shouty for most.
Complaints? The two little wedges of matte plastic that separate the pillars from the contrasting roof. It’s as if someone told the design team about the “floating” roof design trend after the final look was locked in, and this was the most they could do to change direction. Even the Prime keeps the A-pillar wedge—though strangely, the D-pillar gets the gloss treatment.
Escape: If you want to be more honest about what the modern crossover is, it’s a giant hatchback on stilts. That sums up the new Escape pretty effectively. Every edge has been smoothed down, and like many modern cars, it looks better in the metal than initial pictures would suggest. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Escape this year—testing the SEL in March and the gas Titanium last month—and I’m starting to like it more. It’s still a bit too happy-Mudkip from head-on though.
SEE ALSO: 2020 Ford Escape Titanium Review
Those looking for the visual toughness of the RAV4 in the Ford camp will want to sit tight for the slightly smaller Bronco Sport.
Bottom Line: Both of these are going to be very common in the mall parking lot, so if you value individuality, the choice has to be the Escape: the RAV4 is the best-selling car in both America and Canada. It also comes in a wider range of colors, though not this Sedona Orange anymore, which was dropped mere months into production.
That all being said, when push comes to shove, both of us prefer the more angular styling of the RAV4. Advantage: Toyota.
RAV4: You can find yourself inside a RAV4 Hybrid for $29,525 ($34,190 CAD) in LE trim, including destination. Our XSE with Tech tester adds over eight grand to that bottom line, hitting an estimated $38,110, or $43,410 CAD as equipped in Canada. That’s a lot of extra spend for no drivetrain upgrades, but as detailed above, there’s a lot of kit in here. There’s just one more trim on the ladder, but we’d argue the Limited isn’t worth even more cash.
Escape: The Escape Hybrid starts a whole $15 less than the RAV4, ringing in at $29,510 for the SE Sport. That’s in the US though: Canadian buyers have no choice but to start at the Titanium trim, which comes with a $40,049 CAD sticker, including destination.
Our all-wheel drive tester checks the Premium Package 2.0 upgrade box. This rings in at roughly two grand on either side of the border, taking it to an estimated $38,395 USD, or an as-tested $42,399 CAD. Which one is more affordable then depends on which side of the border you’re on.
Bottom Line: The starting-price race is essentially a wash here. As tested, the Ford is either slightly more expensive in America, or about a grand more affordable in Canada. Regardless, the sticker only tells part of the story: the Ford packs a high-tech wow-factor, whereas the RAV4 has it licked on cabin quality. It feels like your dollars go further with the RAV4, so it wins here.
At the end of the week, these two felt more different from one another than either of us would’ve been willing to admit at the beginning. We both praised the Ford’s easy-to-use infotainment and its willingness to run on electrons. The RAV4’s extra oomph and its more spacious, comfortable interior took the sting out of any traffic jams. Both have a lot of strengths for a small family.
In the end, the Toyota has the measure of its rival. Neither is perfect, but the RAV4’s weaknesses—its weird pedal feel and the dated infotainment—were easier to swallow. That it posted slightly worse real-world fuel mileage is of little concern: both of these do vastly better than their gas-only siblings. The RAV4’s interior is the nicer place to spend time front and back, and it can haul more stuff, be it behind the seats or behind the rear bumper.
If you’re in the market for an Escape, skip the gas engines and make a bee-line for the Hybrid; it’s the pick of the lineup. But the RAV4 Hybrid is better still, and it wins this comparison.
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