Lacey Elliott: The Toyota RAV4 has been a consistent presence in the very crowded and very competitive compact SUV segment. It has something special about it: RAV4 was the very first compact SUV to hit Japan’s market back in 1994, casting the mold for an entirely new industry segment. Now, every manufacturer has a compact SUV in their lineup.
RAV4 is the best-selling vehicle in the Toyota family. In 2018, it was the best-selling SUV in Canada, beating out the Honda CR-V. For the 2019 model year, Toyota is introducing an even better version of its already popular SUV. Doubling down on the RAV4’s sport and utility heritage, both in the way it looks and in the way it drives.
This week I have the all-new 2019 RAV4 Trail edition, which is the more rugged cousin of the Limited trim. And to avoid confusion South of the border, this trim level is called the Adventure.
Dan Heyman: Far as I’m concerned – and unlike Lacey, as you’ll see below — the RAV4 has always been one of the most boring vehicles on the market – except the first gen two-door one. That was kind of cool, and has since gained a bit of a cult following. Otherwise, it was boring looking, drove like an inexpensive compact car on stilts and up until the last gen model, had a pretty bland colour palette. Which, of course, has historically been no big thing because many people don’t need flash and dash from their car, just practicality and reliability and the RAV4 has always had both of those qualities in spades.
This new RAV, however, has completely flipped the script and as soon as I saw it revealed in person at the New York International Auto Show in 2018, I was actually surprised how it looked under the show lights, all square-fendered, slim-taillamped and…muscular?
So, needless to say, I was jacked when the opportunity came to see one in the real world and to put it through its paces.
LE: I have been a fan of this SUV since it first came to North America in 1996. With each passing generation, it’s safe to say that Toyota has always stayed ahead of the pack.
The 2019 RAV4 is newly redesigned and I love it. It looks tougher, boxier, and has a lot more personality. Other automakers are creating SUVs that have more car-like traits, but the RAV4 breaks free from that trend.
If you view this new RAV4 square in the face, the front grille looks a bit like the Tacoma. Add to that a more dynamic profile and robust shoulders and this little SUV means business. The taillights, headlamps, and grille alone are nothing fancy, but as a whole, it just looks good.
The wider track and a longer wheelbase also enhance its athletic stance. The new proportions and body shape add to its aerodynamic stability. Both the exterior door lights and taillights have a chiseled look that compliments the sporty exterior.
The Trail model features two-tone paint, available in four fun exterior colours, reminding me of the FJ cruiser. This Trail also had meaty looking 19-inch alloy wheels, black roof rails, mud guards, and Trail-specific body moulding.
Uncomplicated and modern, the new interior is fabulous. Toyota has used premium materials throughout. Every single touch point, from the steering wheel to the control buttons, are soft. All knobs are covered in rubber that looks like a tire tread. Not only do they feel high quality, but the grip makes them easy to use.
There’s hard plastic covering the bottom half of the door where your knees are. This is not a touch point, but it is one area that will get dirty with boot scuffs, so the plastic will be easier to keep clean.
Brand new and exclusive to the Trail is a choice of black or mocha finishes. The Trail’s interior has silver and orange accents, as well as patterning details on the leather upholstery. Though I think it adds a funky bit of flair, anyone turned off by the colour orange will not be quite as impressed.
The touchscreen infotainment system is complimented with just the right balance of knobs and buttons. The controls are even large enough to be operated while wearing gloves. Cup holders are deeper and the armrest is wider. No issues making room for my large coffee here.
Located throughout the cabin are convenient trays for both the driver and passenger, which hold small items like a cell phone or wallet.
The updated design makes it easier to get into and out of the back seat thanks to a slightly wider door opening. There is plenty of comfortable room for two adults. The back seats split and fold 60/40, so you have adequate space for people and things.
DH: Lacey’s only partially right; I’d say it looks a lot like a Tacoma, or perhaps the 4Runner would be a better comparison. The fenders are nicely squared, but somehow manage to appear so without leaving awkwardly massive panel gaps between the wheels and fenders.
Speaking of the wheels: I like the two-tone finish, but the spoke design is a little soft when compared to the rest of what the Trail has to offer. I really wonder how some slightly downsized versions of the TRD off-road wheels from the 4Runner, Tacoma, and Tundra would work here.
In profile, while there’s a little bit of 4Runner, I actually see more of a vehicle that’s not in Toyota’s portfolio, but that surely they’ve targeted with the Trail: The Jeep Cherokee. The roofline and tailgate angle especially are reminiscent of the Jeep, which is no bad thing as it’s a compact yet tough-looking beast that makes no bones about its intentions.
I agree with Lacey – those rubberized infotainment and climate control knobs are fantastic, and I was genuinely surprised to feel just how high quality they were. While I was testing the car in summer, I can only imagine how great these would be while being operated by gloves in the wintertime.
The chunky overall looks of the dash are also a welcome addition that speaks to this particular RAV4 being a nice departure from what the vehicle has been in the past. The rubberized orange inserts do take some getting used to, but they’re effective at adding grip to more slippery surfaces and if nothing more, they’re eye-catching and serve to break up the monotony of a dark interior. I do wish that the bin to the left of the wheel was a little deeper, however; it’s not quite big enough for a cell phone, and I can’t think of anything much bigger than your average wallet fitting in there. George Costanza, however, may have a slight problem as the opening is narrow.
I was interested to hear that Lacey found ingress and egress to be so easy; I felt the same way and was curious as to how it would feel for someone who was a little shorter than I am. Be forewarned, however: if you’re thinking of fitting a rear-facing child seat, the passenger ahead better have short legs. It’s an easier fit in both the Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5.
ON THE ROAD
LE: There are small changes under the hood for 2019 in both the gas and hybrid versions.
The 2.5-L 4-cylinder puts out 203 hp, up from 179 hp in the previous generation, and 184 lb-ft of torque. The hybrid option delivers 219 horses.
The speed and power aren’t impressive, but it’s enough to handle daily tasks with zero complaints. It responds adequately off the line and when passing at higher speeds. However, my one complaint with this engine is that it’s loud under heavy acceleration. Since driving aggressively is not going to be a frequent drive style for this SUV, that sound is not a deal breaker.
The gas engine has been paired with a new 8-speed automatic; no CVT – thank you Toyota. The result is a fun-to-drive engine with smooth shifts. The hybrid version of the engine, however, is paired to a CVT.
The new RAV4 unibody structure sees a 57% increase in rigidity over the previous model, delivering a more solid foundation for tackling uneven roads.
This new Trail Edition is the most off-road capable in the RAV4 line up. The base LE comes with front wheel or all-wheel drive (AWD). The Trail and Limited have Dynamic Torque Vectoring AWD with Rear Driveline Disconnect. This system will distribute torque to the left or right wheel to enhance handling on or off the pavement and it can direct up to 50% of the torque to the rear wheels.
Toyota hopes that owners of this Trail will be more adventurous and do some off-roading. If you get a wheel or two off the ground, this system sends torque to the wheels that are in contact with the ground to help you maintain traction and conquer uneven terrain.
Multi Terrain Select mode is offered on gas-powered AWD RAV4s. This technology gives you improved traction when driving on snow, rocks, sand, or mud. It is easy to use with a control dial that is placed smartly in the centre console.
When equipped with the standard towing package, this Trail is able to tow up to 3500 lbs. The remaining RAV4 models can pull up to 1750 lbs.
DH: Remember when I said the rough n’ tumble looks reminded me of a Jeep Cherokee? Well, that image is reflected in the ride, which also reminds of the Jeep but is actually a little firmer and even slightly brittle over rougher surfaces. Personally, I don’t mind that; I like that it’s a little rough around the edges – very much like a junior 4Runner – but I’m not so sure that’s exactly what Toyota was gunning for. Not for the non-Trail versions, that’s for sure. Having not driven those, I can’t say how they compare but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were a little more insulative.
Power-wise, I agree with Lacey that the 8-speed transmission is a big step over anything CVT-related; it just makes for that much more of an involving drive. Where I disagree a bit with my colleague is where she says that the speed and power aren’t impressive; numbers-wise, they’re not sky-high to be sure but I found the RAV4 to be nice and zippy, as if the powertrain had very little it needed to haul around. Indeed, when you open the door and see how light it feels, you kind of understand why that would be the case but still; the only time I really took issue with the power is from an absolute stop, and when accelerating up steep hills. Other than that, the RAV4 Trail was up to the task of dispatching anything I threw its way.
I’m also a big fan of the fact it has terrain select modes. Of course it’s nowhere near as robust as what’s offered by the 4Runner, but there still is a hill descent control system and I could see this particular RAV4 being used for more rough-track riding than any before it.
SAFETY & TECHNOLOGY
LE: 2019 brings the second generation of Toyota Safety Sense TSS2.0. It delivers a standard backup camera, Blind Spot Monitoring with Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian and Bicycle Detection, auto high beams, and Full-Speed Range Dynamic Radar Cruise Control.
Standard on all RAV4s is Entune 3.0 Audio. This helps you to connect to apps like Yelp, Slacker, Weather, and Fuel. The available premium ETUNE adds embedded navigation and Destination Assist. It even provides 24-hour access to a live agent who can help you find a specific location.
Apple Car play is available but not Android Auto. Personally, I don’t find this to be a big deal, but a lot of other people do. With a complete refresh, it is odd that Toyota didn’t think to include both options.
You can get into a RAV4 hybrid model this year for $2700 less than the 2018 pricing. Prices now range from $27,990 for the FWD base LE up to $42,000 for the Limited. This more off-road capable RAV4 Trail sits in the middle of the pack at $38,690.
Delivering a variety of price points and options ensures that there is a RAV4 for everyone: gas or hybrid, AWD or FWD, luxurious or rugged. This badass-looking and capable little SUV is a perfect city runabout with some off-road prowess.
DH: I guess I’ve finally gotten over the fact that for the time being at least, Toyota’s Entune display is going to remain functional if not all that exciting looking. The colour palette full of dark bluish-purple hues is pretty at-odds with most anything on the market today, but touchscreen responsiveness is there, and the layout and navigation is intuitive enough. Personally, the lack of Android Auto doesn’t bother me as I am an Apple user, but I suspect as these features get higher on buyers’ lists, Toyota will eventually adapt and add support for all devices. As for CarPlay: worked fine during my time with the car, with even the always-troublesome Google Play Audio working without a hitch.
That’s all well and good, but for me, it’s all just part of the sideshow when it comes to the RAV4 Trail. At its core, this is a pretty cool truck that has managed to gain just the right amount of butchiness so that it still looks tough, but not so much that a buyer would feel like they have to be a rock climber or spelunker or something in order to justify ownership. A skier or country cabin vacationer that needs just a little more capability from their CUV would fit the bill perfectly, or even a slightly adventurous younger family.
In one fell swoop, the RAV4 has actually become kind of cool after years of high sales but vanilla looks, dynamics and attitude. And that’s a very good thing.