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2019 Toyota RAV4 Test Drive Review
The RAV4 is one of the cornerstones of the small SUV market. For 2019, it gets bold new styling, new tech, and even a bit of off-road cred.
There’s a reason small SUVs like the 2019 Toyota RAV4 are among the most popular vehicles on the new car market. Consider the RAV4 and its rivals, the Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-5, and Ford Escape—what do they have in common? To put it simply, these vehicles are asked to do it all. Daily commuter car? Check. Family-hauler to school, practice, and the mall? Check, check, and check. Road-trip vehicle? Yeah, that too. On top of it all, these vehicles have to be affordable, efficient, and reliable. Sales of traditional sedans have been dwindling, but if sedans could do as much as crossovers can, they would still be popular vehicles.
The RAV4 is one of the oldest vehicles in the segment, and its story tells us how these small SUVs became so popular. The previous RAV4 was an extremely competent vehicle for Toyota, covering all the things we ask of compact SUVs. But the new 2020 RAV4 goes a few steps further. It has standout Tonka-truck styling, a surprisingly upscale interior, and something that it had lost since debuting more than two decades ago: a bit of off-road ability. We’ll see whether this makes it better than the RAV4 it replaces, and if it allows the 2020 RAV4 to stand out in a crowded small SUV market.
Look and Feel
The first thing you’ll notice about the new RAV4 is the way it looks. The big, chunky design and sharp edges clearly take inspiration from the Toyota Tacoma pickup. It’s aggressive and futuristic and conveys a certain strength. This is consistent along the side-profile styling, and even out to the back, where the taillights seem inspired by Toyota’s luxury brand, Lexus.
The RAV4 also has a character line breaking up the rear C-pillar. This is a common design trait among new vehicles, though I can’t say it’s all that visually appealing in most applications—the RAV4 included. About half of the RAV4's color options match the body to the roof, but seven options have a contrasting-color roof. Some have a gray roof and some have a black roof. For the two-tone options, this black strip across the rear pillar makes sense, but for the monotone color schemes, it just comes off as unnecessary design clutter.
While the exterior is chunky, aggressive, and at times a bit busy, the cabin of the RAV4 is surprisingly simple and elegant. Many features are now found in the new floating touch screen, while the rest of the controls are packaged into a “pod” that spans from the center of the dash to the cupholders.
Trims for the RAV4 are LE, XLE, XLE Premium, Adventure, and Limited. Standard features on the LE include steel 17-inch wheels with plastic covers, LED headlights, daytime running lights and taillights, power side mirrors, low-profile black roof rails, and privacy-tinted side and rear windows (not always a given on base trims).
CarGurus recommends the XLE trim, which is what we drove for a week. It adds 17-inch 5-spoke alloy wheels, automatic high beams, integrated fog lights, and color-keyed side mirrors with integrated turn-signal indicators. It also adds a power moonroof, push-button start, sport bucket seats, and dual-zone climate control.
Moving up to the XLE Premium trim adds 19-inch alloy wheels, a power rear liftgate, an 8-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift lever, soft-touch materials on the dash, and upgrades the seats from cloth upholstery to SofTex leatherette.
The Adventure is where the RAV4 starts to take things in a more rugged direction. It’s only offered with all-wheel drive and has unique 19-inch wheels with matte accents, a unique split-bar front grille, black fender cladding, upgraded roof rails, active grille shutters, and orange accented interior touches for the doors, dash, and seats.
The Limited is the range-topping trim and goes for a more upscale take than the sporty Adventure trim. It features 19-inch chrome-finished alloy wheels, a unique grille design, puddle approach lights, chrome door handles with passive entry, heated front seats, dark brown interior accents, ambient interior lighting, and navigation. The Limited can be upgraded with options packages, adding things like a panoramic moonroof, heated/ventilated front seats, rear heated seats, and a front windshield de-icer. That last feature is great for drivers in colder climates, and makes clearing off the car in particularly nasty weather much easier.
No matter which trim you select, the 2019 RAV4 comes equipped with a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine. It makes 203 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, sent through an 8-speed automatic transmission to the front wheels or available all-wheel drive (AWD). There are actually two flavors of all-wheel drive: The base offering (which is found in most of the trim lineup) and the new torque-vectoring AWD, offered in the Adventure and Limited trims. Our XLE test model had the base AWD setup, but it still provided Snow, Sand & Mud, and Rock & Dirt drive modes. In this sense, Toyota is trying to capture some of the rugged capability that it has lost over the years.
The torque-vectoring all-wheel drive takes things a step further and can actually divide the engine's power and send it to the wheels that need it in real time. It’s more advanced and more capable than your typical car-based all-wheel-drive setup and, while we didn’t drive it, should give the RAV4 the ability to get a little more off the beaten path. Upgrading to the torque-vectoring AWD swaps out the terrain-selection buttons for a drive-mode dial with similar Mud & Sand, Rock & Dirt modes, as well as buttons for Snow Mode and hill descent control.
As for the 2.5-liter engine, it gets up to highway speed at a decent clip, and you still have a bit of reserve power for overtaking. But get into stop-and-go, and you'll start to see the engine’s weak points. It lacks low-end power, and as a result, it feels a bit sluggish off the line. Whether or not you are taking off from a standstill or passing on the highway, this engine makes a ton of noise.
The ride quality is generally pretty good but still has some blemishes. It’s comfortable and soaks up bumps in the road, but the steering feels a bit twitchy, and there’s a good amount of body roll. Combine this with the fact that the RAV4 feels heavy in the rear, and you have the makings of an awkward experience—especially through fast corners. If you want something more refined, check out the Honda CR-V, and if you want a somewhat athletic small SUV, check out the Ford Escape and Mazda CX-5.
These other vehicles have put the work into on-road handling, and the too-bad part is that the RAV4 used to have similar driving dynamics as the CR-V, but that’s all gone now. Of course, those rivals have all but given up their off-road capability, which makes sense—how often are you going to take your family commuter car off-roading? But the vehicles that originally made this segment popular, like the first-generation RAV4, actually had a bit of decent off-road running gear. The Adventure trim and the torque-vectoring AWD actually give the RAV4 some off-road chops in a segment largely devoid of it.
Ask most people if they need their car to have off-road abilities, and they might chuckle. But think about activities like driving on the beach, getting to a remote campsite, or driving up a snowy road. A Jeep Wrangler can get out to all these places, but gives up something in road manners to be that capable. It’s not unreasonable to ask a more road-compliant crossover to occasionally perform these duties. But more and more crossovers these days just don’t cut it. The RAV4 at least makes the effort.
The front-wheel-drive RAV4 returns fuel economy of 26 mpg city, 35 highway, 30 combined. Our all-wheel-drive test car earns 27 miles per gallon city and 34 on the highway. In a week of combined city and highway driving, we observed a combined fuel economy of 29.3 miles per gallon—pretty impressive. The torque-vectoring AWD version returns 25 mpg city, 33 mpg highway, 28 combined.
Form and Function
The cabin of the RAV4 goes for a clean, upscale look that’s still immensely practical, with plenty of cargo space and spacious seating in both rows. Running from top to bottom, the center stack pod contains climate controls, a large tray for wallet/keys/phone, drive-mode controls, and the shifter. The shifter design itself is short and stocky, minimizing the space it takes up within the dash. If you need more space for small items, there’s a deep center console bin and a tray built into the passenger portion of the dash.
With the rear seats up, the RAV4 has 37.6 cubic feet of cargo space. Fold the rear bench, and that number grows to 69.8 cubic feet. That’s actually down a couple from 2018, but still better than rivals like the Mazda CX-5 and Jeep Cherokee. The Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester beat it though, each boasting around 75 cubic feet of cargo space.
But the RAV4 is plenty functional. The front row has plenty of places to put things, including deep center-control trays and deep bins in the doors. The thin tray above the glove box is a hidden-in-plain-site feature. Our test model had a fold-out rear armrest with cupholders as well.
The LE comes standard with a 7-inch touchscreen that runs the latest form of Toyota’s infotainment, called Entune 3. It is very easy to use and provides Apple CarPlay (but not Android Auto). Other features on the LE include Bluetooth connectivity, a USB port, and a WiFi hotspot. The XLE has five USB ports—one in the front tray, two in the center console bin, and another two for the second row. Things stay relatively steady up through the XLE Premium trim, but the Adventure gets an upgraded panoramic reversing camera, a 7-inch instrument panel display, a larger 8-inch Entune infotainment screen, and the Limited trim offers an optional JBL premium stereo.
Regardless of the size screen, the new infotainment system’s layout is fantastically simple. The floating screen has easy menu navigation and there are hard dials on either side for all the major functions like Home, Menu, Audio, Map, Seek, Track, Phone, and Apps.
The interface also has real dials for the volume and tuner—which are becoming endangered species as automakers try to force their proprietary controller systems companies like MazdaConnect and Lexus Enform. Ideally, an infotainment system will blend hard dials and buttons for volume, tuning, and climate controls with touchscreen functions for everything else.
Previous versions of this infotainment setup have been just as easy to use. The big update for 2019 is the addition of Apple CarPlay to many of its new models. For whatever reason Toyota has been one of the last high-volume automakers to come to market with CarPlay. But Android Auto-users will still have to wait—this feature isn’t available… yet.
Standard safety features include a full array of front- and side-impact airbags, a reversing camera, traction control, and a tire-pressure monitoring system. Also standard is Toyota Safety Sense 2.0: a comprehensive suite of safety technologies, including forward-collision warning and avoidance, lane-departure warning, automatic high-beams, and dynamic radar cruise control.
Toyota might have been behind the 8-ball with Apple CarPlay, but it has been a leader in making driver-assistance features standard equipment, starting in 2017. A few select rivals have finally caught on, but Toyota keeps moving the goalposts—this second-generation of Toyota Safety Sense also adds traffic-sign detection and Lane-Tracing Assist, which keeps the vehicle centered in the lane.
The 2019 Toyota RAV4 LE comes well equipped and with a base MSRP of $25,500. The XLE trim starts at $27,300, while the XLE with all-wheel drive that CarGurus recommends starts at $28,700. With options packages, the as-tested went up to $33,699. Rounding out the trim lineup, the XLE Premium starts at $29,500, the Adventure starts at $32,900, and the range-topping Limited comes in at $33,500.
The previous-generation RAV4 had great driving dynamics. Between that and the well-made interior, the older RAV4 had a certain unassuming refinement. Not to say the new RAV4 lacks that interior refinement—in fact, the cabin quality has been consistent. No, it’s the driving dynamics that have fallen off. This won’t be a deal-breaker for most buyers, but it’s noticeable.
Toyota knows where its bread is buttered when it comes to SUVs: lots of cargo room, plenty of space for you and your gear, and the right blend of MPG, price, and features. The fact that you can get a RAV4 off the beaten path occasionally is a value-add that tilts the scales for anyone in the market for a capable small SUV.
From open-wheel racecars to specialty off-road vehicles, George Kennedy has driven it all. A career automotive journalist, George has been a contributor, editor, and/or producer at some of the most respected publications and outlets, including Consumer Reports, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Autoblog.com, Hemmings Classic Wheels, BoldRide.com, the Providence Journal, and WheelsTV.
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