CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA, Calif. — The 2019 Toyota RAV4 replaces a vehicle that sold 400,000 units last year despite being a lame duck riding on a 13-year-old platform. It’s the best-selling vehicle in the country that’s not a pickup. Playing it safe would be expected, it would be understandable, it would be exactly what Subaru did with the Forester.
And yet, Toyota did not play it safe with this completely redesigned 2019 RAV4. Not even close. It’s stylistically and philosophically different, abandoning what its engineers and designers described as the “car-like” approach of its predecessor in favor of something closer to the SUV end of the spectrum. Though it still employs Toyota’s increasingly ubiquitous TNGA car platform, the ride height is taller than before, the three available all-wheel-drive systems more sophisticated, and the styling more angular and macho. The new Adventure trim even borrows some cues from the Tacoma. If anything, this new 2019 RAV4 seems like a return to the approach of the third-generation RAV4, which was discontinued in 2012. The outgoing RAV4 is therefore sort of an evolutionary dead end.
The new RAV4 is also yet another new Toyota created since Chairman Akio Toyoda declared that the company with his name on the door “make better cars.” Echoing the attitudes of other designers and engineers we’ve spoken to, the new RAV4’s chief engineer and longtime company veteran Yoshikazu Saeki is clearly overjoyed to carry out the new marching orders. In fact, beyond making the new RAV4 subjectively “better,” he wanted to fundamentally change perceptions.
The new XSE trim level is one such area. Like other Toyotas, the letters “SE” indicate the sportiest trim level. It similarly has a sport-tuned suspension and the raciest styling with tell-tale glossy metallic black trim on the fascias, enhanced wheel arches and contrasting roof. It’s also only available as the hybrid. You can practically hear a record scratching, but Saeki has always disagreed with the notion that Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy drive was only suited to enhance fuel economy. It could enhance performance, too.
“I wanted to change the perception,” the jovial chief engineer said. “I wanted to break the (hybrid) mold. If you throw the hybrid unit into a regular RAV4, there’s no fun in that. That’s why I made the XSE Hybrid.”
His decision was certainly confirmed by market research groups who favored the XSE’s look over all others, while preferring it even more once discovering it was a hybrid. Yet, here’s the other thing: the hybrid is indeed the more powerful and quicker of the two powertrains. Barely, but nevertheless.
The base engine is Toyota’s new 2.5-liter four-cylinder shared with the Camry, producing a class-leading 203 horsepower. With 184 pound-feet of torque, it definitely doesn’t have the low-end response of its turbocharged competitors, and the engine itself was surprisingly shrill when driven with authority up the various hills surrounding our first drive route around Monterey, Calif. It is definitely quieter in the Camry, which shares the TNGA platform’s K variation with RAV4 and Avalon. Yet, for this segment, the RAV4’s acceleration is more than sufficient, while the also-new eight-speed automatic functions in a more traditional manner than Honda and Subaru’s CVTs.
The hybrid, meanwhile, uses a modified 2.5-liter engine, downgraded in output and utilizing an extra-high compression ratio and the fuel-saving Atkinson cycle. It’s joined by three electric motors to create a standard all-wheel-drive system and provide a total system output of 219 hp. Toyota says it’ll go from zero to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds versus 8.1 seconds in the gas version. So, again, calling it a performance choice is a stretch. The 2.5-liter is also no quieter when attached to the Toyota’s hybrid system’s droning electronically controlled continuously variable transmission. The engine’s engagement has at least been smoothed out from the outgoing version, and the addition of street sign recognition in the standard Toyota Safety Sense package reduces the number of false-alarm auto stop/starts at stop and yield signs.
Plus, fuel economy is exceptional, with EPA estimates of 41 mpg city, 37 mph highway and 39 mpg combined for every hybrid (an improvement versus the outgoing model’s 37 mpg combined). The gas-only RAV4, despite being one of the thriftiest in the segment, manages 29 mpg combined. The Adventure and Limited AWD grades return 27 mpg combined. Considering the Hybrid only comes with a price premium of $800 over the gas-only versions, that’s a massive advantage and should pay for itself within two years.
But back to the effort to make the RAV4 more distinctive. A big part of that is the driving experience. The TNGA platform yields a 57 percent stiffer structure, a lower center of gravity and a new electric power steering system mounted to the rack as opposed to the column. The result is a compact SUV that’s more involving than the rather indifferent transport pod it replaces. It doesn’t engage like a Mazda CX-5, but there is still an eagerness to its turn-in, and it demonstrates impressive poise.
There are now Normal and Sport modes, but the differences between them were negligible. So too are the differences between the myriad trim levels. We drove all of them, and although the gas-only XLE perhaps felt a bit lighter and more playful, and the sport-tuned XSE Hybrid a bit more caffeinated in its response to inputs, there isn’t a massive gap. That’s just fine. Every RAV4 is now better to drive — not just some niche sport variant.
Every RAV4 is also more capable off the beaten track. Most outgoing RAV4 trim levels had a paltry, car-like 6.1 inches of ground clearance, with the Adventure good for only 6.5. By contrast, the lowest 2019 RAV4, the XSE Hybrid, manages a lofty 8.1 inches, with the new Adventure good for 8.6. Only the Subaru Forester or Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk can clear more, and even just by a tenth of an inch.
The 2019 RAV4 Adventure with its considerably lower predecessor.
There are also two more capable all-wheel-drive systems available on gas-only models. The more sophisticated torque-vectoring AWD system found on the Adventure and Limited AWD trims varies the amount of power distributed to each rear wheel to enhance handling in the dry or traction in the wet and/or dirty. It’s similar to Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive System in this regard, and like Audi’s Quattro with Ultra system, it automatically disconnects the rear axle to save fuel during a steady cruise.
The other AWD system is a more traditional reactive one that engages the rear axle when front wheel slippage is detected. However, new for 2019, is a Multi-Terrain Select system standard on all AWD models that provides “Mud & Sand,” “Rock & Dirt” and “Snow” modes to alter the amount of slippage allowed before engaging the axle. The torque-vectoring AWD system gets equivalent settings, while the Adventure goes an off-roading step further with hill-descent control.
Adding such sophisticated all-wheel-drive equipment was a concerted effort to further change the image of both the RAV4 and Toyota in general. If anything, “torque vectoring is too much” for a compact crossover like the RAV4, according to chief engineer Saeki, but “it’s about (enhancing) brand image.”
So too is the Adventure’s styling. The assembled journalists at the press launch, this one included, clearly favored its Tacoma-inspired face, chunkier angular fender flares, contrasting roof and more functional raised roof rails. All that’s missing is the 4Runner’s roll-down back window. Whether the general public prefers it is another matter, but according to Toyota product planning and marketing officials, the Adventure is a test balloon to gauge the interest in more fully committing to the 2019 RAV4’s more overtly SUV-like direction. A 10 percent take rate is expected, but we could see it being more.
Yet, with all this talk of performance, off-roading, sharper handling and more compelling design, is Toyota at risk of losing the RAV4 plot of uber utility and function? True, it’s a less sensible-shoes choice now, ceding that ground to the Subaru Forester and Honda CR-V. For instance, a reduction in headroom, especially with the optional sunroof, makes the cabin more confining. A more raked D pillar also reduces versatility for carrying large options or big dogs (maximum cargo capacity was rather transparently omitted from the otherwise complete spec sheet).
At the same time, the new RAV4’s cargo area is 2.5 inches longer, its sides were reshaped for extra space and its versatile floor panel can be lowered to gain 2.2 inches of extra depth or flipped over to reveal a more easily cleaned hard plastic surface. Up front, the wider center console features a deeper under-armrest bin, a huge smartphone holder that can be upgraded with Qi wireless charging, and a pair of large cupholders placed side-by-side rather than scattered about among a series of useless shallow bins as in the old RAV4.
In terms of comfort, the back seat gains an extra 0.6 inch of legroom and an extra inch of shoulder room, while the new platform yields a more composed ride and a quieter cabin. There’s also, not surprisingly, an abundance of new features. Accident avoidance tech is still standard on every trim level, but infotainment is enhanced with standard in-car WiFi, Amazon Alexa connectivity and Apple CarPlay. The base LE has a 7-inch touchscreen, but all others get an 8-inch unit that actually seems bigger thanks to its high, easily reached dash-top position. It’s one of the easier systems to use. The accompanying new physical controls, most notably the chunky rubber-coated knobs for the stereo and climate control, look great and feel expensive when operated.
Indeed, cabin materials throughout the cabin have been elevated considerably, although the SofTex vinyl upholstery remains an unconvincing substitute for real leather, which is unavailable. Customers haven’t missed it, says RAV4 product planner Cameron Creighton, who adds the diversity of color combinations and stitch patterns found in the various 2019 trim levels wouldn’t be possible without SofTex.
Other newly available features include ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, a Cadillac-like rearview camera mirror, a panoramic sunroof, a mostly digital instrument panel, and five USB ports. Pricing starts at $26,545 for a gas-only front-drive LE, including a hefty $1,045 destination charge for its transit from a plant in either Japan or Canada. The XLE with a comparable drivetrain hits the register at $28,345, the XLE Premium at $30,545 and Limited at $34,545. The XSE Hybrid starts at $34,745, while the gas- and AWD-only Adventure starts at $33,945. All are perfectly reasonable given all you get, especially on the safety front, though the lower trims are now considerably pricier.
Perhaps some will lament that. Perhaps others will miss the old car-like vibe and catamaran-inspired styling. Maybe your golden retriever won’t fit so well in the back. Yet none of that seems likely to slow the RAV4’s best-selling momentum. For everyone put off by the new direction, we’re wagering many more will be attracted to the more characterful approach. Toyota may have messed with a good thing, but it didn’t mess it up.