2020 is bound to go down in history for any number of reasons, most of which are hard to put a positive spin on. For the auto industry, it marks the year the Toyota RAV4 took top spot in the monthly sales charts.
That victory was some 26 years in the making, and 2020’s new-car market is hardly a stable one, but who knew when the RAV4 arrived in the mid 1990s it would go on topple cars like the Mitsubishi Magna, Ford Falcon, and Holden Commodore as they fell one by one?
While the RAV4 has outlived those family freighters, plenty more challengers have sprung up. Names like CR-V, X-Trail and Outlander might have been unheard of when the RAV4 first appeared, but they’re almost household names today.
Traditional hatchbacks have held on a little longer than the station wagon, but even they’ve passed the practical baton to SUVs.
Much time and attention have been devoted to the RAV4 hybrid, with Toyota’s petrol-electric model lines gaining momentum with few competitors. While hybrid tech may be the star of the show, how does the regular petrol range stack up?
In middle-of-the-range GXL trim, the RAV4 comes one of three ways: hybrid 2WD, hybrid AWD, or in a ‘regular’ petrol version, with two-wheel drive, as tested here. Priced from $37,290 plus on-road costs, the 2020 Toyota RAV4 GXL is a little more budget-friendly (by $2500) than the hybrid 2WD and doesn’t face the delivery delay backlog afflicting hybrid models.
Under the bonnet, Toyota deploys a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine with outputs of 127kW at 6600rpm and 203Nm at 4400–4900rpm. It’s the same engine as you’ll find in a Corolla, though outputs are slightly different.
Unlike the entry-model RAV4 GX, the GXL skips the option of a manual transmission, leaving only a CVT auto. In this instance it’s what Toyota calls a Direct Shift CVT, which uses a traditional first gear before switching to a continuously variable transmission for a best-of-both-worlds approach that removes some of the vague feel usually associated with CVT automatics.
As for the spec list, all RAV4 models include – as a minimum – LED headlights with dusk-sensing and auto high beam, rain-sensing wipers, cloth seat trim, alloy wheels (18 inches in this instance), power windows front and rear, a 4.2-inch colour trip computer display, front and rear park sensors, and heated power-folding mirrors.
There are a few mix-and-match items on hybrid versions compared to petrol, but comparing the GXL to the GX with the same drivetrain you’ll also pick up keyless entry with push-button start (since added to GX models from August 2020), dual-zone climate control, mudflaps, privacy window tint from the B-pillar back, a self-dimming interior mirror, leather-look steering wheel rim, and ‘premium’ embossed fabric seat trim.
On the infotainment front, there’s an 8.0-inch touchscreen with factory navigation, smartphone mirroring for Apple and Android (via wired connection), AM/FM/DAB+ radio, Bluetooth, and six-speaker audio. The GXL also comes with three front and two rear USB points, and a wireless phone charger up front.
The cabin design runs with the RAV4’s chunky adventure-seeking aesthetic, with big rubber climate-control dials that became a real talking point amongst friends who rode along. Solid door pulls and the unusual embossed seat trim and speaker grilles continue the outdoorsy theme.
Storage is absolutely everywhere – from a place to keep your sunnies overhead, to big door bins, a wireless charger that’s actually big enough for most jumbo smartphones, and an open shelf that runs across the dash, which is borrowed from the larger Kluger.
While the RAV4’s finishes and fit-out might only be borrowed from other members of the Toyota range, it manages to be just different enough in its design details to stand out. Almost a little Citroen-esque in its use of mainstream materials deployed in slightly bolder ways.
There are some nicer materials and finishes in the more expensive Cruiser models when you have the two side-by-side, and this can leave the GXL feeling a little more utilitarian and less premium. Closer to the fleet-spec GX.
Seating space is generous for all occupants, but the rear in particular shows up other medium SUVs with better than average leg room. On hot summer days, those console air vents are sure to be welcomed, too.
As more and more cars move to digital, or at least semi-digital, instruments, the RAV4 might feel a little less cutting-edge, but what you do get is clear and legible without going overboard. The same goes for the infotainment. It may not be the crispest and some graphics look a bit bland, but the basic functionality is easy to decipher.
The boot holds up to 580L, but can be sectioned off with a two-level boot floor that leaves a 542L capacity with underfloor storage. Beneath that lives a space-saver spare, while a cargo blind up top helps keep things out of view.
Toyota’s decision to stick with a non-turbo 2.0-litre engine doesn’t look too exciting on paper, but compared to the previous RAV4 there’s a little more power and torque, and a slightly lower kerb weight to keep acceleration lively.
On the road, the RAV4 is absolutely suited to the daily commute, and can reach freeway speeds from standing on-ramp starts without coming unravelled. It probably won’t excite motoring thrillseekers, but it won’t upset the majority of users either.
Toyota’s auto is smooth and quiet enough that you’ll rarely notice what it’s up to. It can pin revs high, and betray itself with a bit of noise if you ask for a sudden squirt of acceleration on the go, but other than that refinement is mostly hard to fault.
The on-road demeanour makes the RAV4 a decent all-round package. The ride is extremely comfortable over most surfaces, and takes the bump and jiggle out of patchy local streets impressively.
The steering is light and easy at parking speeds, but not vague or wandering on the highway. There's more precision than Toyotas of old, too – not just through the steering, but the whole handling and body-control package.
If anything, the RAV4 is now teetering right on the edge of compact city-sized dimensions and feeling a little large in some urban settings. Not that the RAV4 has grown much – it’s actually 5mm shorter than the old model and only 10mm wider – but in some ways feels a little chunkier.
Official fuel consumption is a suggested 6.5 litres per 100km, but after a week of work-and-back runs, and a weekend in the countryside, the petrol GXL settled on 8.8L/100km.
Buyers seeking a punchier option no longer have the choice of a 2.5-litre petrol with all-wheel drive in the GXL. Only the top-spec Edge at over $10K more ($48,790 before on-road costs) fills that gap.
On the other hand, the comprehensive hybrid range puts a 160kW front-wheel drive or 163kW all-wheel-drive GXL within reach at $39,790 and $42,790 respectively. As an added bonus, weekly fuel bills should be lower, too.
On the service front, Toyota provides a capped-price service program with 12-month or 15,000km intervals. Each of the first five visits is a very affordable $215.
The warranty covers five years with no distance cap for private buyers (or a 160,000km limit for commercial-use vehicles), while Toyota engine and driveline coverage extends for a further two years on vehicles maintained in line with the warranty and service book guidelines.
The RAV4 GXL does, however, provide an excellent balance between features, utility, user-friendliness, and capable day-to-day dynamics. Because it does so many things so well, it deserves a spot at the top of the medium-SUV segment.
Not just because it’s a Toyota, which to many is appealing in its own right, but because it’s a good Toyota. In fact, branding aside, the RAV4 would be good no matter what. Plenty of safety kit, room for your family, and appealing pricing all stand in its favour.