Few things are more ubiquitous and common on American roads than power lines, gas stations and the Toyota RAV4. In fact, Toyota managed to sell just shy of half a million of them last year. Obviously, the car is doing something right. I wanted to find out what that was.
Maybe it’s America’s obsession with crossover-ish looks and ground clearance. Maybe it’s the space these bigger cars offer. Maybe it’s being able to see over the traffic. Maybe it’s that the RAV4 is legitimately a good car. Speed, fun and excitement aren’t on the menu here at all, is the only thing.
But after spending a week with the RAV4, I think I get it now.
(Full Disclosure: We wanted to drive the 2019 RAV4 so badly that we asked Toyota and it loaned us one and provided a full tank of gas.)
What Is It?
The 2019 Toyota RAV4 has been redesigned to look more aggressive than ever before, borrowing straight lines from its truck-like 4Runner cousin. Personally, I think it looks great—I particularly enjoy the geometric-shaped grille and the attractive two-tone paint that my loaner came with.
It only infuriates me slightly (just slightly!) that the cladding around the wheel arches don’t connect with the cladding along the bottom of the car.
Impressively, the Toyota RAV4 was Toyota’s most popular car last year. Behind trucks from the Big Three, the RAV4 was America’s fourth best-selling vehicle in 2018 with over 427,000 units sold in total, according to a company statement. That averages out to almost 36,000 cars sold per month. That’s nuts.
It’s a five-seater crossover with a good-sized trunk that’s meant to be your daily driver until either you or the car dies, whichever comes first. (It’ll probably be you, these things last forever.) Maybe you’ve fooled yourself into thinking you need more space. A bigger car. But do you really? Does anyone? I’m sure the RAV4 will be able to handle 90 percent of the tasks you throw at it.
Specs That Matter
The RAV4 is powered by a 2.5-liter four cylinder engine that produces a claimed 203 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, according to a spec sheet, and uses an eight-speed automatic. Toyota loaned me the Adventure AWD version, so, as its name indicates, it has standard all-wheel drive.
That Adventure trim also raises the ground clearance by 0.2 inches over the base car to a total of 8.6 inches, gives it a more aggressive face, bigger over-fenders and roof rails.
It offers between 37 to 37.6 cubic feet of trunk space, which is slightly less than the Honda CR-V’s 39.2 cubic feet of trunk space. This is more than enough for suitcases, trips to Costco and several moving boxes. Wherever your path takes you.
Regardless of how much drama you might have in your life, you can expect pretty much zero of it to come from the RAV4. Driving and living with the car will never be a bother, a hassle or an inconvenience. You’d be hard-pressed to find a day when the stuff you’re trying to move won’t fit inside it without a struggle.
We even tried it out ourselves and fit a whole 55-inch TV box (horizontally), a guitar case, a suitcase, three bankers boxes, video equipment and two passengers comfortably in the front seat.
The RAV4 is a car that you won’t be afraid to use, since it was certainly designed to be useful. The back seats fold down with ease so you can store larger objects and it’s tall so you can stand some things upright. And it drives without a complaint over bumpy roads. That pothole better be massive for the harshness to transfer into the cabin. You get the sense that not much can upset this car.
Additionally, my test car came with some very attractive upholstery: Leather in a super light gray, almost white color with darker gray and orange contrast stitching. That orange also appeared in the various cubby holes as an accent color. It’s a very stylish touch and gives the interior a youthful feel. Unfortunately, the orange trim is exclusive only to the Adventure models.
My favorite features were the little, rubber-lined cubbies in the dashboard. These were just big enough for a phone, wallet or pair of sunglasses and had a little lip on the outside so nothing would roll away. And the rubber makes it easy to clean.
This means that even with two drinks in the center console cupholders, you still have space for your various loose items, which is extremely thoughtful.
The RAV4 also has big, tall windows, so seeing out of it is a breeze. That makes it easy to park and easy to place, even on crowded streets and parking lots.
I know that Toyota probably gave the RAV4 an eight-speed transmission to be more fuel efficient, but damn is that gearbox a drag. At best, it’s slow and at worst it’s dopey. On higher-powered cars with longer gears, eight is an acceptable amount of gears, but on this little Toyota, it was far too many.
It felt like it was shifting constantly under acceleration, with absolutely no interest in exploring the rest of the rev range. Downshifts came with very little urgency, especially if you were to, say, try to pass someone.
Perhaps there was a reason for this resistance to letting the engine hang out in the higher revs; if you manage to kick the needle past about 4,000 rpm, a very tinny, four-cylinder drone will bray into the cabin. Other four-cylinder cars sound good. This one does not.
You could always put on the radio to drown it out, but if you’re an Android user, you won’t be hooking up your phone anytime soon. A Toyota spokesperson said that there are currently no plans to implement Android Auto to the RAV4. It does offer Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa capabilities as standard, though.
I get why people prefer cars with a lot of ground clearance. I don’t think it has anything to do with clearing any actual ground and all to do with being able to see over stuff. It’s a position of vastly improved visibility—something the RAV4 offers plenty of. You never feel dwarfed by anything in the RAV4 this side of an 18-wheeler, giving you a sense of better control and security. This is probably why the RAV4 is now huge.
Steering is light at low speeds and it never gets much heavier beyond that. There’s very minimal effort required to steer the car. The brakes are grabby near the top of the pedal travel but feel like they lose a bit of force the further you press, so you have to learn to modulate a bit more here than with other cars.
There isn’t a whole lot of power available, either. Inadequate is perhaps too unfair a word to describe the four-cylinder on highway merges, but it certainly lacks grunt. The engine feels happiest sitting in the low revs and cruising along at a fixed speed.
If you need to accelerate for some reason, you can almost feel the car roll its eyes, sigh, push up its sleeves and then carry out the command.
That being said, it’s a pleasant cruiser. Having never driven it before, you can easily hop in and embark on a cross-country road trip without having to stop and learn the car at all. All the controls are where they are supposed to be. Designing a car to be simple and intuitive ought to be an easy task, but apparently it isn’t! Toyota nailed it here, though.
Thankfully, the RAV4 is set up in a way that you never need to stop and wonder how something works.
The MSRP for the RAV4 Adventure AWD is $32,900, but my loaner came out to be $39,634.
That’s because it had stuff like the $1,185 weather package (heated, leather trimmed steering wheel, front bucket seats), the $1,265 technology package (rear cross-traffic braking, digital display rearview mirror, wireless phone charging), the $1,620 premium JBL audio system and $500 two-tone paint.
A $40,000 RAV4 brings you squarely into Highlander territory, which offers more room, a bigger engine and more power. But maybe you’d get the fully loaded RAV4 because you simply don’t need the bigger car. That’d be a commendable choice.
For a car that’s designed to be a no-brainer, the RAV4 is as good as they get. You don’t even need to really think about climbing in or out of it, no bodily contortions necessary.
Sure, it’s not the most exciting thing to drive in the entire world, but its purpose is to help you run errands, get you to work and maybe do some light gravel-road exploring if you have free time on the weekends. It does all of those things beautifully and is completely comfortable in its role as practical people mover. It doesn’t pretend to be anything more. No wonder Toyota sells so many of them.
We argue a lot on this website about whether or not boring is a crime. And when you’re designing for a sporty enthusiast in mind, I’d say it is. But when you’re selling a car to people who just want a car they can drive off a lot and never worry about again, the RAV4’s got it in the bag. Sales numbers don’t lie.
And think about it this way: All the money Toyota makes from selling thousands and thousands of RAV4s can get funneled into more exciting projects like the Toyota Supra.
So, really, we all benefit from it.
A Second Opinion from Jason Torchinsky
Yes, I too had a RAV4 for a week, and I too experienced the same mind-scrambling general reasonableness and acceptable usefulness of this undemanding and capable-enough SUV.
I wasn’t crazy about how it drove; the eight-speed auto felt like a CVT at times, and I think we all know that’s not a great way to feel. It’s not especially engaging to drive, but I believe the vast majority of buyers won’t even care or notice at all. It’s fine.
The gray color of the one I had I think was novel and well, and worked well with the somewhat overdone and fussy styling; it’s not exactly attractive, but it’s not terrible, and the interior design and material choice is good.
The cargo area is a good size, but the heavily trapezoidal shape of the cargo area is actually a bit limiting when it comes to hauling bulky items; I finally replaced a TV that’s older than my kid, and I felt like I should have been able to slide that thing in upright, but it was just too big by frustratingly small amounts, since that rear opening is deceptively smaller than you’d think.
It’s fine. People will get these and be satisfied. There’s not exactly a compelling reason for this to be an SUV instead of a wagon, but that’s a whole other can of ham that’s not worth getting into now. RAV4s will sell and sell until, I guess, the heat death of the universe, and I’ve made my peace with that.
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