Honda & Toyota Doubled the Fuel Economy of the American Family Car with CR-V and RAV4

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The Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 have seen their mileage increase by 100% in two decades. Here’s how Honda and Toyota doubled the fuel economy of the top-selling American family vehicles.

2020 Honda CR-V Hybrid

Over the past two decades, Toyota and Honda have doubled the fuel economy of the American family car. Not only have they doubled the fuel economy, but they also made the family car into a family vehicle with more room, superior safety, and dramatically more power and torque.

CR-V and RAV4 History

The Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 both debuted in America in the late 1990s. The RAV4 beat the CR-V to market here by about a year, but both had been running around in Japan for about 18 months longer. On a business trip your author made during that period, the “car guys” I was working with, all engineers like myself were amazed anyone would want such a thing. This was the era of low-slung Nissan Skylines and Toyota Supras grabbing headlines. How wrong we were. Both immediately rocketed to the top of the family-segment sales charts. In its first full year of sales, Honda sold more than 100,000 CR-Vs in the U.S.

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Crossovers Become The Family Vehicle

The crossover has become the American family car, and no vehicle class is larger than the compact crossover segment that is defined by the RAV4 and CR-V. Together they hold the title for top overall crossover sales including fleet sales (RAV4) and the top-selling retail crossover sold to private individuals and families (CR-V). They outsell sedans, outsell all of the larger crossovers and SUVs by a country mile, and even outsell truck models purchased for use as family vehicles.

When first introduced, the RAV4 and CR-V really were compact, in the sense that we normally think of the word. Today’s RAV4 and CR-V have evolved into larger, more comfortable, dramatically safer vehicles with far greater “performance.” For example, the 1997 RAV4 had a weight of about 2,700 pounds. Today a RAV4 Hybrid AWD weighs in at about 3,800 pounds. On the power side, the initial RAV4s had a small four-cylinder engine that produced 120 hp. Today’s RAV4 Hybrid has 219 hp. The CR-V’s specifications follow suit. Nobody is really surprised when new vehicles gain a bit of size and power as they enter new model years and new generations. What most folks don’t realize is that along with this growth in power and weight, automakers have been slashing fuel consumption and emissions.

Related Story: “Compact” Crossovers Are Actually The Opposite of Compact

Hybrid Trims Of The CR-V and RAV4

Both the 2020 RAV4 and CR-V will be offered in hybrid trims as their “top-trims.” These will be both the most powerful and also most fuel-efficient of the various trims offered by Honda and Toyota. Toyota’s 2019 RAV4 Hybrid, which comes standard with all-wheel drive, has already been rated by the EPA and it earns a Combined 40 MPG. Honda’s new CR-V Hybrid has just been launched and Honda says the vehicle will have “50% higher city mileage.” Expect it to also be right around 40 MPG in Combined fuel economy. These numbers are double the 20 MPG that the first versions of these vehicles earned. Wondering what the fuel economy of family sedans in 1997 was? The ’97 Camry had a combined rating ranging from 19 MPG to 23 MPG depending on options. Add to the MPG improvements by the CR-V and RAV4 much stronger crash protection, active safety systems, and infotainment we could only dream about back in the pre-iPhone era.

2020 Honda CR-V Hybrid

Vehicle Prices Decline Over Time

Ready for another shocker? The starting price of a 1997 Honda CR-V was about $20,000. That is about $31,000 in today’s dollars. Today’s CR-V starts at about $26K and is less expensive than the original when one factors in inflation. This is not unusual. Despite the many misleading click-bait headlines that ignore inflation, vehicle costs have been dropping or staying steady, despite massive content improvements.

Hybrid Drive Is Now Commonplace

So how did Toyota and Honda double the fuel economy of their vehicles? The answer is they used hybrid technology. Heck, even without the hybrid drivetrains fuel economy has increased by about 50% for these vehicles. However, it is the energy from regenerative braking that really packs the MPG punch. Improved transmissions, engines, and aerodynamics help – a lot. But the energy gained back from recapturing the brake energy that is otherwise lost helps hybrids dramatically boost fuel economy. And increases torque. And adds power. Regenerative braking is part of the magic of battery-electric vehicles as well. Without it, their range would be much lower and they would not be practical.

Hybrid technology has matured. Toyota is in its third decade of the Prius now. Acura’s halo car, the NSX, is a hybrid. Jeep’s Wrangler has a hybrid engine. The Dodge Ram has a hybrid engine. If you haven’t shopped for a vehicle recently, you may still remember hybrids as low-volume “special-order” trims rarely seen on the showroom floor. The exact opposite is true at Toyota and Honda. Toyota sold 49,481 RAV4s in August. Of those, 13,881 were RAV4 Hybrids. And dealers are short of inventory the Hybrid is so popular. Here’s another way to look at hybrid popularity. The RAV4 Hybrid outsold every electric car model in America last month. Hybrid sales are accelerating as EV sales have dropped back.

What’s Next For America Family Car MPG

The American family car’s fuel economy has doubled in the past two decades. So what does the future hold for these vehicles? If other model lines are our guide, the next step would be for Toyota and Honda to add a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle trim to the line. These PHEVs, as they are called, can work on gasoline alone, so range is never an issue. In fact, the RAV4 Hybrid has a 580-mile range, almost double what most sedans offer. The PHEV versions of these vehicles will allow an owner to plug the vehicle in at night or when power is available and draw enough juice to propel the vehicle using electricity for about 30 miles, after which it operates on gas like any other hybrid. That boosts overall fuel economy to as high as 100 MPGe in some models. MPGe is a metric the EPA and EV owners use to compare mileage to gas-only vehicles. So, rather than slowing down after doubling, watch for America’s top-selling family vehicles to again more than double their fuel economy in the next generation of the RAV4 and CR-V.

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John Goreham

John Goreham

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