New Car Reviews

2019 Toyota RAV4 Is All About Risk and Reward

And those rewards are likely to be ample

CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA, California — A niche vehicle at its inception 25 years ago but now practically an entire industry unto itself, the Toyota RAV4’s 2019 redesign sees it take a dramatic turn for the rugged. But rather than being a wanton risk, the change enhances the RAV4’s stature as Toyota’s bestseller and the truck/utility market’s top non-pickup.

The 2019 lineup incorporates nine trim levels—five with the gas-only powertrain and four with the gas-electric hybrid one—and all now share a platform with the Camry and Avalon rather than the Corolla, as in the past. The new RAV4 is a bit wider and offers up to 8.6 inches of ground clearance, but the roofline is slightly lower. The chassis is claimed to be 57 percent more rigid yet lighter than before, and it accommodates wheels up to 19 inches in diameter on the top-of-the-line Limited. The RAV4 has a new 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder gasoline engine and eight-speed automatic transmission, and the all-wheel-drive setup now has available torque-vectoring and rear driveline disconnect.

The thoroughly revised hybrid uses a version of the four-cylinder but routes its power instead through a continuously variable transmission and a unique, electric-assist all-wheel-drive system. Body designers received a green light and, evidently, a set of sushi knives, so the outgoing model’s squinty and somewhat dorky face has been supplanted by a craggy and puckered countenance that suggests that, after years of pursuit, Prospector Pete finally got a smooch from Madame Kitty. LED forward lighting is standard across the board to illuminate the way from your favorite trail back to civilization after a day’s paddle-bike-climb. The scalloped and sculpted sides challenge one’s eye; overall, we see a strong resemblance to other Toyota trucks, especially the Tacoma and 4Runner, and the design holds together pretty well.

Compared with the outgoing model, the new interior offers better outward visibility, a wider center console with side-by-side cupholders, and more backseat legroom. Options such as a panoramic sunroof, digital rearview mirror, eight-inch info screen, and wireless phone charging highlight the features list. The crystal-clear radiance of the optional 11-speaker JBL audio is a shock in a vehicle that costs from $26,545 to $36,745—it’s better than the system we have at home. When the RAV4 is equipped with Remote Connect, you can use a smartwatch app or Amazon Alexa’s Toyota skill to warm up the engine or find out how much fuel is in the tank.

Safety is a primary consideration for RAV4 buyers—and there were about 408,000 of them in 2017, or basically the population of Tulsa—and thus active safety features have increased. Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 is standard even in the entry-level LE and includes pre-collision sensors that, among other things, can detect bicyclists in the daytime (no word as to whether unicyclists will also be spared). The adaptive cruise control is good from a stop all the way to 110 mph, the lane-departure alert with steering assist now can read roads’ crumbly edges, and the RAV4 will also peruse road signs for you and send alerts if necessary. Passive safety includes eight airbags and a trial subscription to Safety Connect for emergencies. Trailer sway control helps, well, control trailer sway, with the Adventure model able to tow up to 3,500 pounds. (The other gas models are capped at 1,500 pounds, the hybrid at 1,750.)

Under the hood, the 2.5-liter four-cylinder meets the battle call readily but is a tad reedy under acceleration. The engine and other components are arranged to look respectable and smart, like a good review of municipal officials. Is this powerplant sophisticated? The 16 variable-action inlet and outlet valves are schooled to jump back and forth between beats as varied as disco, AC/DC, and techno. The high compression ratio of 13.0:1 (14.0: 1 in the hybrid) is like living on Bolivia’s Altiplano and never having a headache while running a marathon. This paragon of a four-banger eschews turbocharging but, in nonhybrid versions, still makes 203 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque while running on 87-octane fuel. The hybrid’s version of the four is rated for 176 horses and 163 pound-feet, but electric assist pushes total horsepower to 219 and allows the gas-electric XSE to dash from 0 to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds, according to Toyota. The automaker says 8.3 seconds is the best a gas-only RAV4 can do. The hybrid’s electric-drive components are more fit and efficient than ever, and its nickel-metal-hydride battery slots neatly under the backseat. The AWD-only 2019 hybrid can achieve an estimated 39 combined mpg—up 7 mpg from the 2018 model.

As mentioned, gas models get an eight-speed automatic transmission, a big upgrade with a wider ratio spread than the previous six-speed. In our driving, it operated invisibly. The hybrid’s continuously variable transmission is responsible for the same old counterintuitive engine mooing under acceleration. Indeed, our enthusiasm lags when a CVT is involved, even as Toyota is attempting to sell the XSE hybrid on its performance—it also has a sport-tuned suspension, they say. “Our goal is to broaden the appeal of the hybrids,” said Lisa Materazzo, Toyota Motor North America vice president, who expects the take rate to jump from 10 to 25 percent.

Our favorite of the bunch was the Adventure, the only gas model not available with front-wheel drive. We sampled a one of those in the alluring Lunar Rock gray with Ice Edge white roof, and the experience and color combo brought to mind a fun time we had years ago with an FJ Cruiser. Today’s two-toner has a skid plate and black slotted wheels with discreet machine finishing—quite easy to touch up after rubbing against rocks—and the Adventure also features the latest AWD driveline with torque-vectoring that funnels power to the wheel or wheels that have traction. We careened around a course at Carmel Valley Ranch, where Toyota hosted this preview, and found ourselves marveling at its tenacity and ability. And it could do even better, we suspect, with rubber more aggressive than the Yokohama Avids fitted to the vehicle we drove.

On the road, every iteration of the new RAV4 impressed with high levels of composure, substantiality, and refinement. The interior is quite serene, although some trim in the Adventure rattled over Carmel Valley Road’s indifferent pavement. The seating position and comfort are tremendous, as is the control layout. USB points abound, and the trim is imaginative and vibrant. We didn’t see our test cars after the wine was poured at dinner, so we can only transmit rumors of excellent nighttime ambience and the digital mirror’s backlighting.

The RAV4 was introduced in Europe and Japan in 1994 and came to North America in 1995. How well we remember our Four Seasons test of that first RAV4. I personally drove it thousands of miles in 1996 and 1997, including a sortie from Automobile’s former home of Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Tacoma, Washington, and back, to interview Richard Griot, founder of the Griot’s Garage catalog. Montana had no posted speed limits back then, and the RAV proved its cheek and contributed to my hearing loss by achieving 90 mph. (The cassette of Nirvana’s Nevermind didn’t help). Everybody at the magazine loved it; none had an idea it would lead a gargantuan category in the United States, selling roughly 14,000 fewer units in 2017 than Audi, Volvo, and Jaguar Land Rover combined.

Now turning 25 years old, this pioneer of compact crossovers has completed its MBA and hasn’t lived with its parents in years. For my own college frat brother who asks what to do when trading in his Honda CR-V next year, the answer is, “Yes, turn your pointy head toward the RAV4.” Moms, dads, doctors, retirees, adventurers, humanities majors, human-resources managers, acolytes, activists, zealots, and zombies will like this vehicle. Sales are going to grow, maybe because the category is expanding but also because the 2019 RAV4 is so appealing, especially compared to baby Jeeps and dowdy Subarus. Toyota’s risky redesign is rousing, and the rewards will be large.

2019 Toyota RAV4/Hybrid Specifications

ON SALE December 2018/March 2019
PRICE $26,545/$36,745 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 2.5L DOHC 16-valve I-4, 203 hp @ 6,600 rpm, 184 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm/2.5L DOHC 16-valve I-4, 176 hp @ 5,700 rpm, 163 lb-ft @ 3,600 rpm + front/rear electric motors, 118/54 hp, 149/89 lb-ft; total system output 219 hp
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic/continuously variable
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD or AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 24/26 city-32/34 mpg (city/hwy); 41/37 mpg (city/hwy) (hybrid)
L x W x H 180.9–181.5 x 73.0–73.4 x 67.0–68.6 in
WHEELBASE 105.9 in
WEIGHT 3,370–3,620 lb/3,710–3,800 lb
0-60 MPH N/A
TOP SPEED N/A