The Toyota RAV4 has a lot of fans — more than 400,000 people in the U.S. bought one last year alone — but I’ve never been one of them, underwhelmed by its slow, loud road manners, clunky multimedia system and chintzy interior. A redesign for 2019, however, is bringing me closer to getting what all the fuss is about.
Outside, the fifth generation of the compact SUV trades its previous crossover-like curves for the beefed-up face and aggressive shoulders of Toyota’s larger, trucky SUVs, like the 4Runner. Inside, there’s an updated multimedia system as well as upgraded materials and added tech and safety features that make it competitive against class darling the Honda CR-V and my favorites, the Nissan Rogue and Mazda CX-5. But with prices starting $840 more than the outgoing model, it’s going to take more to win me over completely.
At the press launch in Carmel, Calif., I drove three versions of the RAV4, including the new Adventure trim level, with gas and hybrid drivetrains, and I have a favorite (per Cars.com’s ethics policy, we pay for our airfare and lodging at such automaker-sponsored events).
The standout is the hybrid. It delivers utility, economy and the most comfortable driving experience. The hybrid pairs a 2.5-liter inline-four-cylinder engine with a continuously variable automatic transmission that’s good for 219 horsepower total. Off the line, pep is brisk and linear, and the CVT does an adequate job of delivering more — though when pushed on hill climbs, the powertrain can get loud.
The brakes are one high point, with a natural, responsive feel often missing from hybrid braking systems. Fuel economy is another one: Toyota estimates a rating of 41/37/39 mpg city/highway/combined, up significantly from the outgoing hybrid’s 34/30/32 mpg EPA rating. All-wheel drive is again standard on hybrid models, which come in LE, XLE, XSE HV and Limited trims.
Gas-powered models are available in LE, XLE, XLE Premium, Adventure and Limited trims and also come standard with the 2.5-liter, paired instead with an eight-speed automatic transmission. It’s good for 203 hp — slightly less than the hybrid — and feels like it. While not slow, it lacks the hybrid’s zippiness. The eight-speed automatic shifts smoothly, but timing is off and often awkward; it’s too quick to upshift out of lower gears and holds higher gears too long.
And like the outgoing model, the RAV4’s road manners annoyed. Tire, wind and engine noise are intrusive — arguably the worst in the class — and its ride firmer and bouncier than in the hybrid, which was more composed and controlled. The Limited model I tested had 19-inch wheels over the hybrid’s 17s (and thus shorter, less compliant tires), which likely contributed to the extra hop.
The gas version makes strides in economy, too, however. Toyota estimates base models will get 26/34/29 mpg with front-wheel drive, 26/33/29 with AWD, better than the outgoing model’s 23/29/25 mpg rating with FWD.
The biggest surprise was the Adventure model, which I mocked when it debuted last year for offering nothing extra than slightly more adventurous styling and a big price hike. Like the 2018 version, the new Adventure model wears additional, rugged body cladding and gets a few new exclusive colors, but it also makes good on its name with a robust new AWD system.
The New Dynamic Torque Vectoring All-Wheel Drive system is several steps above the RAV4’s regular AWD system in terms of capability. It can send up to 50 percent of engine torque to the rear wheels as needed for more traction and can also direct power to the left and right rear wheels to boost grip when slippage is detected. There’s also a multiterrain selector that optimizes the AWD system for mud, dirt, rocks, sand and snow.
I know several people with RAV4s and all of them are exclusively pavement drivers, but should the need arise, the Adventure model can handle it. I drove it on dirt, and it very capably mastered steep hill climbs, ruts and moguls. (This system is standard on Adventure and Limited trims.)
A Step Up Inside
The old cabin’s bland look and budget materials have been replaced by one with more padding and a sharper design. The Limited model I tested had ample cush in knee and elbow touch points as well as handsome, two-tone imitation leather seats and surfaces. The hybrid model had less padding for elbows but still stood out with pops of chrome trim and an interesting seat upholstery pattern. Toyota cranked the style dial to 11 on the Adventure model with its gray and brown color palette jazzed up with pops of orange on the seats, doors and dash.
Room is good inside too. At 5 feet, 6 inches, I was comfortable in the back behind where I’d normally set the driver seat. Caregivers with kids in car seats will likely have enough room for two car seats, and installation should be eased by the RAV4’s exposed lower Latch anchors.
Cargo room is a mixed bag, however. In front, there’s a handy storage shelf nestled into the dashboard along with a decent-size center console box and a small bin ahead of the shifter. Also useful is the reversible cargo floor in back; one side is carpet, but you can flip it over for an easy-clean plastic side.
In terms of room in back, however, cargo space is down in the gas-powered version. The new RAV4 offers 37.6 cubic feet of space, almost a cubic foot less than the outgoing model. The hybrid version sees an increase in cargo room compared with the old hybrid thanks to a skinnier battery pack; it now offers the same amount of room as the non-hybrid version.
(Almost) Modern Multimedia
The attention to detail continues with the RAV4’s new multimedia system, Entune 3.0, which features a standard 7-inch touchscreen that includes Amazon Alexa connectivity and Apple CarPlay. Available upgrades include an 8-inch display, satellite radio and navigation.
The high-mounted tablet-style system is a big win with its clear, responsive screen and easy-access tuning and volume knobs, which, perhaps strangely, win the best knob award (that I just made up). The knobs have a solid, quality heft and are ringed with grippy rubber, making them easy to grasp.
Related: 2019 Toyota RAV4 Video Review
Other available goodies that bring the cabin up to date include Wi-Fi hot spot capability; heated and ventilated front seats; a foot-activated liftgate; camera-based rearview mirror; up to five USB ports; an 11-speaker, 800-watt JBL premium audio system and a Qi wireless charging pad for compatible mobile devices.
Added Safety, Higher Price
At $26,545 for a base FWD LE model, the 2019 RAV4 starts higher than the old version’s $25,705 base price; it’s also more than competitors. All-wheel drive adds $1,400 to each trim level, and the hybrid powertrain is an additional $800. The new model’s impressive list of standard safety features takes the sting out of the price hike, however.
All RAV4s come with Toyota’s Safety Sense 2.0 system, which includes a forward collision warning system with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking, full-speed dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure warning with steering assist, automatic high beams, lane detection and lane keep assist (which Toyota calls Lane Tracing Assist), and a new road sign assist that identifies road signs and can warn the driver with alerts depending on sign type. Options include blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, a 360-degree camera system, parking sensors and rear cross-traffic alert with automatic braking.
When I’ve been asked for recommendations for a compact SUV, the Toyota RAV4 was never on my list, but the 2019 version — especially in hybrid trim — has earned itself a spot for those with the budget to accommodate it.
Stay tuned for my full review, including details on some new features and more class-comparative information.
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