How do the Toyota RAV4 all-wheel drive systems work?

Toyota RAV4 driving off-road

From its introduction in 1994, the Toyota RAV4 was never designed to compete with the off-road capabilities of its Hilux and Land Cruiser siblings. The model name is a contraction of Recreational Active Vehicle with four-wheel drive – a description that identifies the RAV4 as a lifestyle vehicle with the additional benefit of some all-wheel drive performance.

To dismiss the fourth-generation Toyota RAV4 as an urban-only SUV undersells the sophistication of its chassis. Its ability off the beaten track comes courtesy of two different optional all-wheel drive systems designed to keep you safe, under control and mobile in conditions that would likely be impossible in a traditional car.

Let’s take a closer look at these two systems. We begin with the most popular E-Four electronic system found in all-wheel drive RAV4 Hybrid models, followed by the mechanical system found in traditional all-wheel drive petrol and diesel models.

Toyota RAV4 Hybrid E-Four all-wheel drive

In addition to the familiar Toyota Hybrid engine and motor powering the front wheels, models with E-Four all-wheel drive employ a second, rear-mounted electric motor to power the rear wheels. This allows torque to be distributed between all four wheels, improving grip and stability.

In normal driving, all of the car’s power is sent through the front wheels as this is the most fuel-efficient use of the energy. The RAV4’s electronic control unit constantly monitors data such as vehicle speed, accelerator angle and wheel speed to calculate the optimal spread of torque. If it detects a need for more torque at the rear (such as if the front wheels are slipping), it instructs the rear motor to send a precise level of torque to the rear wheels to make up the shortfall.

Up to 60% of the car’s total power can be sent to the rear axle. So when you’re pulling away, going up a hill or driving on a low-traction surface, having a measure of torque delivered to the rear wheels makes it easier to set off in a controlled manner. The E-Four system can also shuffle torque delivery across both axles to deliver a sportier, more assured driving experience.

Toyota RAV4 Hybrid tows a trailer off-road

Towing capacity more than doubles if you opt for a RAV4 Hybrid with E-Four all-wheel drive. Front-wheel drive models can tow up to 800kg but models with E-Four all-wheel drive can tow 1,650kg.

Toyota RAV4 mechanical all-wheel drive

The fourth-generation RAV4 features a programme that co-ordinates every function of the four-wheel drive system, stability control system and electric power steering. Compared with the all-wheel drive setup in the third-generation RAV4, this new management system does not always need to rely on slip detection before deciding on the distribution of torque to each wheel.

Toyota RAV4 Hybrid drives along gravel lane

The driver has the option to come out of this default setting and increase the level of the system’s interaction by engaging Sport mode, activated by a button in the centre console. Like a heightened level of awareness, this mode sends data to the relevant ECU from sensors monitoring vehicle speed, steering angle, throttle input and yaw rate, which the programme then uses to determine the proportion of torque to send to the rear wheels.

Toyota RAV4 4-wheel-drive 1

This is physically actioned by varying the strength of electric current heading into an electro-magnetic solenoid in the control coupling located ahead of the rear differential (see image above). Depending on driving conditions, the amount of torque being directed into the differential can vary by as much as 50%, from the car being entirely front-wheel drive for optimum fuel efficiency to an equal sharing of torque between the two axles.

Four-wheel drive system Toyota RAV4

So accurate is the monitoring of vehicle behaviour that the shuffle of torque between the axles will have already started before any slip or understeer is detected. From the moment the steering is turned, the system automatically adjusts to a 90:10 front/rear torque distribution, priming the car to deliver optimal cornering poise and grip. This simultaneously reduces the load on the front wheels and the likelihood of experiencing understeer.

Should the cornering force go on to exceed the car’s adhesion to the road surface, however, yaw rate controls react within milliseconds to instruct the system to apply up to 50% of the available torque to the rear wheels to improve grip.

Four-wheel drive system Toyota RAV4

There are times, such as in snow or on steep gravel tracks, when the driver will know before even setting off that grip levels will be poor. In this instance, it is possible to maximise grip by locking the torque distribution in a 50:50 ratio at speeds up to 25mph. This locked function is activated simply by pressing a button to the left of the steering column, which then illuminates a discreet warning light above the fuel gauge.

Toyota RAV4 all-wheel drive systems: conclusion

Thanks to a minimum ground clearance of 187mm and relatively short overhangs, the fourth-generation RAV4 is capable of riding over heavily rutted tracks and clambering over relatively large obstacles. So although the RAV4 may be categorised as a modern soft-roader, its adoption of Toyota’s technology and four-wheel drive expertise means the RAV4 is anything but ‘soft’.

2014 Toyota RAV4 all-wheel drive badge


  1. Is there a difference in the ride of different years? I am getting a Rav4 2016 is it a good year?

    1. Hi Debra,
      Thanks for your comment.
      We would always recommend test driving the vehicle to make sure that it is suitable for your needs.

      1. Hi Matt,
        Further information will be available in your owner’s manual for your specific model.
        Please let us know if you have any further questions.

  2. I have a U.S. spec RAV4, 4WD, V6. I was wondering how good is this models off road capabilities? It does have a locking center differential.
    Greg Murakami

    1. Hi Greg,
      Thanks for your comment.
      We are only able to advise on UK specification Toyota vehicles.
      Please contact Toyota in your region for further assistance.

  3. Hi
    Ive been offered a 2019 RAV4 by a dealer. He says it’s all wheel drive, but it’s the 219 bhp engine. I thought the AWD models were 222 bhp. How can I check? If I provide the ref no and/or VIN no are you able to check for me?

      1. Hi Ian,
        If you can provide the vehicle registration number then we can look into this for you.

  4. Hi. I have just had new tyres fitted all round on my 2015 Rav 4 AWD Petrol Invincible.
    After 500 miles of travel I have picked up a screw in the n/side rear tyre.
    I understand that it is suggested that tyres should be replaced in axel pairs. would the amount of difference in wear between the remaining 500 mile rear and another new same spec tyre be of any consequence when the effect on the AWD system is considered.

    1. Hi there,
      Thanks for your comment.
      We would recommend contacting your Toyota Centre, they would be best placed to advise on the most suitable repair.

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