2019 Toyota RAV4 First Drive - Choose Adventure Time
The 2019 Toyota RAV4 wouldn’t, at first glance, be my first choice for a run down famed California Highway 1 from just south of Monterey to the famed Bixby Bridge and back.
It probably wouldn’t be yours, either.
So I was pleasantly surprised when a mid-morning coastal ride in the RAV4’s Adventure trim showed me something I’d not seen from a RAV4 before — a personality. Not to mention on-road manners that were quite good by crossover standards. I already had the review written in my mind before I even swapped seats with my drive partner. Before long, however, I was reminded that snap judgments are often wrong.
(Full disclosure: Toyota flew me out to Monterey, California and put me in a hotel room that was uncomfortably close to my condo in size. The company also fed me several great meals, and the 2020 Corolla was unveiled during one of these meals).
This generation of the RAV4 is the fifth (makes me feel old; I still remember the first-gen trucklets), and it’s changed a lot. The styling no longer features gentle curves, instead going for a more macho look. The powertrains are new, and an eight-speed automatic transmission replaces the six-speed. An all-wheel-drive system with torque vectoring is now available.
A hybrid version goes on sale in March 2019. Non-hybrid models get a 2.5-liter four that makes 203 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, while hybrid models generate 219 net system horsepower and be all-wheel-drive only.
If all-wheel drive is your jam, you have two systems to choose from. Both allow you to pick drive modes that match the terrain, but the higher-zoot option features torque vectoring and disconnects the rear driveline during gentle cruising in order to improve fuel economy.
You can get your RAV4 in one of five trims if you select the regular, non-hybrid powertrain, or four trims if a hybrid is more your speed.
I started my day in the Adventure trim, which is the second-highest in the pecking order and offers orange interior accents to go along with exterior styling that includes larger fenders, a different bumper and grille, and different fog-light surround. It also has 19-inch wheels with five-spoke wheels that won’t be seen on other trims, and 8.6 inches of ground clearance (0.2 inch more than other trims).
That ground clearance and the aggressive styling may make it seem like an off-road trim, and while the Adventure proved capable on a relatively easy-peasy off-road course, it really shined on road. The steering felt natural and well-weighted, the engine snarled a bit under power, acceleration was quicker than expected (if not what I’d call fast), and the ride was sporty without being stiff on California’s mostly pristine roads. I’ll note that the Sport mode didn’t really make much of a difference.
After that, I hopped in an XLE Premium. Despite having the same wheels and steering ratio as the Adventure, and despite the fact that non-hybrid RAV4s all have the same independent MacPherson strut with hydraulic shock absorbers and stabilizer bar (front) and trailing wishbone multilink suspension (rear), the XLE Premium didn’t feel as engaging to drive. The steering felt more distant and artificial, the ride softer, the handling also softer. Once again, Sport mode didn’t make much of a difference. I yearned for Adventure.
I took two turns in a hybrid – one in an XSE HV, and one in an XLE HV. The XSE has a sportier tune to its suspension (the hybrid suspension adds a rear stabilizer bar and loses the front shocks, but otherwise is the same as on non-hybrid models), and the difference is subtle but noticeable. That said, the hybrid drove much like the previous-gen model, with steering that’s a little artificial in feel but not too far in the wrong direction (it felt a little more natural than what’s on tap in the non-hybrid XLE) and a ride that can occasionally get a little too soft. The biggest difference is that it feels lighter on its feet under acceleration than before, although it still could use more oomph.
Like before, a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine combines with the electric motor, and a CVT remains the only transmission available. Fuel economy is listed at 41 mpg city/37 mpg highway/39 mpg combined.
While control layout changes a bit depending on trim, the RAV4’s cabin is a pleasant place to be. The front seats are all-day comfortable, and rear-seat room is enough even for my taller frame. A wheelbase extension of just over 1 inch may be responsible for this, even though overall length shrinks slightly. Visibility is much better than it was before, and I dug the digital speedo on the Adventure trim while still liking the more traditional gauge cluster on the other trims.
The radio knobs and drive-mode selector knob are adorned with a cool rubber-like material, but as per usual, I am annoyed with an infotainment screen that stands above the center stack instead of being integrated. Interior storage trays abound – you’ll have plenty of places to put your cell phone while you try to avoid calls from your boss.
Also pleasing is the aggressive exterior styling. I mocked the next-gen RAV4 a bit after first seeing one months ago, but I’ve come around … somewhat. It’s not pretty, exactly, but it makes a stronger statement than the previous RAV. At least it looks rugged, even if few RAV4s will ever see a truly challenging off-road scenario.
We got to “off-road” a RAV4 – one of each powertrain – but the course was pretty easy; it was mostly meant to show off the vehicle’s hill-descent control, which features an in-dash graphic showing you which wheel is slipping and by how much (that graphic may be useful in the Snow Belt).
Feature-wise, there’s too much to list here – we’re talking about nine trims, for Pete’s sake. The list is LE, XLE, XLE Premium, Adventure, and Limited on regular models, and LE, XLE, XSE, and Limited (all of which get a HV tacked on) for hybrid models.
Key available or standard features include Apple CarPlay (but NOT Android Auto), multiple USB ports, premium audio, fog lamps, dual-zone climate control, power moonroof, power liftgate, navigation, in-car Wi-Fi, heated front seats, cooled front seats, heated rear seats, and panoramic sunroof. Available wheel sizes are 17- and 19-inch on regular models, with hybrids offering 17-inch or 18-inch wheels.
Available safety tech includes digital rearview mirror, lane-departure alert with lane-keep assist, rear cross-traffic braking, blind-spot monitoring, pre-collision system, and rear-cross traffic alert. The digital mirror works nicely, projecting a clear picture, but the lane-departure alert annoyed. At least the lane-keep assist system wasn’t too intrusive.
Fuel economy numbers for non-hybrid models ranges from 24 to 27 mpg city, 32-34 highway, and 27-29 combined. Prices start at $25,500 for a non-hybrid LE and work up to $33,500 for a Limited. All-wheel drive tacks on $1,400, and the AWD-only Adventure hits at $32,900. Hybrid pricing ranges from $27,700 to $35,700, and all have AWD. D and D adds on another $1,045.
If my money were on the line, I’d select the Adventure trim without hesitation. It was the most engaging to drive, and while some of the style elements are tacky – I liked the orange accents well enough, but I could take ‘em or leave ‘em – it does look a little bolder than the others in the lineup.
The rest of the RAV4 line leaves me feeling mixed. I still like the overall exterior look, and I appreciate the greater visibility from inside the cabin, but the driving dynamics are an incremental improvement, at best. The content mix is fine, but Toyota remains behind the times by not having yet made Android Auto available.
Toyota has taken a chance with the 2019 RAV4. It looks different from any that came before (no more cute ute), and I give the notoriously conservative company credit for opening up the playbook a bit. Toyota has also proven recently that it CAN make its cars engaging to drive – I generally feel good things about the current Camry, Corolla hatch, and even the newest Avalon. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement, but the “appliance” label is being shed bit by little bit.
Unfortunately, from a driving standpoint, the RAV4 hasn’t fully shed its commuter past. The Adventure gets there, and the XSE hybrid hints at it, but there’s still work to be done.
Give me an Adventure or don’t give me a RAV4 at all. Okay, fine, that’s not exactly true, and it doesn’t have the same ring as that more famous phrase. Still, if the RAV4 tickles your fancy and you fancy yourself someone who cares about driving, that’s the trim to go for.
Let the soccer parents who think they’ll take their RAV to the Rubicon scoop up the rest. Based on previous sales numbers, you know they’re going to.
[Images: © 2018 Tim Healey/TTAC]
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