“Know your enemy, know his sword.”
We’re reasonably sure Miyamoto Musashi wasn’t talking about the 2019 RAV4 Hybrid with that quote. The famous Japanese swordsman died almost 400 years before it was produced, for starters.
But for some driving enthusiasts, this Toyota is one of the sharpest blades in the enemy’s arsenal. It hits those petrolhead weak points — shock, a crossover; gasp, a hybrid — in quick succession, like a five point palm exploding heart technique on wheels.
As self-professed enthusiasts, we’re deep behind enemy lines here, then. A week with the RAV4 Hybrid will help make sense of its popularity, and there’s no chance we’ll be convinced by its daily do-anything abilities, right?
Wait a minute, that’s a crossover?
Right? After four generations of increasingly transforming the RAV4 into a car-looking thing, Toyota’s styling team has gone all butch for the fifth generation. The new model features strong lines and angles, making it look more Son of 4Runner than Corolla-on-stilts. Opinions on the styling will naturally differ person to person, but what we can say is it definitely helps it stand out in the very crowded compact crossover segment.
This newfound visual toughness makes the RAV4 look big. But truth be told, it’s actually very slightly shorter than the model it replaces. Thanks to a 1.2-inch longer wheelbase, interior space doesn’t suffer. There’s fractionally less front headroom, but more rear shoulder room to compensate. The trunk is also larger, and a more useable size thanks to improvements in the hybrid packaging.
There’s quite a lot of variation on the looks based on trim level too. The gas-only Trail gets a very cool white roof with some exclusive body color options, and the XSE Hybrid offers a black roof option. This Limited sticks to a sober single-color treatment, on five-spoke 18-inch wheels.
Okay, so what’s new?
Pretty much everything. The fifth-gen RAV4 rides on a modified version of the same platform that underpins most modern Toyotas, like the Corolla and Camry. That makes it substantially lighter than the model it replaces (quoted curb weight is 3605lb), though it doesn’t feel less refined because of that.
The hybrid system picks up more power over the previous generation, both in terms of its Atkinson cycle 2.5-liter, inline-four engine (now up to 176hp) and the two electric motors. One works in conjunction with the ICE unit up front, while the other powers the rears.
Add it all up for 219hp — Toyota doesn’t quote the combined torque figure — which results in a 0-60mph dash of 7.8 seconds. Not like you’ll be taking the RAV4 to the drag strip regularly, but it’s certainly capable of getting up to highway speed easily, especially in Sport Mode.
Sport mode? How’s it drive then?
Yes, even a RAV4 has selectable drive modes in 2019. No, it won’t turn this into a go-anywhere GR Supra. But it does encourage the electric motors to get in on the fun alongside the gas motor more often, giving the RAV4 a brawny point-and-shoot attitude. Throttle tip-in is more aggressive too.
No matter which mode the selector is in (there’s Normal and Eco too), the steering remains light yet consistent. There’s not much in the way of feedback, but on the flip side, the RAV4 rides with an impressive suppleness. Through the undulating backroads outside Waterdown, Ontario, the Hybrid isolated occupants from bumps big and small.
The Hybrid also did a better job keeping engine sounds at bay. The batteries offer a handy torque-fill for the ICE-and-CVT combo, resulting in smoother progress and less drone making its way into the cabin.
For most of our time with the RAV4, we kept it in Eco mode. This dulls throttle response somewhat, and aggressively cuts power from the four cylinder when presented the opportunity. The trade off is at the pumps: over the entire week and nearly 500km (310 miles) we averaged an impressive 5.4L/100km, equivalent to 43.5mpg. A single drive best was 5.0L/100km, or 47mpg. That’s city car levels of fuel sipping.
What made the softer side so easy to accept was the gamification of it all. The RAV4 Hybrid scores each and every drive out of 100. Drive smoothly, coast often, and use the regenerative braking and you’ll see a higher score. Who doesn’t like games?
During our week we weren’t able to take the Hybrid across anything more daunting than some very slightly muddy grass. However, we did take it down the never-ending construction hell of Toronto’s Eglinton Avenue, which is practically the same thing as off-roading at this point, right?
What’s it like inside?
In the top-shelf Limited trim, bright and airy. The lighter leatherette hue certainly helps, as does the sizeable power sunroof. Toyota hasn’t given the RAV4 a hyper-aggressive window line either, so plenty of light makes it into the second row too. Space behind the driver or front passenger is ample, for kids or adults alike.
As a partner in the daily grind, the RAV4 offers up numerous storage cubbies. The small shelf to the left of the wheel is perfect for change, which is a thoughtful touch. Wireless charging is standard, but if you need a cord, there’s no less than five USB outlets in here.
Everything falls to hand easily up front, with clearly marked controls in the center dash and the big 8-inch touch screen mounted up top. The screen is one of those “tape an iPad on and call it a day” affairs, but to its credit it’s easy to reach and operate, even in direct sunlight.
Toyota’s Entune isn’t the best of the infotainment crowd. It does the job well enough, but does so with a hint of lag and an aged design. The lack of Android Auto is a strange omission, but much of the lineup will address that for 2020. One touch we very much appreciate however is the seamless Bluetooth audio integration. Coming back to the car and turning it on immediately continues Spotify without any need to dive into a menu or even hit play. The nine-speaker JBL system brings the noise too, though we found the balance quite front-heavy.
Befitting a range-topper, the Limited features an entire suite of safety and driving aids. Every Hybrid model gets a blind spot monitoring system with cross traffic alert, while the Limited adds automatic braking to the latter. A 360-degree birds eye view monitor is also a Limited exclusive, making maneuvering in tight underground a cinch. Dynamic cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist, and lane tracing are all also standard across the Hybrid lineup.
Who is the RAV4 for?
The RAV4 was already Toyota’s best-selling model in the US and Canada last year. This new-shape hybrid is taking a larger share of the sales too. In fact in August Toyota Canada shifted more RAV4 Hybrids than the Prius itself, which is saying something. If it maintains its current trajectory — a 22% increase over 2018 — the RAV4 will be within striking distance of the Honda Civic, the best-selling vehicle in Canada that doesn’t have a bed behind the passenger compartment. So yes, lots of people will have the fifth-gen RAV4 on their shopping list.
What are the alternatives?
It’s the hottest segment in the automotive sector: pretty much every single automaker has a compact crossover on offer. Unless it doesn’t like making money.
That being said, this is the domain of the Japanese and Korean brands. Honda’s CR-V is arguably most like the RAV4, even in terms of measurements, except under the hood, where a tiny 1.5-liter turbo resides. Want a heartier all-wheel-drive system? Check out the Subaru Forester which, like the RAV4 Hybrid, comes with a CVT. Want something sportier? No question, the Mazda CX-5 is the athlete of the class. The Korean duo of the Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage both offer strong value propositions too.
There’s also the Ford Escape, which is being replaced in a matter of weeks. At one point the Escape was the best-seller in the class. The new model is even more car-like than its competition, which could work in its favor.
Of the whole group, none can match the RAV4 Hybrid’s fuel mileage, which shouldn’t be too surprising. That may not last long, however: the Escape will feature two hybrid models in 2020, and Honda announced its own hybrid CR-V earlier this week.
What is mildly shocking is that, outside of the turbo Kia and Mazda — both engine upgrades — the RAV4 Hybrid is also the quickest in a straight line.
What’s the conclusion?
Like another crossover we tested recently — the Mazda CX-3 a size down — there’s little to dislike about the RAV4. That’s doubly true in top-spec Limited Hybrid trim. Sure, $42k for a RAV4 sounds steep, but it’s grown from the cute-ute original to legitimate family vehicle. In a week it did everything we asked of it without fuss, and we emerged from each trip feeling unstressed. It’s an easy ride to gel with.
For everyday use it’s incredibly hard not to recommend the hybrid over the regular gas version. The price difference is negligible ($1500), meaning it will pay for itself in no time. Not only that, but it’s quicker than its conventional sibling, without the thrashy-sounding engine. Getting stuck in traffic jams on highways always sucks (gas), but knowing that won’t burn as much of what’s left in the tank as others in the class tends to take the sting out of it.
It’s not the most involving drive: leave the enthusiast fun to the CX-5, especially in turbo form. But the RAV4 doesn’t embarrass itself either. It does what it’s told with polish, and there’s fun to be had in using Sport Mode as a push-to-pass (or is that twist-to-pass?) shove when needed.
All the space most people would need, fuel mileage that shames city cars, and stand-out looks? It’s no wonder the RAV4 is everywhere. And if more RAV4 sales means more opportunities for Toyota to fund other projects — the sorts of swords we really do love, like the GR Supra — then we welcome it.
Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Limited
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