Toyota could be in the midst of creating a new ‘normal’, and so far in Australia it’s doing it alone.
The popularity of hybrid models amongst its ranges is soaring, and it's thanks to the expansion of hybrid options for mainstream models like the new RAV4, along with the Camry and Corolla. It’s a move no other brand emulates yet.
Hence this car: the 2019 Toyota RAV4 GXL Hybrid. While the RAV4 has become a commonplace sight on Aussie roads, until now petrol-electric hybrid versions have been off limits.
This vehicle is designed with the same form factor as a ‘regular’ RAV4, thus the same versatility and utility, but with the promise of more miserly running via fuel-saving hybrid tech. That allows self-charging electric power to briefly take some of the load off the petrol engine, and without the need for a wall plug to reap the benefits, unlike the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV or coming plug-in Ford Escape.
In GXL trim, the RAV4 is about as normal as you’ll find. Neither the price leading, fleet friendly base-model GX (from $30,640 before on-roads) nor the flagship Edge (at $47,140 +ORCs) strikes the same comfortable middle ground as the GXL range.
Options aren’t limited mid-range either, with a purely petrol GXL 2WD available from $35,640, a 2WD hybrid for $2500 more, or all-wheel drive for a further $3000 making the car tested here a $41,140 proposition.
Under the bonnet lies a 2.5-litre four-cylinder naturally aspirated petrol engine, the same you’ll find in a Camry, producing 131kW and 221Nm. It is assisted by electric motors operating independently across the front and rear axles, meaning all-wheel-drive capability with no mechanical link between the two.
Toyota gives an 88kW/202Nm output figure for the front motor, 40kW/120Nm for the rear motor, but the combined maximum lists as 163kW with no figure given for combined torque – in overseas markets, Toyota suggests 279Nm. I can only suggest similar here, though that’s not officially endorsed.
If you’re already familiar with Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system, you’ll encounter no surprises from behind the wheel. However, if you’re new to the world of hybrids, the experience can be a little different.
The petrol engine doesn’t run all the time, with electric motors doing some of the heavy lifting when they can. That means you might pull out of your driveway propelled silently by the electric system, or if you flex the throttle with more authority, the petrol engine may chime in to assist.
It’s possible to run up to urban speeds without waking the petrol engine, but in terms of EV range, the RAV4 is very, very limited. There’s an EV mode to keep the system from firing the petrol engine, but it’s really just enough to get you out of a car park and onto the main road, before the petrol engine starts up to either power the wheels or top up the onboard battery pack.
Truly, the latest generation of Camry and Corolla hybrids are very impressive, masking the noise and vibration of the petrol engine well. That’s important, too, as via Toyota’s E-CVT transmission, the engine can rev at a rate that doesn’t always line up with road speed depending on system demands.
Unfortunately, the RAV4 feels like it’s missed out on the deportment training its lower-riding siblings have been subjected to. Though you still wouldn’t call it unduly raucous, the RAV4’s petrol engine is far more noticeable in terms of noise and vibration.
The electric motors aren’t very powerful either, meaning that low speeds and low load are their forte. Go gentle on the accelerator and it's possible to waft up to 40km/h electrically, but in the regular pace of traffic, or at the first hint of an incline, the petrol engine will growl to life.
Ultimately, the sophisticated control programming will pick the right propulsion for the job. At low speeds, like crawling through busy peak-hour traffic, the petrol seems to kick in abruptly, with a noticeable jolt through the drivetrain. At higher road speeds, it’s smooth and hard to detect when it comes into play.
With an obvious skew towards keeping fuel use down, the system delivers as promised with claimed fuel consumption rated at a scant 4.8 litres per 100km. After a week of work commutes and a weekend country drive, the tested figure settled on a still-palatable 5.8L/100km.
This is a car that’s happy to canter with a relaxed air, especially if you can keep the tacho-replacing gauge at the left of the instrument cluster in its eco zone. Edge into the ‘power’ zone, even just slightly, and the RAV4 transitions from timid to much more robust in terms of powertrain delivery.
Despite the size and heft of the RAV4 (it’s no lightweight at just over 1.7 tonnes), there’s decent handling and keen steering. It won’t rival a hot hatch, but the new platform that underpins the RAV4 range – shared with the latest Camry – brings noticeable improvements to driving dynamics.
Ride is comfortable over an assortment of roads and surfaces, and on low-grip surfaces like gravel and grass, the all-wheel-drive system is responsive enough to keep you out of trouble, though ability is only mild and ground clearance, at 190mm, limits off-road excursions.
You can see more about how the RAV4 and its key competitors handle off-roading in our medium SUV off-road test.
The interior is a huge leap forward in appearance compared to the model it replaces, featuring some of the integrated styling details adopted by the Corolla and Camry.
There are plenty of well finished soft-touch surfaces, which are blended with more robust hard surfaces in lower sections of the cabin. Throughout the interior, appearance and tactile appeal have improved, but deliberately chunky details allude to the RAV4’s perceived robustness.
Unfortunately, Toyota seems to be addicted to downmarket-looking satin silver highlights. Not a problem in itself, but the frosted plastic look of trims that run around the air vents and into the dash spoils what might otherwise make the RAV4 a special place to be.
High-grade models also benefit from a wider range of upscale textures and additional interior illumination, but whereas squishy rubber door pulls and illuminated drive-mode controllers exist in the Edge and Cruiser, the GXL sticks with more utilitarian solid surfaces.
The GXL also keeps things simple with manually adjusted front seats, cloth trim, and no power assistance for the tailgate. Head further up the range and you’ll find upgrades in all these areas.
Seat real estate is decent, with room aplenty for front and rear seat occupants. The rears in particular show up much of the medium-SUV class when it comes to available leg and head room, while also attending to passenger comfort with rear air vents and a pair of USB charge ports.
Up front, there are three more USB outlets, plus the GXL picks up a wireless charge pad. Door pockets are typically Toyota in their generosity, and front cupholders work for bottles, cans, and travel mugs with a handle – if your morning commute involves a drive-in coffee stop.
At the rear, you'll find a dual-level boot floor offering between 542L and 580L of storage space depending on its position. Underneath that there’s a space-saver spare tyre. Towing capacity is rated to 1500kg braked/750kg unbraked for all-wheel-drive models.
Across the entire RAV4 range are features like auto-on LED headlights, an 8.0-inch touchscreen with digital radio, sat-nav and Bluetooth (plus the ability to upgrade to CarPlay and Android Auto, once Toyota rolls it out), heated power-folding mirrors, and rain-sensing wipers.
Linked safety and tech systems across the range include adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, lane-keep assist and departure warning, plus auto high beam and road sign recognition. Seven airbags, rear ISOFIX child seat mounts, stability control with trailer sway control, and hill start assist are also packed in.
They’re good safety systems, too, in that features like lane-keep assist and adaptive cruise control work in a comfortably natural way, rather than providing jerky inputs or jumping at risks that don’t exist, in the way some overbearing systems can.
Owners will be covered by a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty including five years of roadside assist. Stick to Toyota’s service schedule and the engine and drivetrain warranty stretches out to seven years, while the hybrid batteries are warranted for up to 10 years provided an annual ‘health check’ inspection is carried out.
Service costs are covered under a capped-price program that sets the first five visits, at 12-month or 15,000km intervals (whichever comes first), priced at $210 for each visit. Your dealer can provide a full rundown of terms, conditions and exclusions that may apply.
For all of the new RAV4’s improvements, none will have quite the impact of the more square-jawed appearance, which instantly gives a more imposing look. That alone should win plenty of friends. Dig a little deeper, though, and the space, utility, and frugal running costs reveal there’s more to this newest Toyota RAV4 than a sharp new suit.
Waiting lists already point to the Hybrid model’s pent-up demand, and after spending a week putting the GXL through its paces, it’s not hard to see why that’s the case.