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Toyota RAV4 driving.

We’re behind the wheel of our Toyota RAV4 long-term test vehicle and just looked at the instrument cluster’s mpg reading. It’s showing 43 mpg toward the end of our 150 mile cruise on the 101 freeway along California’s Central Coast. There was no traffic to speak of, so we had kept our ride at a fairly steady state around 65-70 mph, reasonable for this stretch of California highway though far short of the much faster speeds and stop-and-start driving experienced in Southern California.

The surprise? This welcome fuel efficiency was achieved without hybrid or plug-in power. We were piloting a Toyota RAV4 XLE crossover powered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that, at the time we started our adventure, came with a manufacturer’s suggested price of $29,085, topping out at $33,987 after options. Adding to the surprise is that EPA rates this RAV4 at 34 mpg on the highway and 27 mpg in the city. We were beating that by a long shot, not through crazy hypermiling techniques but simply by easy driving without unnecessary bursts of acceleration or driving at higher speeds.

Instrument panel showing high fuel efficiency.

Toyota RAV4 Efficiency

Look, reality check: While that kind of better-than-EPA fuel efficiency can’t be expected as a matter of course – because, let’s face it, we aren’t always driving traffic-free and there are times when we want to go fast – it is possible, as our experience showed. There is a lesson here for anyone who wants to optimize efficiency and lessen their carbon emissions while driving conventional vehicles. High fuel efficiency is out there for those who actively seek it.

During our drives, the RAV4 consistently delivered all the power we needed, seamlessly delivered to pavement through an 8-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission. Riding on independent MacPherson strut suspension up front with multi-link suspension at the rear, we found ride and handling on the money, as we would expect from Toyota. Along the way we have also appreciated filling up with regular 87 octane gas rather than the premium that some models require, which costs up to 35 to 40 cents per gallon more than regular grade in our area.

Interior of Toyota RAV4 crossover SUV.

A Comfortable Cabin

Inside this RAV4 is a well-appointed interior with an 8 inch multimedia touch display offering Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. Nicely bolstered seats provide plenty of comfort as the miles drift by. While our RAV4 came with cloth seats and we prefer leather (or these days, artificial leather), Toyota’s SofTex synthetic leather seating only comes with the uplevel XLE Premium trim at nearly $3,000 more, so cloth it is. Hauling life’s usual stuff is well handled with 37 cubic feet of storage behind the rear seat and 70 cubic feet total with the rear seat folded.

Cloth seats aside, our only complaint, and it’s a mild one, is the RAV4’s stop-start system sometimes engages a bit too abruptly from a stop, something we have experienced in other models with stop-start functionality as well. We chalk that up to the quest for maximum efficiency as the engine is shut down after a pause when stopped, then automatically started again when the brake pedal is released.

Dependable and Affordable

After six months in our long-term test fleet and some 5,000 miles on the odometer, we can say this: Toyota’s RAV4 is a rock-solid choice for those looking to drive a conventionally powered small SUV at a price a great many can afford. We still find ourselves beating EPA mpg estimates by at least a few mpg if we’re focused, but most of the time we are in the range of the 27 to 34 mpg efficiency expected of this model, depending on whether we’re doing city or highway driving. We’re pretty enthused with our daily drives in this RAV4 test car and looking forward to sharing our continuing  experiences in the months ahead.

Toyota's sleek Sienna minivan.

Toyota’s Sienna minivan is a winner…literally. Introduced as an all-new generation last year, the Sienna has continued into the 2022 model year with few changes other than the notable addition of an adventure-focused Woodland Edition, because honestly, no changes were needed. Sienna is a standout, distinguished as Green Car Journal’s 2021 Family Green Car of the Year™ in its launch year with a back-to-back win as 2022 Family Green Car of the Year™ this year. Green Car Journal had the opportunity to live with the Sienna over the course of a long-term test and found this vehicle indispensable for daily activities.

A look back at the van field’s interesting history lends some perspective on the Sienna’s accomplishment. Green Car Journal editors have a long relationship with vans, from the very beginning of the custom van era in the 1970s to the introduction of the minivan in 1984, then onward as the van field evolved. Stylistically, vans were often boxes on wheels since their mission was function rather than form. Full-size vans were made for work, though many found alternative lives as wild customs or camper vans over the years.

Compared to full-size vans, minivans have a more streamlined purpose. Since the minivan’s introduction, its job has been to conveniently transport families for whatever need, from everyday trips to school, weekend games, or the supermarket to long-distance road trips and quick-weekend getaways. Offering versatile two- or three-row seating to provide options for families of all sizes, minivans also deliver a comfortable riding experience since they feature passenger car-like unibody construction.

While changing exterior designs have been explored over the years and there were some notably futuristic-looking ones that didn’t catch on, most minivans have been predictably straightforward. Their makers focused on elements like family-friendly features, loads of seating, and convenient pass-through access between the seats so parents could tend to the needs of their small passengers in the second or third rows. Designers didn’t devote a lot of attention to soul-stirring style. Over time, families in increasing numbers moved on to sportier SUVs.

Toyota Sienna hybrid's angular front end.

Segue ahead and you’ll see how things have changed, with this change no more striking than the image presented by Toyota’s fourth-generation Sienna minivan. Toyota designers aimed high, giving the all-new minivan crisply-chiseled features with well-placed angles and curves, along the way creating a shape and a feel that’s pleasingly aggressive, sporty, and sophisticated for a minivan.

At the front, a large signature grille is striking but not overdone, complemented by angled, wrap-around headlights and a hard-edged lower air dam with LED lights. This sculpted design continues along the sides with angled rocker panels and a distinctive shoulder line. At the rear, there’s an artful blending of curves and angles with a distinctive and integrated spoiler. Matte black accents and darkly-tinted windows add to the Sienna’s sporty persona.

Inside is a spacious and accommodating interior great for daily family duties or longer-distance cruising. The driver is treated to an 8-way adjustable seat with lumbar control while the passenger gets a 4-way adjustable seat. An array of pushbutton controls along the dash complement controls within the vehicle’s 9-inch infotainment touch screen, which is compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The instrument panel includes a 7-inch color multi-information display that shows hybrid system output and encourages efficiency driving. A whopping 14 cupholders are strategically placed throughout with eight accessible to the driver and passenger – two always present and visible in the center console, two beneath a lift-up console panel ahead of the gear shift, and two each in the driver and passenger doors.

All the latest safety and driver assist systems are provided with Toyota’s Safety Sense 2.0 suite of active safety features. Among these are dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist, pre-collision system with pedestrian and low-light detection, lane trace assist, and road sign assist. Also included as standard equipment is Toyota’s Star Safety System offering brake assist and smart stop, enhanced stability control, traction control, and more.

Seating and storage configurations and options are impressive with seven or eight passenger seating available. Second row seats can slide forward and back or recline, with either folding forward to allow access to the third row through powered sliding doors at either side. Privacy screens lift up at each sliding side door window as needed. Rear air conditioning controls are conveniently located on a ceiling panel at the mid-row. While not in our tester, there’s the option for heated second row captain’s chairs with ottomans and super-long slide adjustment, a real luxury feature for minivans. Recognizing that today’s minivan passengers want to be connected, an array of mini-USB and other power ports are located strategically throughout the interior.

Stowing family gear and transporting requisite necessities from home improvement centers is easy. When additional seating isn’t needed, the third row can fold down for more stowage behind the second row, or fold forward vertically to offer storage on the seatback with a deep rear storage well in the floor behind. For large or bulky items, Sienna’s second and third row seats can fold to deliver a flat load floor from behind the front seats to the rear liftgate.

The Sienna is a joy to drive. It’s quiet, offers confident handling, and all the power you need courtesy of its Toyota Hybrid System II powerplant that integrates a 2.5-liter engine and a pair of electric motors energized by a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack. This 243 horsepower hybrid system, the exclusive powertrain in the Sienna, connects to a constantly variable transmission with sequential shift mode. This delivers an EPA estimated 36 combined mpg in front-wheel drive Siennas, dropping slightly to 35 combined mpg on electronic all-wheel drive models. Three driving modes – Normal, Eco, and Sport – are driver selectable to tailer the driving experience.

This power enables additional functionality like the Sienna’s ability to tow up to 3500 pounds when equipped with an available tow hitch. Also available is a factory optional 120-volt AC outlet and 1500 watt inverter for power at campsites or other uses.

Our thousands of miles behind the wheel of the Toyota Sienna illustrated that this is no mere minivan. Sienna is a champion of family transport, a minivan presented in the guise of a long and low – and might we say quite stylish – luxury sedan that happens to feature three-row seating and a pair of power sliding side doors. Not once did we feel our sporting image challenged during our drives . In fact, along our travels we received many compliments on the Sienna's styling and also its distinctive Sunset Bronze Mica exterior.

In the not-so-distant past, if you were driving a minivan of any kind then you pretty much felt like you were driving…a minivan. Your role was clear: parent, family man, soccer mom, a person whose identity was defined by responsibility and not by your cool or sporty nature. Remember that time-worn adage, “You are what you drive?” By that measure, every time we carved a crisp turn, drove in welcome comfort, monitored our impressive mpg, or pulled up to any venue in our stylish Sienna we were driving in high style and feeling mighty sporty, indeed.

honda-ridgeline-frontWe’ve been driving Honda’s second-generation Ridgeline for some 10,000 miles now and have to say it has certainly got our attention. Actually, it first raised its profile with us in a big way as the Ridgeline beat out some pretty high-profile pickup competition when named Green Car Journal’s 2017 Green Truck of the Year™ at the San Antonio Auto & Truck Show. Over the months it has definitely lived up to all expectations.

The thing about the Ridgeline is that it’s a truck in every way – functional, durable, and capable in every respect – but there’s no ride penalty at all. It’s not that modern body-on-frame pickups haven’t come a long way over the years. They have, in meaningful ways that have brought much-improved ride and handling to the breed, to the point where pickups have become a second ‘car’ for countless families from rural environs to city streets.

honda-ridgeline-instrument-panelStill, the Ridgeline is different since it shares the Honda Pilot SUV’s lightweight and rugged unibody construction. Because of this the Ridgeline rides like a car rather than a truck, even as it delivers traditional pickup styling, a 1500-pound cargo capacity with its 5.3-foot cargo box, and up to 5,000 pounds of towing capability. We can’t overstate how important this may be to buyers who want the traditional capabilities offered by pickups but desire the ride comfort and handling of a car.

Also important is the Ridgeline’s impressive power and handling. Its 3.5-liter V-6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission have consistently provided all the power needed under the varied driving conditions we’ve experienced over the months. The Ridgeline has delivered fuel efficiency pretty consistent with its EPA estimates of 19 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway, driving on regular 87 octane fuel. The pickup’s 19.5-gallon fuel tank provides about 370 to 450 miles of driving between fill-ups, depending on the mix of city/highway travel and driving habits.

ridgeline-seats-folded-up-1Our long-term test example is the Ridgeline Black Edition, which provides a sharp black exterior, wheels, and interior along with an array of added niceties plus all-wheel drive, the latter an important feature to those who often drive in less-than-desirable weather conditions. Like all other Ridgelines, our Black Edition is a four-door crew cab with seating for five and plenty of interior room. Especially welcome are the split fold-up rear seats that allow for configuring the rear area for people, cargo, or both as needed.

Featuring the same kind of highly-desired on-board electronics and connectivity as passenger cars and crossover/SUVs is also important to a pickup’s success story, and we’ve found the Ridgeline to definitely deliver here. The Black Edition is equipped with Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Keeping Assist, Blind Spot Information System with Cross Traffic Monitor, and more. An 8-inch touchscreen display features Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and HondaLink satellite navigation with voice recognition. We have benefitted from all of these save for Android Auto, since our crew carries iPhones.

honda-ridgeline-tailgateAlong with all this, we’ve been enjoying some of the Ridgeline’s unique features during our regular commutes and road trips. We can’t say enough about the dual-action tailgate that either drops down or swings to the side as needed, with the swing-out action our default 90 percent of the time. The lockable trunk in the truck bed is also a favorite for stashing all kinds of necessities for our drives.

We’ll follow up with a wrap-up of our long-term test experience with the Honda Ridgeline soon, so stay tuned.

chevrolet-volt-frontChevrolet’s Volt continues to be a milestone vehicle in the increasingly crowded plug-in hybrid field. While GM officially calls the Volt an extended range electric car, it’s technically a plug-in series hybrid since it operates with its engine generating electricity rather than powering the drive wheels. It’s distinguished for plenty of reasons, not the least of which is its 53-mile all-electric driving range before reverting to electric power from its 1.5-liter DOHC engine-generator, which delivers a total 420 mile driving range.

That 53-mile battery electric range is just one of the reasons the Volt is a standout. With the exception of Honda’s new Clarity Plug-In that achieves 47 miles on battery power before reverting to hybrid operation, no other plug-in hybrid competitors come close. Before the Clarity, the best PHEV competitors were able to offer 25 to 33 all-electric miles, with most achieving significantly less.

chevrolet-volt-power-displayGreen Car Journal editors spent a year and just over 20,000 miles behind the wheel of Chevy’s Volt, allowing plenty of time to experience life with this extended range electric under varying driving conditions. One thing continually stood out: Having this kind of battery electric range meant most of our daily drives were spent entirely in electric mode with zero emissions. When heading off to nearby cities beyond the Volt’s battery range or during our numerous road trips, it was comforting to know there was no limit to the distance we could drive with the car’s engine-generator at the ready.

The Volt drives confidently, and silently, with refined road matters and passenger comfort we came to appreciate on drives long and short. The changeover once batteries are depleted does bring a different feel since the engine-generator is more noticeable than engines in a typical plug-in hybrid, but not so much that we gave it a second thought during our drives.

chevrolet-volt-cabinWelcome features are replete in the Volt, from a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot, LCD instrument cluster, and 8-inch center touchscreen display to MyLink infotainment and advanced driver assist systems. Thoughtful touches like a heated steering wheel and heated front and rear seats help cinch the deal in cold weather driving.

It’s tough to find fault with the Volt since Chevrolet really did an exceptional job with this car. If we had one wish, it would be for a slightly more accommodating rear seat. The first-generation Volt was a four-seater since the car’s battery storage configuration meant a console was at the center of the rear seat, with batteries beneath. The rear seat in the second-generation Volt left the rear console behind in lieu of a center seat position, although it’s clearly better suited for a child than an adult. No matter…we’re happy with the change.

chevrolet-volt-chargeportAfter 20,000 miles on the road, this was one long-term test car that was hard to give up. Our positive experience over our year of driving remains with us and, like every Volt owner we’ve run across, we can only heartily recommend this car.


driving-ridgeline-on-trailLong-term tests allow really getting to know a vehicle, and the 2017 Honda Ridgeline in our test fleet is no exception. We’ve spent some 5,000 miles behind the wheel now under varying driving conditions. Plenty of these miles have been in city driving with commuting duty and road trips thrown in for good measure.

We have enjoyed all those miles. The Ridgeline’s efficient i-VTEC 3.5-liter V-6 benefits from direct-injection and variable-cylinder management to increase efficiency, making 280 horsepower along the way. This provides all the performance we’ve demanded from the pickup and it’s never left us wanting for more.

honda-ridgeline-front-image-1Honda provides an option to enhance fuel economy by activating the Ridgeline’s ECON button, although this does diminish performance somewhat and also scales back some other systems in its mission to increase efficiency. The front-wheel drive 2017 Ridgeline is EPA rated at 19 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway, with a combined estimate of 22 mpg. Our Ridgeline Black Edition is an AWD model and sacrifices a bit of efficiency for the capability, offering an EPA estimated 18 city and 25 highway mpg, with a combined average of 21 mpg. Overall, with our combination of city and highway driving we have been averaging combined fuel economy of 20.9 mpg.

We’ll trade the AWD variant’s 1 mpg loss for the additional traction and functionality, though. While we haven’t had the occasion to ford streams or slog through snow, we have spent time traversing dusty ranch roads and occasional wet pavement, and we do appreciate the extra bit of confidence that AWD delivers.

driving-honda-ridgelineSeating in the Ridgeline gets high marks. The pickup’s front bucket seats are comfortable and supportive. In the rear, we’re big fans of the split and fold-up seats that make this truck even more functional with their ability to reconfigure for people and gear as needed. Even with the seats down, there’s extra space beneath the seats for stowing gear. Plus, of course there’s the Ridgeline’s  53-inch pickup bed and unique tailgate that either drops down or swings out for easy access.

And did we mention our Ridgeline’s truck bed audio system? Those into tailgating will find this system fascinating. Honda has made the pickup bed’s side panels act as speaker baffles to produce some pretty quality sounds. Plus, Honda has built in another handy feature in the pickup box, in the form of a lockable trunk in the bed floor. After months of everyday driving in our Ridgeline tester, it’s hard to imagine how we could do without this handy trunk feature…or for that matter, how other competitive pickup owners could do without one as well.