2019 Toyota RAV4 First Drive Review

It’s hard to believe the Toyota RAV4 has been around for over two decades. Since its launch in 1997, the pint-sized crossover has evolved from a curiosity into many buyers’ default vehicle choice. Toyota claims that, last year, the RAV4 was the best-selling non-pickup truck model in the United States, despite competing in a segment crowded with alternatives like the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, Mazda CX-5, Subaru Forester, and many more.

That evolution continues with the 2019 Toyota RAV4. It’s not available as a two-door semi-convertible like the original RAV4, but Toyota says the new fifth-generation model blends the best qualities of crossovers and traditional SUVs.

To see if that’s true, Digital Trends headed to Carmel, California, where Toyota made a variety of RAV4 models available to test. The 2019 RAV4 is available with gasoline (front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive) and hybrid (all-wheel drive only) powertrains in LE, XLE, XLE Premium, and Limited trim levels. XSE and Adventure trim levels are exclusive to the hybrid and gas powertrains, respectively. Pricing starts at $25,500 for a base front-wheel drive gasoline LE, and climbs to $35,700 for a fully loaded all-wheel drive hybrid Limited. Gasoline models hit U.S. showrooms in December, with hybrids following in March 2019.

A cosplaying crossover

The exterior styling clearly advertises that the 2019 Toyota RAV4 is a clean sheet redesign. Not only does the model look completely different from its predecessor, designers took it in a completely different direction philosophically.

The RAV4 is a car-based crossover, and the previous generation emphasized that with lots of curves and soft edges. The 2019 RAV4 is still a crossover, it’s based on the same version of the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform used by the Camry and Avalon sedans, but you wouldn’t know that from looking at it. With its scowling grille, boxy wheel arches, and upright roof, the 2019 RAV4 has more in common visually with the Toyota Tacoma pickup truck and 4Runner SUV than any sedan.

Stephen Edelstein/Digital Trends

That design choice will likely prove popular with customers, as much of the popularity of crossovers is based on the perception that truck-like vehicles are cool and sedans and hatchbacks are boring. But Toyota is also dressing the RAV4 up as something it’s not.

The interior has an appealing design, but is let down by cheap-feeling materials.

The interior has an appealing design, but is let down by cheap-feeling materials. From the angular air vents to the beefy door handles, the look is distinctive and clean. The strategic use of textured rubber on areas like the climate control knobs was a nice, functional touch that fits in with the rugged vibe of the exterior. However, even on the top-of-the-line Limited trim level, the materials used are just passable. On other trim levels, the interior feels downright cheap.

The driving position feels suitably SUV-like, without making the driver feel as if they are perched on top of the car, rather than in it. Toyota said improving outward visibility was a priority, and we think the engineers succeed on that front (an optional 360-degree camera system is also available). But things are less comfortable in the back.

The RAV4 has less overall passenger volume than most of its competitors, and it seems Toyota pinched most of that from the back. Rear-seat legroom is near the bottom of the segment, and the seats themselves felt hard and unsupportive. At 37.6 cubic feet with the rear seats up (Toyota did not provide a figure with the rear seats folded), cargo volume is better than average for the segment. However, the Honda CR-V (39.2 cubic feet) and Nissan Rogue (39.3 cubic feet) both offer more. Despite the addition of a battery pack, RAV4 hybrid models offer the same passenger and cargo space as their gasoline counterparts.

A car that reads road signs

The 2019 RAV4 features Toyota’s Entune 3.0 infotainment system. Standard features include a 7.0-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay (no Android Auto), Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant compatibility, and a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot. Options include an 8.0-inch touchscreen, a 7.0-inch digital instrument-cluster display, 11-speaker, 800-watt JBL audio system, Qi wireless phone charging, and a rearview camera mirror similar to the ones already offered on certain Nissan and General Motors models. Toyota offers up to five USB ports, but only one is standard.

We feel the information in the optional 7.0-inch instrument cluster display could have been better organized, as it’s difficult to read at a glance.

The touchscreen is inelegantly propped up on top of the dashboard, but at least it’s positioned within easy reach of the driver. Physical buttons for menu pages make it easy to navigate, and Toyota wisely includes physical knobs for important functions like temperature and audio volume. The touchscreen is responsive and the menus are easy to navigate through, but this system doesn’t exactly have a wide array of features, either.

We feel the information in the optional 7.0-inch instrument cluster display could have been better organized, as it’s difficult to read at a glance. The 11-speaker JBL audio system provides sound quality worthy of its optional-extra status.

2019 Toyota RAV4 Adventure
Stephen Edelstein/Digital Trends

The RAV4 also gets the Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 suite of driver aids as standard equipment. That includes autonomous emergency braking, lane keep assist, automatic high beams, and Lane Trace Assist (automatically centers the car in its lane on highways). It also features Road Sign Assist, which uses a camera to read stop, yield, do not enter, and speed limit signs, and alerts the driver if it thinks signs are being ignored. Blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, and reverse autonomous emergency braking are optional extras.

We didn’t have the opportunity (or, thankfully, the need) to test most of these features, but found that Road Sign Assist reacted quickly to changes in speed limits.

Hybrid powertrain to the rescue

The 2019 Toyota RAV4 is offered in two flavors: gasoline and hybrid. Gasoline models use a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine producing 203 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, connected to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Hybrid models get the same engine linked to Toyota’s familiar hybrid system for a total system output of 219 hp (Toyota does not quote a torque number). Gasoline versions get standard front-wheel drive or optional all-wheel drive; hybrid models are all-wheel drive only.

If the base powertrain was a disappointment, the steering and suspension were a pleasant surprise.

Toyota calls the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine Dynamic Force, yet its performance is anything but. The horsepower and torque figures are respectable for a base engine in this segment (some competitors offer more powerful engines as options), but you wouldn’t know that from behind the wheel. Acceleration is merely adequate, and it’s always accompanied by an unpleasant drone. The hybrid is much better: not only does it have more power, but the electric motors also give a much-needed burst of low-end torque off the line.

If the base powertrain is a disappointment, the steering and suspension were a pleasant surprise. The RAV4 will never be confused with a sports car, but the steering is remarkably precise and communicative. Modern electric-assisted systems can feel vague and video game-like even in bona fide performance cars, so actually being able to sense what the front wheels were doing in this RAV4 is much appreciated. The suspension encourages spirited driving as well, although it seemed to be tuned more for handling than comfort. We noticed some unpleasant shudders on uneven pavement.

The RAV4’s all-wheel drive system is like an overachiever that burns out trying to do it all. In both gasoline and hybrid models it defaults to front-wheel drive to save fuel, but it can also use torque vectoring to channel power to specific wheels. That helps improve on-road cornering and allows for light off-roading, according to Toyota. The RAV4 also features specific drive modes for off-roading.

While saving fuel is important, we wish the system defaulted to all-wheel drive.

While saving fuel is important, we wish the system defaulted to all-wheel drive. Under heavy throttle, it’s easy to overwhelm the front wheels before the system starts transferring power rearward, and the effect of the torque vectoring only becomes apparent under very aggressive cornering.

The RAV4 performed well on a short off-road course set up by Toyota, driving over obstacles that would stop most of its competitors. Most customers will never find themselves driving over uneven terrain with one wheel off the ground, but it’s nice to know the RAV4 can do it. But don’t confuse the RAV4 with real off-roaders like Toyota’s own 4Runner or Land Cruiser: it lacks proper tires and other equipment needed for serious mud-and-dirt action. If you must take a compact crossover off road, the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk is a much better bet.

2019 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid XSE
Stephen Edelstein/Digital Trends

Official figures are not available yet, but Toyota expects the 2019 RAV4 hybrid to achieve an EPA-rated 39 mpg combined (41 mpg city, 37 mpg highway). That beats the 33 mpg combined (31 mpg city, 34 mpg highway) of the all-wheel drive version of the Nissan Rogue hybrid – the RAV4’s only direct competitor.

Fuel economy estimates for the gasoline RAV4 vary by trim level. With front-wheel drive, the RAV4 is expected to get 29 mpg combined (26 mpg city, 34 mpg highway) in LE and Limited forms, but XLE and XLE Premium models are expected to 27 mpg city. Estimates for the all-wheel drive LE, XLE, and XLE Premium are 29 mpg combined (26 mpg city, 33 mpg highway), but Adventure and Limited models are expected to get 27 mpg combined (24 mpg city, 32 mpg highway).

Rivals

The Toyota RAV4 has a long list of rivals. We’ve narrowed it down to a few key competitors.

Honda CR-V (base price: $24,350): Arguably the RAV4’s main rival. Along with the Toyota, the CR-V is one of the original compact crossovers, and it remains one of the most well-rounded vehicles in the segment. The standard Honda Sensing suite of driver aids is comparable to the RAV4’s Toyota Safety Sense 2.0. The Honda also offers a little bit more interior space.

Mazda CX-5 (base price: $24,350): The CX-5 drives better than any compact crossover should. It also has one of the nicest exterior designs of any utility vehicle. The interior and tech are less impressive, but this Mazda will make you smile nonetheless.

Nissan Rogue (base price: $24,800): Nissan sells a lot of these, but we can’t figure out why. The Rogue isn’t a bad vehicle, but it doesn’t offer anything unique. The RAV4 hybrid is expected to get better fuel economy than the Nissan, and the Toyota has more personality across the board. We’re not used to the Toyota being the more exciting option, but here we are.

2019 Toyota RAV4 Compared To

Subaru Forester (base price: $24,295): By trying to make the RAV4 feel more like a traditional SUV, and putting more emphasis on the all-wheel drive system, Toyota is really trying to make its crossover more like the Forester. The Subaru has always had an honesty that we appreciate, and the automaker’s boxer engines have been consistently good. A redesigned Forester could leapfrog the RAV4 with tech features like facial recognition for detecting driver fatigue. 

Peace of mind

Toyota offers a three-year, 36,000-mile, new-car warranty and a five-year, 60,000-mile powertrain warranty. The 2019 RAV4 is a redesigned vehicle, which makes predicting reliability difficult. But Toyota has a good overall reputation for reliability, and the previous-generation RAV4 has received generally high reliability ratings.

In addition to the aforementioned Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 suite of driver aids, the RAV4 comes standard with the automaker’s Star Safety System, which includes industry-standard features like stability and traction control and anti-lock brakes. Crash test ratings are not available yet as the 2019 RAV4 is a completely redesigned vehicle. 

How DT would configure this car

We’d skip the lower trim levels and go straight for the top Limited. At $34,900 ($35,700 for a hybrid) with all-wheel drive, the Limited is not egregiously overpriced, and it’s the only RAV4 trim level we sampled with decent interior materials.

2019 Toyota RAV4 Limited
Stephen Edelstein/Digital Trends

We would pair that trim level with the hybrid powertrain, which offers more power and better road manners than the base gasoline powertrain, not to mention better gas mileage. The hybrid powertrain adds $800 over a comparable all-wheel drive gasoline model, but given those benefits, we think it would be money well spent. The only downside is that the new RAV4 hybrid won’t be available in the U.S. until March 2019.

Conclusion

The 2019 Toyota RAV4 is a vast improvement over its predecessor. Up-to-date tech, a higher-quality interior, and improved driving dynamics turn the RAV4 from an also-ran into a contender. But while the 2019 RAV4 is a solid all-around vehicle, it doesn’t dominate its segment. It should definitely be on your shopping list, but so should competitors like the Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-5, and Subaru Forester.

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