I never thought I'd see the day. Being a total car nut the thought of owning an SUV, let alone one made by the blandest of bland Toyota, made me shudder. My previous expedition for a family car in 2015 saw me buy a Mazda 6 wagon, with not a single SUV considered. Now it was time to replace my faithful Astra SRi Turbo with another family car. It was between a Skoda Octavia RS Wagon and this RAV4 Hybrid. Had it not been for a rental RAV I’d previously driven, my shopping list would have again been SUV-free. In the end, the Toyota's fuel economy and parts and servicing costs settled it.
Toyota's really pulled their finger out with this one. I’ll be blunt, previous RAVs have been utterly mediocre. Bland, uninspiring 'cars' resting on the original RAV's laurels and Toyota's reliability reputation. There was really nothing outstanding about them, and especially compared to the competition from Mazda and Honda over the last 10 years. It looks like Toyota knew this, and as a result this new RAV's got it together.
Looks count and you're lying if you think they don't. Toyota have really upped their game with this RAV's styling. They’ve tossed out the Westinghouse stylists with the bath water and designed something that stands out. It has squared-off, taught, muscular styling that's clean and unfussy while keeping a bit of aggro. It's a real standout from the generally soft and swoopy SUVs that adorn our roads. There's some nice design flourishes too, like this gloss black fin that swoops down from the rear roof spoiler to the chunky, protruding tail lights, and also a nice contrasting black strip that runs across the top of the C-pillar. Gloss black roof racks, squared-off wheel arches and some actual design flourishes in the headlights really lift the whole look of the car.
Go to step inside and the puddle lights under the side mirrors and interior lights turn on as you approach. Nice touch. Inside, Toyota's put together a cohesive interior for once rather than the slapdash, haphazard afterthought of their interiors of yore. It has this chunky, semi-rugged style to it that suits the rest of the car. I quite like the crease in the upper dash as well as the chunky aircon dials surrounded in rubber that has a tyre tread pattern. I also like the gear stick for its uniquely (checks thesaurus for another word for chunky) hefty styling. Overall the interior is well done that, while not quite up to Mazda’s Audi-like finish, is adorned with mostly nice materials. It’s sadly let down by some hard plastics on the door trims, and the overuse of this fake silver trimming, which looks even worse in comparison to the occasional use of some very nice brushed chrome bits here and there. Why not use that throughout?
The included tech is very good and what you’d expect at this price point; stop/start, adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring and now Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard throughout the RAV range, with the mid range GXL throwing in niceties like full keyless proximity entry and wireless phone charging. You’re not left wanting for much and I’m not sure the Cruiser is worth the extra spend just for some leather seats, a two-thirds virtual cockpit, 360-degree parking camera, heated seats and an automated tailgate.
Actually, there are some days I wish had spent the extra $4k just for the automated tailgate.
The touchscreen is easy to use and the graphics are mostly pleasing although they’re still using a similar-looking Hybrid information screen that I think has adorned Toyota Hybrids since the 2nd gen model. It looks low res and dated. And why tie voiced navigation to the annoying school zone, railway, speeding warnings that you will absolutely want turned off? The information display in the instrument binnacle shows a wealth of information and relays some info from the touchscreen as well, such as song choice, sat-nav directions, and the like. It’s a nice touch, but there isn’t a single screen that shows a digital speed readout, odometer and trip distance in one. And watch out for the storage shelves/cubbies in the dash. They’re slippery and a good stab of the throttle will result in whatever’s stored in there being missile launched out across the car.
The interior is otherwise a very roomy and comfy place to be with great space between front and rear passengers and between rear passengers too. Space between the rear passengers was not something the RAV’s predecessors were good at. Or boot space. But on the point of the boot, again this one’s right up there; 580 litres if you lower the floor insert. In other words, it swallows everything you throw at it. The boot is also where Toyota have cut some corners to make the hybrid tech more affordable. The retractable boot cover for instance doesn’t attach to the boot door and lift up with it, nor does it have a mesh screen to hook up to the ceiling to separate rear passengers from a loaded boot. There are also no bag hooks and only one storage cubby on the right side. Wagons do boots way better.
Crucially for me though, this RAV is now up for a drive. Toyota’s TNGA platform has been the reason for the RAV’s newfound handling confidence and poise, not like its ponderous and wallowy predecessors. Toyota’s been doing hybrid drivetrains for a while now and the whole thing works seamlessly. It will definitely surprise you at first start-up; just silence that leaves you wondering if the damn thing’s on (checks dash, car says it’s ready, okay then). The drivetrain’s been engineered for fun too, and not just econo-snooze driving. Mash the throttle and there’s instant torque from the electric motors down low while the 2.5-litre petrol engine picks up the midrange. This also has to be one of the best CVTs I’ve ever driven, feeling responsive while not being too droney at all. Yes there is a manual mode but with a backwards Tiptronic and no paddles on the steering wheel, you won’t use it. It’s a weird manual mode too because it doesn’t change down gears as you slow - you can just put it into the highest ratio you want and then just boot the throttle to change down like it’s in Drive. I don’t get it.
You certainly won’t rev the engine out, as the noise that petrol engine makes is utterly uninspiring. It doesn’t sing like a Mazda or Alfa four pot. There are other drive modes as well; Eco which just dulls everything, Sport which sharpens the throttle and keeps the electric engines on boil, and in AWD models a Trail mode for when you accidentally come astray pulling into your driveway after work. I just keep this car in Normal mode and Drive. Although there's also this EV Only mode which is actually a bit of fun to use. If there’s enough charge in the battery it’ll engage and a light enough throttle will see it get to 50km/h before engaging petrol power. This is useful for silent buzzing around carparks and what not, and it is fun because when taking off, as those electric motors make for an addictive, Tron-like futuristic whirr. Yes, Tron.
A minor disappointment though is the battery’s limited range. The petrol motor is quick to engage above 30km/h and/or on anything other than featherlight use of the throttle. I’d like to see it in EV mode more of the time. Now officially, Toyota says you’ll get 4.8 litres per 100 kilometres. I’m getting 7.4L/100km, and that’s with a medium pram always in the boot, two child seats and usually one child in the car. Maybe 50 per cent of the time it’s fully loaded with two adults and two kids. And my right foot is a bit heavy (it’s a genetic thing), so all things considered 7.4L/100km for a SUV this size is brilliant.
As I said before the RAV has some handling prowess. It rides so comfortably with well-judged damping, but communicates just enough through the suspension (not through the dead steering), that when you get up it, you can actually feel where it is and how it’s going. It leaves you feeling confident that you can chuck this SUV into some corners and it’ll carve it out. And it does, except for the eco tyres that are very quick to squeal in protest. I'm definitely getting some more sporty hoops to replace them. I’ve yet to really blast the RAV up some twisty roads here (the Gillies Range here in Cairns is a great road for that) but the fact that I actually want to do that in this car speaks volumes for Toyota’s chassis work on this car.
So there you have it. I still dislike SUVs, if only because it's killing the variety of body shapes in the market and I’m an absolute sucker for a wagon or a swoopy sedan or hatch (don’t say 4-door coupe - that’s an oxymoron), but if they’re being put together as well as this RAV then I’ll concede these SUVs have some merit. This RAV definitely deserves to sell as well as it currently is. It’s brought affordable, accessible hybrid tech to the humble family SUV with some show-and-go to boot. Don’t be surprised if its competitors rush out hybrids or PHEVs across their range in response over the next few years, it’s that good. And while I’m hoping that when it's time to trade-in my Mazda 6 wagon in five years that there’ll be a wagon or hatch to replace it, thanks to this RAV, I think there will be some SUVs on my shopping list next time too. I'm praying that Subaru will still be making the Levorg.