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
RAV4-AWD-05

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

83 comments

  1. Hi David,

    I have bought used RAV4 2014 AWD. how could i know which variant is this? how is the fuel consumption per km (Pertrol)?

      1. Hi Ahmed,
        The vehicle is an ASA44 RAV4 and the full Katashiki of the vehicle is ASA44L-ANTXKV. It is fitted with the 2AR-FE engine. We hope this answers your question.

      2. Hi Ella,

        Thank for quick response, what about the fuel average. how many kilometers per liter?

      3. Hi Ahmed,
        Please could you provide us with your registration number? Many thanks.

  2. HELLO, MY NAME IS TARA I BOUGHT A USED 1999 RAV 4 IN GREAT CONDITION BTW, BUT I AM HAVING TROUBLE UNDERSTANDING IF MY MODEL HAS 4WD THERE IS NOTHING THAT STATES THAT IT DOES BUT MY MANUAL AND GOOGLE SAYS I DO. IT IS A 1999 RAV 4 SUV HARDTOP 4DR.

    1. Hi Tara,
      Thanks for getting in contact with us and sorry for the delay. Please could you provide your reg or VIN number so we can look into this further. Many thanks.

    1. Hi Georgia,
      Thanks for getting in touch. There’s a button on the lower part of the dashboard that when pressed, turns on the sport light.
      Thanks.

  3. Hi . I have a 2006 rav 4. Is my car always in 4wd. I wanted to take it on the beach. Do u ingage it by pressing the lock button or is that just to give it a extra boost. I noticed in the winter that the lockbuttonwould shut off if the roads were clear or i put on the brake. Chris scanlan

    1. Hi Christine,

      Thanks for getting in touch. Could you please provide the reg or VIN of the vehicle so that we can assist you further.

      Thanks.

      1. Hi Chris,

        Thanks for getting in touch. Could you please provide us with your registration number and we can look into this further for you?

        Thanks.

  4. Called into a Toyota dealer in Lancaster, UK, today to ask how the hybrid Rav 4 works. He told me thate there are 4 electric motors on the car, one on each wheel. This clearly isn’t the case!

    1. Hi Steve,

      Thanks for getting in touch and we apologise that you have been given the incorrect information. In regards to the 2019 RAV4, the electric all-wheel drive system generates drive torque using power from the hybrid vehicle system and an additional motor generator on the rear axle. This design reduces energy losses, saves weight and optimises AWD operation in different driving conditions.

      Compared to the previous model, the level of torque that can be directed to the rear wheels has been increased by 30%, enabling a front/rear split from 100:0 to up to 20:80, depending on driving conditions. Maximum torque to the rear wheels has increased, matching or even bettering that achieved by mechanical systems and giving more surefooted performance.

      We hope this helps.

  5. Hi,

    I am looking for a Rav4 Hybrid 4×4 of make 2016 or later. Which are the models which come with 4×4 option.

    Thanks,
    Vik

    1. Hi Vik,

      Thanks for getting in touch. The all new RAV4 is available in AWD-i with a 2.5 Petrol Hybrid powertrain, you can read more about the stylish exterior and interior craftsmanship here: https://www.toyota.co.uk/new-cars/rav4/. Alternatively, there is a variety of 4X4 RAV4 available as Toyota approved used cars, see more here: https://www.toyota.co.uk/used-cars/. If you need any further help, please do get in touch and we will be happy to assist you further.

      Thanks.

  6. Given that the hybrid AWD is pure electric, what happens if the battery is low on charge? Will the AWD stop?

    1. Hi there,

      Thanks for getting in touch. The Hybrid battery will always remain sufficiently charged to power the AWD.

      Thanks.

  7. Hi I have Toyota rav 4 Awd is there any option I can drive the car on front wheel drive whenever I can not on All wheel

    1. Hi there,

      Thanks for getting in touch. The system generates drive torque using power from the hybrid vehicle system and an additional motor generator on the rear axle. This design reduces energy losses, saves weight and optimises AWD operation in different driving conditions.

      The level of torque that can be directed to the rear wheels has been increased by 30% on the new RAV4, enabling a front/rear split from 100:0 to up to 20:80, depending on driving conditions. Maximum torque to the rear wheels has increased, matching or even bettering that achieved by mechanical systems and giving more surefooted performance, such as when pulling away on loose, slippery surfaces. Therefore, when the vehicle doesn’t need to be AWD, it will be front wheel drive.

      We hope this helps.

  8. Is it possible to break the Centre Differential if it is accidentally left on and, at low speed on a sealed road, the driver turns a tight corner? Never exceeding 25kmh or touching the break. I want to purchase a used RAV4 and am concerned about how to check the Centre Diff has not been damaged or abused.

  9. Hi Roy,

    Thanks for getting in touch. If you could please provide a VIN number for the vehicle that you are looking at purchasing, we will be able to assist you further.

    Thanks.

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