I, for one, welcome our partially electrified overlords.
After spending some quality time with the hybrid variants of Ford and Toyota’s recently redesigned compact crossovers, I came away with one major conclusion: these are two extremely competent vehicles that will no doubt satisfy their owners for many years. They’re also fierce competitors that are quite evenly matched.
But is there a standout among them? And is $38,000 too much to pay for a non-luxury compact crossover?
Ford and Toyota introduced redesigned versions of their compact crossovers within one year of each other. The Escape, which sits on the Blue Oval’s C2 platform, arrived in 2019 as a 2020 model. Toyota released the Rav4, which now sits on the Toyota New Generation Architecture (TNGA) modular platform, in 2018 as a 2019 model.
Both automakers decided to pair their 2.5 liter four cylinder gasoline engines to one or more electric motors, with a 1.1 kWh (Ford) – 1.6 kWh (Toyota) battery thrown into the mix. Hooked up to each model is what both call an eCVT. In actuality, these transmissions are planetary gearsets. Ford and Toyota developed these systems independently of each other and they share no components whatsoever.
However, one thing these crossovers seem to share is styling. While they don’t look exactly alike, there’s some surprising similarities between the two. Both feature horizontally oriented tail light packages with nearly identical layouts and aesthetically similar tailgates.
Things are a bit different when you look at their sides though. More on that in a bit.
Ford Escape Exterior
Although the original Escape looked like a miniature SUV, subsequent models pivoted away from that aesthetic. The 2017-2019 Escape seemed designed to visually tie the compact crossover to Ford’s larger utility offerings, which may have been some type of intentional course correction. The new model does no such thing. Instead, it adheres to the design language espoused by the new Ford Focus. There’s soft curves and a big ol’ smiley face out front. When a current generation Focus swapped fluids with a Mazda CX-5 and a Rav4, this is what popped out nine months later.
Clearly, it’s designed to attract Ford car and crossover owners on both sides of the Atlantic. This is a stealthily radical entry in the crossover world, as even models like the Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-5 feature more aggressive front end styling.
Toyota Rav4 Exterior
By contrast, Toyota used the latest Rav4 redesign to shape it into a miniature 4Runner. There’s no doubt in my mind that at least several thousand 2019+ Rav4 owners drove away from the dealership thinking they purchased a vehicle that can keep up with its larger sibling once the pavement ends. This is an aggressive design that instantly elevates the nameplate to new heights, as pretty much everything since the first generation sported inoffensively bland styling. The raised edges around the hood that rise up before tapering off make the entire front end look squared off when you’re sitting in the driver’s seat. It’s a brilliant way to fool people into thinking they’re driving an actual SUV.
Ford Escape Interior
Before I received the Escape, I was skeptical that any higher tier mainstream crossover could realistically compete with their luxury branded rivals. Now I know why there’s not a regular hybrid variant for the Lincoln Corsair, which is based on the Escape. Everything you regularly interact with is soft to the touch. The controls have heft and feel substantial and I don’t think something like a Volvo XC40 would be noticeably superior. Additionally, I had no problems getting used to the rotary dial shifter.
Ford decided to slightly update the interior chimes and noises they’ve employed since around 2013 or so, and they still sound pleasant. I also liked the head-up display.
Getting into and out of the Escape is easy since Ford opted to integrate the grab handle into the side armrest. It begins behind the window switch controls, which you can kind of make out in the picture. Overall, the controls are well placed throughout the cabin. The Escape also has LED interior lights and full LED head lights.
Seat comfort was great. That being said, it did take me a while to find the right settings for my body. But once I did things were fine. I was not offended by Ford’s “ActiveX” synthetic leather seats and I highly doubt most people will notice or care. They felt good and were a bit firm. The seats felt specifically designed for my 5′ 6″ 145 pound frame. But it should be noted that my 5′ 10″ 215 pound father also liked the seats.
Back seat comfort also impressed. This was mainly due to the Escape’s reclining and sliding rear seats, which allow back seat occupants extra options when finding a good position for themselves.
Toyota Rav4 Interior
Like the Escape, the Rav4 features an abundance of soft touch materials you won’t find in less expensive trims. I especially liked the rubberized knobs for the audio and temperature knobs. Less enjoyable were the constant beeps that sounded every time I did something the Toyota didn’t like. Aside from not sounding as nice as the ones featured in the Escape, the Rav4 felt compelled to BEEEEEEEEEP every time I wanted to exit the powered-down crossover with the windows in any other position than fully up. Apparently, Toyota thinks their customers need a quasi-car alarm noise thrown at them every time they want to let the cabin in their vehicles get some fresh air while they sit in the driveway.
Perhaps my favorite section of the Rav4’s interior was this storage shelf above the glove compartment. It’s handy for storing things and holding phones. Plus, it’s illuminated, at least at night. There’s another little space dug out to the left of the steering wheel but that’s far less useful, as it’s a bit small.
Surprisingly, getting into and out of the Toyota is an experience. The Rav4’s doors are perhaps the heaviest I’ve ever encountered. Or not. Their weight may have felt more substantial because Toyota installed the Rav4’s door handles as far forward as humanly possible. As a result, it requires significantly more effort to pull the doors shut.
Toyota also designed mirror and door lock controls that are too small. They’re more difficult to use than the ones in the Escape. Additionally, Toyota deemed it acceptable to leave the window switch controls unlabeled. This might be okay in a $23,000 Corolla. In a higher end Rav4 though? It’s questionable, at best. Plus, all interior lights in the Rav4 feature traditional incandescent bulbs, as do the exterior fog lights.
Like the Escape, the Rav4 features synthetic leather seating, or in this case, “SofTex” seats. These felt softer to the touch than those in the Ford and less like real leather, but they also failed to convince me that genuine cow hide would be superior. Seat comfort was very good and I was instantly able to feel comfortable in the driver’s seat. They were a bit wide for my frame though. These felt like more traditionally “American” seats than the ones in the Escape, which seemed like thrones more suited for European vehicles. Nothing wrong with either approach, but your mileage may vary.
Rear seat occupants in the Rav4 cannot slide or recline their seats, but legroom is generous.
Ford Escape Infotainment & Technology
All Ford Escape models from SE up feature an 8 inch touchscreen with Sync 3. The system was responsive when called upon to do something and had no problem with my Samsung Galaxy S20+ or my iPod Touch. Voice commands were easy to use and call quality was excellent. Please note that the screen looks good in person – the phone just couldn’t capture the screen in a competent manner.
Ford gets major points for including a USB-A data port in the center storage compartment. This allowed me to keep the iPod plugged in and safe from prying eyes.
There’s also a USB-C data port up front, which I used for my phone when I wanted to use Android Auto. Newer Titanium models have a wireless charging pad to the left of the port, but my loaner was an older 2020 that didn’t have it.
Toyota Rav4 Infotainment & Technology
I’m going to focus on the positive aspects of Toyota’s system first. My phone and iPod worked well with the system and the Rav4 listened to my voice commands.
Unfortunately, the experience is marred by a slow working system that boasts graphics from roughly 2010. The factory navigation is slow and not terribly intuitive. Toyota decided to install buttons around the screen, but a touchscreen interface could easily accommodate those functions if designed correctly, as Ford did with Sync 3. The phone section also requests four favorite contacts to feature prominently, which looks messy and is unnecessary with the advent of voice activated calling.
Toyota installed two USB-A charging ports in the center console that do not connect to the infotainment system. I prefer Ford’s setup in the Escape, as I am one of the 14 people left in America who enjoy having a dedicated music player for specific cravings, and podcasts.
Ford Escape Hybrid Information Systems
Standard on every hybrid Escape is a 12.3 inch digital instrument cluster. It’s a crisp, high resolution display that effectively explains what the hybrid powertrain is doing, or what it will do if throttle inputs increase. While not present in the above picture, there is a blue bar for pure EV operation that expands or contracts based on driving habits. A bracket forms around a portion of that bar to indicate when the gasoline engine will kick in. More on that later.
Owners also have the ability to summon a very slick hybrid information system on the infotainment screen. It will explain why the gasoline engine is on with text below the vehicle graphic. Additionally, the wheels spin when the Escape is in motion.
Toyota Rav4 Hybrid Information Systems
Standard on the XSE Hybrid and unavailable on lower trims is Toyota’s 7 inch digital Multi-Information Display. Physical gauges flank the screen. Unfortunately, the left gauge is completely useless. It’s basically a tachometer without any useful information. It moves up towards the top when you’re on the gas and down when you’re off it. There is no indicator to explain where or when you might trigger the gasoline engine.
As for the digital display, it is a noticeably lower resolution than what Ford equipped in the Escape. To make matters worse, Toyota cluttered up the display with information that’s far too small. And if that’s not enough, Toyota designed a hybrid information system that cannot adequately explain what the hybrid powertrain is doing or how the driver can avoid starting the gasoline engine. Sure, there’s an EcoZone, but it’s just a bar that fills up. There’s no Ford-like bracket to show when the engine will kick on. And if you want to know if the Rav4 is operating in full EV mode, you have to squint to make out the tiny symbol placed awkwardly in the wasted space that is the fake digital semicircle.
Toyota also designed a hybrid information layout in their infotainment system. But again, it doesn’t actually explain why the hybrid is doing certain things.
Ford Escape Driving Dynamics
If you want to know why Ford cancelled their passenger car lineup, you’re looking at it. On the road, the Escape is composed, with a firm suspension setup that easily acquits itself over bumps or road imperfections. It does not isolate you from them, but the chassis is well sorted enough to make rough roads feel smooth. Rough roads fail to stymie the Escape in any meaningful way. The Escape loves tackling twisty roads and is quite willing to take corners a bit faster than drivers normally would. There doesn’t seem to be a comfort penalty for selecting the 19 inch 225/55 tires either, which are optional on the SE Sport and standard on the Titanium.
Steering is electrically assisted but probably about as good as you’ll get in a non-luxury vehicle. Feedback is great and there is progressive buildup when turning the wheel.
The Escape’s driving dynamics should please Focus and Fusion owners, as it apes both of them when it comes to its ride and handling characteristics.
Toyota Rav4 Driving Dynamics
While the Escape can be compared to a seasoned salsa dancer that can effortlessly show off her moves in several minutes or less, the Rav4 is best described as the dedicated student who’s taken every lesson to heart. It does not protest curvy roads but neither does it say it wants more. But it is willing to tackle them. As for steering feel, the system is responsive to inputs but pretty numb in terms of offering feedback.
The big let down here is the suspension. All XSE trimmed models come equipped with a “sport-tuned” suspension. In truth, it feels more like a “sport utility tuned” suspension. The Rav4 bounces over bumps instead of absorbing them and the rear end will move laterally over poorly paved roads. It behaves like a body-on-frame SUV in those respects. But it does drive nicely over smooth roads. I don’t think the 18 inch 225/60 tires helped soften the relatively unsorted suspension. Body roll is also more pronounced in the Rav4.
It should be noted that the Escape might have a built-in handling advantage with its all-wheel drive system. Hybrid Escapes come equipped with virtually the same mechanical all-wheel drive system as the gasoline models. The system can send up to 50 percent of engine power to the rear wheels regardless of whether the front wheels are slipping. By contrast, the Rav4 hybrid uses an electric motor to power the rear wheels. That motor is powered by the battery and can only activate when the system detects the front wheels slipping.
Ford Escape Hybrid Operation
Overall, the Escape’s hybrid system is seamless. Transitions between all-electric and hybrid power aren’t felt. Speaking of power, the Ford offers plenty of it, although acceleration from a stop in certain modes lagged behind the Toyota. Eco and Sport modes felt extremely similar but Sport perfectly mimics a gasoline powered car. In that mode, the Escape accelerates as fast as the Rav4 does in its Normal mode. Ford seems to have programmed the hybrid’s transmission to feel like a traditional automatic in Sport mode too.
The hybrid’s regenerative brakes are extremely grabby and take some getting used to, but the learning curve is small because it’s backed up by actual stopping power. It’s worth noting that Sport mode eliminates the immediately strong braking setup for a more progressive buildup not unlike a non-hybrid car.
When powered on, the engine is barely felt in the cabin, but the 2.5 liter four cylinder is a bit noisy when going up hills.
Toyota Rav4 Hybrid Operation
Like the Escape, the Rav4 seamlessly transitions between EV and hybrid power. Although the Toyota transmitted more engine vibrations into the cabin and the steering wheel. Power is abundant from a stop. Unfortunately, Toyota missed the mark on the brakes. My gut tells me their engineers wanted the brakes to feel as “normal” as possible and as such designed them to feel a bit light. It felt like the regenerative braking system helped recapture energy but failed to actually slow the vehicle down except when pressed hard. Essentially, the Toyota’s regen brakes will feel like they’re slowing down the vehicle but actual stopping power isn’t there. As a result, more braking power is needed right as you’re getting pretty close to the vehicle in front of you. Much to my dismay, abrupt stops were pretty common in the Rav4.
I noticed no difference in power or driving behavior in any of the Rav4’s driving modes.
In terms of powertrain refinement, the Ford and Toyota hybrids are basically equal. They excel in any mode they’re in and are most likely the superior options when compared against their regular gasoline counterparts. As for the all-important gas mileage figures, I averaged 43.9 mpg in the Escape, which you can see above, and 45 mpg in the Toyota, after about 200 miles of driving. Either way, both seemed poised to easily deliver on their EPA rated numbers.
Are there any victors in this match up? I think so. Overall, the Escape is the better hybrid, because it offers drivers actual explanations for how the hybrid powertrain is operating and for disclosing how many miles they’ve traveled under EV power. It also boasts superior driving dynamics. And it’s the better option for those who regularly have rear seat passengers.
That being said, the Toyota is a solid choice for those who just want a fuel-efficient utility vehicle that looks, feels, and operates like a “real” SUV. The Rav4 operates less like a “Rav4 Hybrid” and more like a Rav4 that just so happens to come equipped with a hybrid engine. With a bit more cargo capacity behind the second row, it’s also the better option for people who regularly haul stuff.
If you’re in the market for compact crossover, don’t discount the hybrid variants. And if you’re convinced that an Escape or Rav4 hybrid is in your future, make sure you test drive the other one first. Heck, if any of you are looking for a new vehicle priced between $28,000-$38,000, these need to be on your list.
Toyota loaned me the Rav4 XSE Hybrid for one week. It was the same situation with the Ford. Each came with a full tank of gas.
Additionally, I had a two day overlap with both vehicles.