I’d like to imagine today’s car buyers, like Kyle Reese in the Terminator movies, being transported back to 1996 and meeting America’s first Toyota RAV4. “Half Car, Half SUV,” is how Motor Trend quaintly described it, as though perplexed by a naked cyborg Schwarzenegger in automotive form. Americans at the time were intrigued by this car-based trucklet that came with two- or four-doors, a 120-horsepower four-banger, a roughly $16,000 base price and—here's some serious time-travel shock— a standard five-speed manual transmission. But as with the Suzuki Samurai and Geo Tracker, no one foresaw the Toyota as more than an oddball niche vehicle in a land ruled by “real” SUVs. And if an all-knowing Reese had told people that the RAV4 would one day become the best-selling passenger car in America, he’d have been locked up for psychiatric evaluation alongside Sarah Conner.
As sci-fi as it seems, that’s exactly what happened. In a real-life Rise of the Machines, crossover SUVs have not only supplanted sedans, but in some cases (Ford, Fiat-Chrysler) threaten to wipe them out entirely. Toyota sold an incredible 427,170 RAV4s last year, more than its perennial-champ Camry sedan, and trailing only the full-size pickups from the Detroit Three. And that was for a mediocre RAV4 at the end of its life cycle, barely in the critical conversation with the likes of the Honda CR-V (the all-around class benchmark) or Mazda CX-5 (the criminally overlooked enthusiast’s choice).
This all-new, fifth-generation Toyota RAV4 still has some issues. But it’s dramatically improved, including a badly-needed injection of style and personality. That begins with a rugged, decidedly masculine exterior that hat-tips both the old Toyota FJ and today’s Toyota Tacoma. The word “geometry" was a guiding principle for RAV4 designers, including Chief Engineer Yoshikazu Saeki; the team turned away from the curvy, soap-bar shapes that have become a crossover cliche in favor of more chiseled forms—not the boxy squares of traditional SUVs, but various octagons, polygons and trapezoids for the front, body sides and rear. That includes the jutting, trapezoidal grille drawn from the burly Tacoma, and aggressive wheel arches.
It’s the kind of complex surfacing that has gotten away from Toyota (and Lexus) in the past, but here it’s executed with the right balance of boldness and restraint. The resulting RAV4 looks great: handsome, outdoorsy, substantial, but not so macho to be a turn-off for women. I can see Subaru execs saying, "Um, why can't our SUVs look more like this"? In a class that's notorious for bland, cookie-cutter designs, the Toyota is suddenly a standout.
This SUV's body is actually fractionally lower than before, but ground clearance rises by more than a half-inch, to a maximum of 8.5 inches. That’s about an inch more than many key rivals, and just 0.2 inches fewer than a standard Jeep Cherokee or a Subie Forester or Outback. The RAV4’s “lifted” look is quite intentional, with a black lower body that highlights the big “dead cat space” between the tires and polygonal wheel arches. The Adventure trim literally heightens that impression with black fender cladding and stylish, 19-inch machined aluminum wheels.
The look is more than superficial: My RAV4 Adventure clambered easily over some surprisingly tough terrain north of New York City, including nasty, muddy ruts and gut-check climbs and descents. (Late this year, a 2020 RAV4 TRD Off Road model will offer more backcountry capability, including twin-tube shocks and knobby off-road tires). A sturdy new AWD system that's standard on the Adventure, and optional on the chrome-laden Limited brings brake-based torque vectoring, an automated rear-driveline disconnect to boost fuel economy, downhill assist control, and rotary-knob settings for Mud/Sand, Rock Crawl, and Snow. Those modes are paired with a cool animation in the 7.0-inch driver’s display that shows which wheels are getting power and traction and which are slipping. LE and XLE models get a more-basic AWD set-up, while the RAV4 Hybrid powers the rear axle with an electric motor for its own four-wheel traction. And front-wheel-drive versions are still available for owners who prefer to stick to pavement and a budget, including a base RAV4 LE for $26,545.
The interior undergoes an equally dramatic transformation, though some of the coolest flourishes and features are reserved for top grades. Toyota designers clearly figured out that small details and well-chosen materials—like the two-tone perforated SofTex (it’s faux leather) on the well-bolstered front seats—go a long way to boost impressions of quality and smart design.
On the Adventure, a shapely two-tiered orange-stitched dashboard houses rubberized orange cubbies and a Qi-compatible wireless charging pad in the console. Two sturdy, rubberized knobs handle climate duties, and an 8.0-inch central infotainment screen stands tall, bookended by small-but-useful analog buttons. The Toyota’s Entune 3.0 multimedia system isn’t the fastest or slickest, but it gets the job done. And the touchscreen seems a godsend compared with the distracting, contemptible Enform unit on Lexus models. Dainty steering-wheel controls could give big (or gloved) hands some trouble, though.
An available camera-based rear-view mirror system mimics the one found on Cadillacs, and the optional 800-watt, 11-speaker JBL audio system (paired with navigation for $1,620) delivers excellent sound for a mainstream SUV. Apple CarPlay is aboard, but alas, Android Auto is not. My Adventure also included such goodies as heated and cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel, and a panoramic sunroof.
The Toyota Safety Sense suite brings a gamut of standard gear, including adaptive cruise control, automated pre-collision warnings and auto-braking with pedestrian detection, lane-departure warnings and lane-keeping steering assist. Options include automated high beams, blind spot warnings, rear cross-traffic alert and a camera that reads road signs and forwards that info to the driver’s display.
Rear legroom gives up a few inches to the class leaders, especially the peerlessly-packaged Honda, but there’s still plenty of space for two lanky adult passengers, or three humans in a pinch. The cargo hold is spacious and class-competitive with rear seats up or down, though the seats don’t fold dead-flat for easier loading of long and bulky items.
If only the engine made as big a leap as the rest of the car. Toyota’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine does get a bump to 203 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, up 27 horses and 12 pound-feet. (It’s actually the most standard horsepower in the small-SUV class.) And the RAV4 will roll to 60 mph in about eight seconds flat, aided by a new eight-speed automatic transmission in place of the old six-speed. But the engine is dutiful at best and bumptious at worst, with much racket and metallic gnashing-of-teeth when you pin the throttle for freeway merges or passes. Sure, many RAV4 owners will go years without flooring it, and the engine and transmission are otherwise unobtrusive. But some rivals’ engines, including the Honda’s optional 1.5-liter turbo four, are silkier and more sophisticated. That said, the RAV4 delivers excellent real-world fuel efficiency: I saw 33 mpg on the highway at a 65-to-70-mph cruise, right in line with EPA projections of 25/33 mpg for the Adventure, 27/34 mpg for other AWD versions, and 26/35 mpg with front-wheel-drive.
If that’s not good enough, an all-new RAV4 Hybrid (with standard AWD) now delivers a class-crushing 41/37 mpg and 39 mpg combined. That 39 mpg is 10–12 better than a typical compact crossover, a 7-mpg leap over last year’s RAV4 Hybrid, and a 7-mpg edge over its only gas/electric rival, the Nissan Rogue Hybrid. Total system horsepower jumps to 219, versus 194 before. The same 2.5-liter four is there, but running on the Atkinson cycle; there's also a 118-hp electric motor for the front wheels and a 54-hp electric motor for the rear ones, all juiced by a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack. That electric assist helps boot the RAV4 Hybrid to 60 mph in 7.5-seconds, about a half a second ahead of conventional versions.
Oh, and the price jump is a piddling $800 beyond comparable gas-only models, starting with a Hybrid LE at $28,745. If you’re okay with the Toyota’s continuously variable transmission instead of the conventional eight-speed in other versions, the RAV4 Hybrid is looking like a no-brainer deal in fuel-saving transport: Roughly 40 mpg in an AWD SUV is an answered prayer for SUV fans consistently frustrated over the lack of options in affordable high-riders that deliver meaningful savings at the pump.
As for the conventional RAV4, it no longer drives like a sponge cake on wheels. There’s a newly solid structure (shared with the latest Camry), a better-controlled ride, and direct, confident steering. There’s ample body roll in turns when you start chucking it around, but my RAV4 felt surprisingly spry and willing. The eight-speed transmission upshifts prematurely at times, but it’s no deal-breaker.
Again, the Mazda and Honda are in a class by themselves for dynamic performance. But really, who’s buying these little SUVs for their handling chops? (Judging by the Mazda’s discouraging sales, not many). And aside from those outliers, the Toyota’s ride-and-handling balance now seems as good—and in most cases better—than anything out there, the Rogue, Forester, Cherokee, Chevy Equinox, Hyundai Tucson, or Ford Escape among them.
If there’s a potential bummer, it’s the RAV4’s pricing as you scale the lineup. My Adventure trim starts at $33,945, but my loaded unit's options kicked the tally to $39,634. A top-shelf Limited AWD starts at $35,945. I dug the Adventure’s cheeky style—including that contrasting-color roof—and expanded off-road skills. But smart shoppers may hone in on well-equipped XLE models at $28,345 or the XLE Premium at $30,545.
People drawn to Adventure or Limited models may still feel that $34,000-to-$40,000 is a lot of money for a compact, non-luxury SUV, no matter how lavishly equipped. And they’d be right. Still, dangling these sweeties in showrooms is probably a masterstroke on Toyota’s part: Think of the way half-ton pickups have expanded their palette of choices, from affordable worker bees to royal showpieces like the Ram 1500 Limited that can shoot past $65,000. Since Toyota will likely sell 400,000 or more RAV4s in a single year—the closest analog to those market-ruling Fords, Chevys and Rams—I can only imagine how many people will walk into a Toyota showroom, determined to stick to a modest RAV4 budget, only to walk out with a Limited or Adventure grade instead. “C’mon, honey, it’s only another $70 a month,” a happy husband will say, and Toyota and dealers will happily share the extra profits, just as pickup makers have been doing.
RAV4 shoppers may be especially ripe for the ol’ upsell. The departing RAV4 was dull and only fitfully competitive, yet buyers didn’t care: For two years running, they snapped up more RAV4s than any vehicle in America that didn't flaunt a cargo bed. Between the Toyota's compelling redesign and the super-frugal Hybrid version, this RAV4 may put a stranglehold on its status as America’s favorite automobile. Don’t cry, Camry: At least you lost your title to a member of your own team.
Lawrence Ulrich,The Autance’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at [email protected].