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; I've always been underwhelmed by its slow, loud road manners, clunky multimedia system and chintzy interior. A redesign for 2019, however, has brought me closer to understanding what all the fuss is about.

On the 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, upgraded materials, and added tech and safety features. Compare it with the 2018 model.

The compact SUV class is packed, and the RAV4 has some solid contenders, including the Honda CR-V and my favorites, the Nissan Rogue and Mazda CX-5. See them compared

Driving Differences

The standout is the RAV4 Hybrid. It delivers utility, economy and the most comfortable driving experience. The hybrid pairs a 2.5-liter inline-four-cylinder engine with electric motors, a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack and 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 a high point, with a natural, responsive feel often missing from hybrid braking systems. Fuel economy is one, too: Toyota estimates fuel economy 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. They come standard with the 2.5-liter engine, paired this time with an eight-speed automatic transmission. It's good for 203 hp — slightly less than the hybrid, and it 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 when a downshift would make for more responsive acceleration.

Like the outgoing model, the new RAV4's road manners annoyed. Tire, wind and engine noise are intrusive — arguably the worst in the class — and the gas version's ride is firmer and bouncier than in the hybrid, which is more composed and controlled. The Limited trim I tested had 19-inch wheels versus the hybrid's 17s (and thus shorter, less compliant tires), which likely contributed to the extra hop.  

The RAV4 owners I know are exclusively pavement drivers, but should the urge to wander off the beaten path strike, the Adventure model lives up to its name.

The gas RAV4 does make strides in fuel economy, however. Toyota estimates base models will get 26/34/29 mpg with front-wheel drive, 26/33/29 mpg with AWD. This is better than the outgoing FWD model's 23/29/25 mpg rating and brings the RAV4 in line with base FWD versions of the CR-V (26/32/28) and Rogue (26/33/29). It's also a fair amount better than the CX-5 (25/31/28).

The biggest surprise was the Adventure model, which I mocked when it debuted last year, saying it offered nothing apart from slightly more adventurous styling and a big price hike. Like the 2018 version, the new Adventure model wears rugged body cladding and gets a few new exclusive colors, but the biggest change is that it 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 it 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 or snow.

The RAV4 owners I know are exclusively pavement drivers, but should the urge to wander off the beaten path strike, the Adventure model lives up to its name. I drove it on dirt, and it very capably mastered steep hill climbs, ruts and moguls. The new AWD system is standard on both Adventure and Limited trims.

A Step Up Inside

The old cabin's bland look and budget materials have been replaced with a sharper design and more padding. 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 its interior 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, jazzing up its gray and brown color palette with pops of orange on the seats, doors and dash.

Space is good inside, too. At 5 feet, 6 inches tall, I was comfortable in the backseat with the driver's seat where I'd normally have it. By the numbers, the new model offers slightly more rear legroom than the outgoing one, with 37.8 inches. That rivals the Rogue (37.9) but is less than the CX-5 (39.6) and CR-V (40.4).

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. 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 a reversible cargo floor in back; one side is carpeted, 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 and less than the CR-V (39.2) and Rogue (39.3). The CX-5 offers even less, however, with 30.9 cubic feet.

The hybrid version sees an increase in cargo room compared with the old hybrid thanks to a skinnier battery pack; it now matches the non-hybrid version's space.

(Almost) Modern Multimedia

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, but what's missing is Android Auto compatibility. Toyota says it still has work to do to ensure seamless integration with the system but promises it will come eventually; many other compact SUVs already offer it.

The high-mounted tablet-style system is a big win with its clear, responsive screen and easy-access tuning and volume knobs. Those dials win the best knob award (which I just made up); they have a solid, quality heft and are ringed with grippy rubber, making them easy to grasp.

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, a camera-based rearview mirror, up to five USB ports, a Qi wireless charging pad for compatible mobile devices, and an 11-speaker, 800-watt JBL premium audio system.

Despite finding some other camera-based rearview mirror systems unnatural, I like the RAV4's. It's highly customizable, so you can change the view angle up or down, shift right or left, and zoom in and out. 

Added Safety

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). There's also a new road sign assist system that identifies road signs and can warn the driver with alerts depending on sign type.

Options include blind spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert, a 360-degree camera system, parking sensors and rear cross-traffic alert with automatic braking.

That list is long, but the Rogue's is longer, including standard blind spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert. The CX-5's standard safety list is less robust, but it also offers standard blind spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert. The CR-V trails competitors with many features not standard — and some not even optional on the base trim.

Higher Price

At $26,545 for a base FWD LE, the 2019 RAV4 starts higher than both the old version and its competitors; it's $1,200 more than the CR-V and CX-5 and $700 more than the Rogue. 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 helps take the sting out of the price hike, but with prices starting $840 higher than the outgoing model, it'll take more to win me over completely.       

When I've been asked to recommend a compact SUV, the Toyota RAV4 has never been on my list, but the 2019 version — especially in hybrid trim — has earned itself a spot for those with the budget to accommodate it.

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