2019 Toyota RAV4 review

First international drive

With a bold new look and a big powertrain changes, Toyota’s RAV4 has had quite a shake-up. We find out if they’re for better or worse.

I’ll spare you the long-winded build-up and just state it: the all-new 2019 Toyota RAV4 is pretty bloody good. And I’d bet something large and valuable that it’ll go down a treat with a great many buyers, many of whom are still signing up in droves for an ageing fourth-generation range that remains the second-biggest seller (behind the Mazda CX-5) in Australia’s hottest-selling segment (VFACTS YTD).

Needless to say, as the world’s biggest-selling SUV, it’s a hugely important model range for the maker and consumer alike. For it to be bloody good and maintain its popularity with Aussie buyers and beyond, it really must strike a balance of convention and evolution deftly and cleverly. And if our first drive at the international launch in California, USA, is a genuine barometer, there are strong signals that this all-new fifth generation strikes a good balance in mostly the right places.

Signals, perhaps, but the jury’s verdict is still well and truly out. We drove three variants both on- and off-road in the US, but it’s unclear how representative these American-spec vehicles are to what will arrive locally in Australianised form come April 2019. Some 11 versions will grace North American showrooms, but there’ll be just six, initially at least, in Oz. And Toyota Australia is being very tight-lipped about much in the way of further detail.

Two big changes are certain. One is the bold new exterior styling. The other is that the new RAV4 will be available as Toyota’s first hybrid SUV in Oz, effectively putting the unpopular and poor-selling diesel derivatives to pasture. Both, for this reviewer’s money, are pleasing and positive steps.

You’ll undoubtedly have an opinion on the look its designers call “robust, chiselled and athletic”, but I’ll fill in some gaps. In the flesh, it’s more compact than pictures suggest. Indeed, it’s actually shorter in height and length than the outgoing breed, if with a longer wheelbase, wider tracks and more ground clearance.

Yes, they robbed Toyota’s tough truck aesthetic for its front fascia unapologetically, but what initially seems a brutal design brief softens even after a couple of hours living with the look. Dodging femininity and curves brings a certain appeal to many ‘Dad tastes’ and, besides, given the edgy styling push of the rest of the Japanese brand’s contemporary model lines, was the new RAV4 really going to embrace a softer look?

Toyota Australia says we’ll get three powertrains and two different all-wheel-drive systems will be offered, but again won’t confirm specifics. The crystal ball isn’t so cloudy to be able to predict the entry 127kW/203Nm 2.0-litre four will be offered with a choice of either a six-speed manual (with rev-matching) or a CVT tied to the front wheels, and the high-spec 152kW/243Nm 2.5-litre petrol engine will be exclusively paired with an eight-speed automatic and a revised ‘mechanical’ AWD system that features torque-vectoring smarts.

The petrol-electric hybrid powertrain gets a unique, technically tricky all-drive system. Basically, the main power unit combines the lower-revving 132kW/221Nm Atkinson Cycle 2.5-litre petrol power and two electric motors – 88kW/197Nm combined – to drive the front wheels. Meanwhile, a separate single 40kW/117Nm electric motor powers the rear axle on demand.

Unlike the mechanical AWD method, with up to 50 per cent torque available at the rear, the hybrid has no tailshaft: either driven axle produces drive independently, and up to 80 per cent of torque can be ‘activated’ at the rear. Clever, eh?

Total hybrid system power is 155kW, though, mystifyingly, Toyota will not quote any combined maximum torque figure.

With ostensibly four power/drive combinations on offer, Toyota Australia will cherrypick amongst the five different petrol and four different hybrid variant grades available on the global menu to assemble its six-strong local line-up. But even then, actual specification will vary from the cars we sampled in California. Again, it’s signals we’re working with here.

Our first test car is a one-rung-from-top XSE HV hybrid; its healthy specification offering an introduction to the RAV4’s revamped cabin with positive light. Still, it’s something of the mixed bag. The dash fascia and door trims are a smorgasbord of colour and textures, much of it pleasing and soft to touch, with conspicuous effort to push the default RAV4 ambience more upmarket. Various highlights include neat rubberised door grab handles, a sort of knurled rubber on the climate-control dials, and lots of pretty double stitching, conspicuously on the dash pad.

Less impressive is much of the occupant interface that lacks for convincing new-school slickness. The half-digital/half-analogue driver’s instrumentation is overly busy and becomes dim in direct sunlight, the central stack controls are incongruent, and the 8.0-inch floating infotainment touchscreen and its software display quality looks as if it’s been lifted from any Toyota model from the past decade. Finally, CarPlay smartphone integration has made its way onto the brand’s global menu… But it’s been confirmed that it won’t actually be fitted, or even offered, in Oz.

The front seats, leather-trimmed in this spec, are quite comfy and well shaped, if a little flat in the seat back. The driving position is sound, with a nice sporty leather-trimmed multifunction steering wheel, though strangely the front passenger’s seat is set unusually high.

Most excellent is outward visibility. Despite appearances to the contrary, the new RAV4 has increased the size of the glasshouse and dropped its shoulder line. Add thin A-pillars and the relocated wing mirrors (to the door), and it's an airy ambience with generous views of the outside environment in both the first and second rows, the latter a real boon for small kids.

Row two offers generous knee, shoulder and head room in the outboard positions, where the rear seat back has pronounced contours and offers a nice blend of comfort and support for adults. The middle position, though, is more a make-do, short-trip affair with little concession to actual occupancy. More positively, there are rear air vents and dual 2.1A USB ports in the back, upping the total to five given the three outlets splashed around up front.

With the rear seats in play, boot space is between 585L and 656L – 79L more space than the old RAV4 – depending on whether a full-size or space-saver wheel is fitted under the floor which, with the latter arrangement, offers handy high and low tiers to locate the boot floor panel. Quite neat is that the nickel-metal hydride battery – no lithium ion here – is located under the rear seat, meaning no loss of luggage space, though the sloping tailgate – powered in all versions we tried – might inhibit loading a bulky payload.

With four adults aboard, the hybrid powertrain pulls faithfully and responds well to initial acceleration, though the petrol side of the power unit can get boisterous under full throttle. Be it in Normal or Sport mode – switchable via a novel rotary dial in the console – it’s an otherwise smooth and refined powertrain with enough herbs for heavy lifting, even up quite steep mountain pass ascents.

The real on-road highlight is how it tackles a bit of dynamic driving. It steers clearly and accurately, sits flat and composed in corners, and has a slightly firm if consummately compliant ride quality. For its 1700kg plus a full load of occupants, its eagerness to change direction and remain serenely composed is something of an eye-opener.

This is the US suspension tune of the strut/multilink architecture – Australia will most likely get different settings – but the damping is tremendously good; a real depth of compliance and a fast-settling rebound no matter how manically quickly we shot over whatever speed humps we could find in order to catch the suspension out. Bar the engine rasp it is, during balanced driving, a very quiet operator, with just a hint of tyre noise from its standard-issue 18s and minimal slapping across joins and cat's-eye road reflectors.

A novel addition to the RAV4’s tech credentials is the digital rear-view mirror, which switches from a conventional mirror to view-angle rear camera display at the touch of a button in its housing. It is a neat party trick, though in actual usability it’s tough to judge rearward parking distances and obscures anything below the rear window line. Not nearly as useful as a conventional rear-view camera then, and this car’s multi-view 360-camera system is far superior for guidance when manoeuvring.

Next up, we try the 2.5-litre petrol, eight-speed auto version one-up-from-base XLE, though it’s a front-drive version that almost certainly won’t make it Down Under. It has some strange spec anomalies – a urethane steering wheel and no sat-nav, yet it has heated front seats – but while the fully analogue instruments lack the fanciness of the prior car’s partial digital design, they’re easily legible and have a nice clear digital speedo in the small centre screen.

Presentation is quite decent and richly coloured, though it trades in areas for less tactile materials, yet the fabric choice for the seat trim is quite pleasant. Again, the front passenger seat is set unusually high in almost an attempt to get your hair rubbing on the headlining.

The less-complex underpinnings prove a benefit in saving weight: at around 1540kg it’s markedly more lightweight than the hybrid, moreso with only two adults aboard this time around the road course taking in some of the Californian coast’s picturesque mountain roads. It also sits on 17-inch wheels with 65-series tyres, which do nothing but enhance the RAV4’s already impressive ride qualities.

True to form, it’s a more lithe driving experience that's lighter both on its feet and at its controls behind the wheel than the heavier hybrid. Some of the weight reduction was achieved in reducing the amount of sound deadening, as ambient noise through the body is noticeable if, to be fair, far from annoying.

Under full throttle, it’s measuredly noisier than the hybrid, making assertive if hardly crackerjack acceleration. The eight-speed auto is a decent companion up until the point where you push on uphill, where it hunts up and down ratios attempting to keep the naturally aspirated engine in its lofty 5000rpm peak torque sweet spot.

Get a head of steam up and, again, the dynamic package really seems to punch above its weight for a medium-sized SUV. No, the depth in quality here isn’t what a great many RAV4 owners wish to buy into, but the dividends paid aren’t all in the servicing of driving fun. Its flat-stanced, grippy competency and sharp responses make it safer and easier to control from behind the wheel, and is by nature less carsick-inducing transit for the passenger occupants.

Our third test vehicle is a petrol-powered AWD Adventure variant, which fits the Multi-Terrain Select system offering Mud & Sand, Rock & Dirt and Snow driving modes at a twist of a dial. It also gets larger over-fenders and, strangely for a beaten-path version, 19-inch wheels – the largest we’ve tested at launch.

Across a course blending soft-roading with a smattering of middleweight off-road obstacles, it’s very quiet, impressively pliant in ride, and reasonably capable when challenged along steep and rutted descents and ascents. It’s a manicured, bespoke demonstration course that the RAV4 tackles without breaking a sweat, only occasionally bottoming out in the process. I imagine it might struggle over rougher terrain, though it’s certainly enough capability for typical weekend family camping getaways. Besides, if a proper 4x4 is your want, Toyota has a whole slew of harder-core off-roading devices as alternative choices.

While signals are quite positive for this highly likeable and very drivable new-generation RAV4 in foreign specification, how it will fare critically against quality competitors back home is punctuated with a huge question mark. Toyota boasts big improvements in tech, standard features and safety credentials – of which look very solid in US trim – but until final Aussie specifications and pricing come to light next year, the all-crucial value proposition remains to be seen.

Indeed, Toyota Australia suggests the new Corolla as a guide for pricing revision – up a few grand generation to generation to match lifts in specification – so it’s a fair guess the new RAV4 will kick off around the $31K mark. All will become much clearer when this highly anticipated SUV hits familiar ground in definitive form come April.