Toyota has long specialised in producing brilliantly mediocre vehicles. Brilliantly robust and reliable cars, and mediocre, conversely, because of that focus on reliability. Toyota is conservative by nature, and in all honesty, buyers don’t care. You don’t buy a Toyota for the exterior flair, the design language, or the cosseting interior. You buy a Toyota because it is reliable pure and simple and cheap to run over hundreds of thousands of miles if need be. The Toyota RAV4 is finally Toyota doing something interesting, which is highly unusual. It doesn’t look like a Toyota on the outside, nor does it look like a Toyota on the inside, but god-damn it, it is a Toyota.
The new generation RAV4 launched in 2019 and exorcised the Toyota-ness seen in the previous generation. It is a significant step up and a step in the right direction. In the UK it is available in 5 trim levels, entry-level models are offered in front-wheel drive while top-level models are prepared for every aspect the urban jungle can throw at its AWD system. The new RAV4 is re-designed and reengineered from the ground up.
The model range is effectively offered in two separate model variants, the Rav4 Hybrid and Rav4 Plug-in Hybrid. We’ll focus on the hybrid model. Only one engine is available, a 2.5-litre 215 bhp, 4-cylinder hybrid linked to a CVT automatic gearbox. Three driving modes enable three planet-saving driving characteristics. I very rarely used them preferring the ‘Normal’ mode to do all the thinking for me. Being a hybrid the RAV4 has the ability to switch between the petrol engine and fully, but somewhat limited, electric powertain.
You will only ever get around 2-3miles of electric drive before the system switches seamlessly back to petrol. Braking and engine-braking act as the means of recharging the battery which means you always have electric drive. It only works best in low-speed or traffic situations. On the motorway, whatever reserves of electricity remain will be depleted quicker than a rouge individual sneezing in a room full of covid positive people who are feasting on cheese and wine. Nevertheless, the engine performed better than expected. Acceleration was crisp and responsive.
CVT transmissions tend to respond best with more power, and that was the case with the RAV4. However, under acceleration, the engine will audibly drone in the background like a complaining Karen angry that his/her coffee was served 1-degree too hot. That didn’t bother me because the engine, performance, and driveability was very responsive, similar to a torque converter transmission. The RAV4 isn’t a performance vehicle, but its performance is very capable for everyday use.
The ride is a little on the firm side. Toyota says that the new rear double wishbone suspension adds more stability to the ride and handling. And it does, but overall the front and rear feels a little on the stiff side. Not surprising given that the RAV4 has the additional burden of carrying that electric motor and battery pack to make the hybrid functionality work as one. To compensate for that extra weight the suspension setup is stiffened, hence the stiff but predominantly comfortable ride.
Nevertheless, the RAV4’s comfort was somewhat benign, the ride and handling were competent and predictable, exactly what you want from a midsize SUV. Toyota has made numerous improvements to the engine and hybrid battery technology. The engine is more efficient, the electric motor smaller, also more efficient. The size and weight of the battery pack have been reduced while offering better efficiency. The RAV4 returned 51 mpg on a combined and steady driving cycle. The same as the previous generation.
The interior is definitely lacking the usual Toyota-ness accounting hacks and cost-cutting tricks. As a comparison, the VW Tiguan feels like a van, even with a leather interior. The Toyota RAV4, on the other hand, feels like a significant upgrade over the Tiguan The RAV4 offers a cosseting interior. Strategic use of soft-touch materials enhances a sense of plushness and perceived cabin quality.
Toyota has ended the use of cartoonish-looking interior design cues and opted for a mature, contemporary almost minimal design language. The heating controls have quick access physical buttons and man-sized rotational dials. However the infotainment system is clunky, the software and UI feels about 5 years behind current trends. Thankfully Toyota allows the integration of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to compensate for the built-in Toyota-ness.
Because the new-gen RAV4 is slightly longer and wider than before, the interior room is predictably much improved both for front and rear-seated passengers. Boot space is also improved by 79-liters (580 L, 1,690 L with lowered seats) and more than generous with the rear seats folded flat. It’s a midsize SUV, by default you will have plenty of rear cargo space, deal with it.
The entry-level Icon trim level has a comprehensive standard equipment list. Most people will opt for the Design trim which adds 18-inch alloy wheels, powered boot, rear parking sensors (on top of the reversing camera) and a suite of driver safety functionality.
All-in-all, the Toyota RAV4 is now a very compelling SUV because it is a significant step up for Toyota. It doesn’t matter what spec you go for, whether you have the standard cloth or leather-faced interior, all trim levels feel the same. It’s a Toyota-ness specialty. While it isn’t perfect, it is much better than the over-rated Volkswagen Tiguan. You couldn’t say that about the old RAV4.
That is to say, personally speaking, if given the option, I would not hesitate to order a brand new Toyota RAV4 over a Volkswagen Tiguan.