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2020 Toyota RAV4 Test Drive Review
Whether you want an off-road explorer or just basic, useful, and safe transportation, this compact crossover SUV has got you covered.
Americans love the Toyota RAV4. The compact crossover SUV is the most popular vehicle in the U.S. that isn’t a pickup truck, and when you live with one for a while, it’s easy to understand why so many people buy a RAV4. Available with a gasoline 4-cylinder or a gas-electric hybrid powertrain (covered as a separate model), and in a wide range of configurations including sporty XSE, luxurious Limited, and rugged Adventure, the 2020 RAV4 meets a variety of customer wants and needs.
Look and Feel
Traditionally, the Toyota RAV4, which rivals the Mazda CX-5 and Honda CR-V, has served as the template for all cute ‘utes, but a redesign for the 2019 model year gave the SUV a bolder and more angular appearance to make it look as tough as it has always proven to be in terms of durability.
Among the RAV4’s multiple trim levels, last year's Adventure brought an improvement in off-roading capability. If eschews front-wheel drive (FWD) for a torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system (AWD), a traction control system with multiple driving modes specific to weather and terrain, and downhill assist control. With 8.6 inches of ground clearance, the 2019 RAV4 Adventure lived up to its name better than any other version of the SUV.
The Adventure still lives for 2020, but now, the brand-new TRD Off-Road trim takes things to the next level. Smaller and lighter matte-black 18-inch alloy wheels, all-terrain tires rated for severe snow duty, and a special Toyota Racing Development (TRD) suspension setup provide a terrific ride on a wide variety of surfaces.
You can tell the TRD Off-Road apart by its wheels, tires, and badges, but otherwise, it looks just like the RAV4 Adventure. My test vehicle had Toyota’s compelling Lunar Rock gray paint with an extra-cost white roof. It’s worth noting that the paint color hides dirt exceptionally well.
Inside, this new version of the 2020 RAV4 has TRD logos on the front-seat head restraints and equips the cabin for dirt with rubber floor mats and a rubber cargo mat. Quality construction, plush center-armrest padding, soft-touch upper door-panel trim, and rubberized surfaces contrast sharply with inexpensive looking plastic.
The RAV4 TRD Off-Road resides near the top of the gas-powered RAV4's trim-level ladder, which kicks off with the LE and FWD ($25,950) and stretches to the Limited with AWD ($35,880). In between, the lineup includes the XLE, XLE Premium, Adventure, and TRD Off-Road trim levels.
People seeking the best blend of equipment and value will want the XLE trim upgraded with the top option package and a set of floor mats. So-equipped, the RAV4 runs about $31,750 msrp with the standard gas engine and FWD and just over $33,000 as a hybrid with AWD, both prices including destination charge.
My test vehicle rang up to a highly unusual $42,902 including destination. It had everything from the factory, plus more than $1,500 in dealer-installed accessories.
Toyota offers the new RAV4 with a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine making 203 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. The company also sells the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid as a separate model, which gets up to 40 mpg in combined driving while delivering 219 horsepower and electrified responsiveness right off of the line, but you can’t get it with the TRD Off-Road trim. Next year, a high-performance plug-in hybrid model arrives in the form of the 2021 RAV4 Prime.
Our test vehicle's non-turbo, non-hybrid powertrain delivered good numbers for the class, and the RAV4 feels energetic enough, especially in the Sport driving mode. But as a former resident of Denver, I can assure you that a turbocharged engine—which resists the power-sapping effects of altitude—would be preferable.
An 8-speed automatic transmission is charged with putting the power to the ground. Most of the time, it works well. But, on occasion, it seemed a bit befuddled about what gear to choose.
In addition to the unique wheels, tires, and suspension, the RAV4 TRD Off-Road model employs a torque-vectoring AWD system with fuel-saving driveline disconnect technology. Additionally, the driver can choose Snow, Mud & Sand, and Rock & Dirt multi-terrain select settings in addition to Eco, Normal, and Sport driving modes. Combine these components with a downhill assist control system and 8.6 inches of ground clearance, and the RAV4 TRD Off-Road is an aptly named SUV.
Faith in this RAV4’s capabilities inspired me to explore a trail previously unknown to me. Carved into a hillside, overgrown in spots, and with a steep ravine just inches from the tire sidewalls, the trail proved occasionally harrowing. But the TRD Off-Road took it in stride, slick muddy spots and all.
Mainly, though, I used the RAV4 as most people would use a compact SUV like this. I schlepped my kids to school, discovering that the TRD suspension virtually erases the series of speed humps on the street where my younger child’s elementary school is located. I ran errands, the 360-degree surround-view camera system making parking a breeze. And I sat in traffic, enjoying the optional JBL premium sound system and the heated and ventilated front seats.
As far as fuel economy is concerned, I averaged 23.4 mpg, missing by a significant margin the official EPA estimate of 27 mpg in combined driving. Otherwise, there simply isn’t much to complain about here. The TRD Off-Road might be intended for the dirt but it works well in urban areas where crumbling infrastructure presents similar challenges.
I’ll note here that the all-terrain tires aren’t very good for driving fast on a mountain road, but then again, you wouldn’t buy this SUV for that endeavor.
Form and Function
Getting into and out of the RAV4 is easy because the seating hip points are just about perfect. Once you’re inside, you’ll find what feels like a low and sporty driving position in an 8-way adjustable driver's seat. The front passenger’s seat lacks a height adjuster, but this isn’t a significant problem because the seat sits high enough off of the floor and supplies good thigh support.
The RAV4 TRD Off-Road has Toyota’s SofTex upholstery, which is a simulated leather notorious for trapping sweat on hot days. Get the Weather Package, which I strongly recommend, and the SUV comes with heated and ventilated front seats as well as a heated steering wheel.
Thanks to generous legroom, adults can easily ride in the RAV4’s rear seat, and there’s plenty of room for kids. Air conditioning vents and USB ports keep passengers calm, cool, and connected.
Interior storage is quite generous, and the shelf running the width of the dashboard comes in handy. Cargo space behind the back seat amounts to 37.6 cubic feet, and if you fold it down, this SUV can carry 69.8 cu-ft of cargo. The test vehicle also had a robust roof rack with crossbars, ready to accept a variety of carriers and racks to extend the RAV4’s utility. A hands-free power liftgate is a potentially useful optional extra.
Generally speaking, the technology in the 2020 RAV4 is both useful and user-friendly. And that’s exactly what people want.
Depending on the trim level, the infotainment system comes with a 7- or 8-inch touchscreen display. It suffers more glare than I’d like, but that’s the extent of my complaining about the 8-inch system that’s standard in the TRD Off-Road.
Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa are baked right in to the audio system, along with SiriusXM satellite radio and multiple connected services packages with generous free trial periods. A 4G LTE WiFi hotspot is free for 3 months or 2GB of data usage, and then you’ll need to pay for it.
Flanking the screen, menu shortcut buttons and knobs for stereo volume and tuning help to make the infotainment system easy to use, and the climate controls are completely separated from the display. Upgrades include an embedded navigation system and the previously mentioned JBL premium sound system.
What impressed me most about the TRD Off-Road’s infotainment system was the superb voice-recognition technology. Running through my usual list of voice commands that I use to test voice-recognition systems, the RAV4 understood every one of them and quickly offered a route to the destination.
Additionally, the test vehicle had the optional Technology Package. It installs wireless smartphone charging, a 360-degree surround-view camera, and a digital rear-view mirror that shows a live video feed of what’s behind the RAV4 on the rear-view mirror glass. In my opinion, this is an excellent example of the technology because you can adjust camera height and angle, and you can zoom in and out.
Every 2020 RAV4 includes Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 (TSS 2.0), which is a collection of the latest advanced driving assist safety features. These include Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection, radar adaptive cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist, front and rear parking assist with automated braking, and blind spot assist with rear cross-traffic alert. The systems operate with impressive accuracy, smoothness, and refinement, in turn encouraging a driver to keep them turned on rather than turning them off.
Additionally, Toyota includes a free 1-year subscription to Safety Connect services, which includes automatic collision notification, an activated SOS emergency assistance button, and enhanced roadside assistance. This is a more generous no-cost trial period than most automakers offer.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the 2020 RAV4 a Top Safety Pick rating, but it applies only to models equipped with the full LED, curve adaptive headlights. Headlight performance without these peepers is rated Marginal at best. Otherwise, the RAV4 gets top marks across the board for crash protection and ADAS performance.
In addition to the value provided by year-long trials of Safety Connect, Remote Connect, and Destination Assist, every 2020 Toyota RAV4 includes 2 years or 25,000 miles of free scheduled maintenance. Combine these freebies with the SUV’s impressive safety ratings, idiot-proof technology, undeniable utility, and competitive prices, and the RAV4 delivers compelling cost-effectiveness.
Unless, of course, you get a TRD Off-Road and add every option so that it’s priced like a Lexus.
Agreeable to drive in the city and on the highway, and clearly ready for adventure both on and off of the pavement, the RAV4 TRD Off-Road successfully decodes the secret sauce seen in the Subaru Forester, and packages it in a more rugged wrapper.
But even without the TRD Off-Road treatment, the RAV4 is comfortable, practical, roomy, safe, equipped with sophisticated technology, and good to drive. Really, it’s no surprise that it’s such a popular SUV.
Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience reviewing cars and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, J.D. Power, the New York Daily News, Autobytel, and Vehix. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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2020 Toyota RAV4 Top Comparisons
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2020 Toyota RAV4
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