WAY back in 1994, when Toyota introduced the Rav4, it was a simple, rugged three-door affair that was destined to enhance the company’s reputation for reliable motoring and getting the job done.

The beauty of the Rav4 was that it was a relatively small 4x4 vehicle with a no-nonsense attitude. More than six million have since been sold worldwide and 90 per cent are still on the road.

Fast forward to 2016 and Toyota launched a new Rav4 range that saw the introduction of its first petrol-electric full hybrid model, a revised exterior and interior styling and new equipment grades and features. It’s a much plusher affair with a cleaner powertrain, and virtually unrecognisable compared with what we saw in the mid-nineties.

By the middle of last year, two thirds of Rav4 sales in the UK were hybrids, combining a 2.5-litre petrol unit with a powerful electric motor in both front and all-wheel drive configurations, the latter equipped with Toyota’s E-Four system, which uses a second electric motor at the rear to provide automatic electronic all-wheel drive for greater traction on loose or slippery surfaces.

But punters not only demanded cleaner engines, they wanted more comfort and gadgets too. Toyota’s answer was to improve the ride comfort, quieten the drive, refresh the styling and bring in some new technology. Added to that was a suite of safety and driver assistance features under the banner of Safety Sense.

Central to this was the introduction of a 4.2-inch multi-information display in the centre of the instrument binnacle and a seven-inch full-colour central touchscreen that gives access to the Toyota Touch 2 multimedia system.

From niche model to global car, Toyota can rightfully claim to have created the compact SUV market with the launch of the first Rav4 – Recreational Active Vehicle with 4-wheel Drive. This first “urban 4x4” was powered by a relatively small, transverse-mounted 2.0-litre engine and was designed with a monocoque body with independent suspension all round.

Where early customers often bought a compact SUV as an alternative to sporting hatchbacks and coupes, today they are more the choice of families looking for a more engaging and fashionable alternative to MPVs and estate cars.

The new hybrid version is the most powerful yet to be sold in Europe. It brings together strong not only improved driving dynamics but also a sequential Shiftmatic gear change and a sport driving mode for a more rewarding experience.

Couple that with the E-Four system and you also have an electronic all-wheel drive capability to give extra traction and a 1,650kg towing capacity.

The key figures are impressive: a power output 195bhp, an official fuel economy figure of about 57mpg, 0 to 62mph acceleration in 8.4 seconds and CO2 emissions from 115g/km.

Toyota has paid particular attention to the driving dynamics, increasing the body rigidity and revising the suspension. The result of the greater stiffness is not just increased stability, but also, with improved harshness damping, a better ride quality.

You will notice how much quieter the Rav4 is these days, even if you don’t opt for the hybrid version. That’s because Toyota has spent well on sound insulation to deter road, tyre and engine noise in the cabin.

Toyota Safety Sense comes as standard on all Rav4 models the bar entry-level Active, where it is available as an option. Features include a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, lane departure alert, road sign assist, and automatic high beam.

The Rav4 remains a very practical, multi-purpose car. It just feels and drives that much better, and if hybrid motoring is your bag in an SUV package then be sure to put it on your shopping list.