The battle for SUV bragging rights has begun, and like many boasts, it’s about posturing at least as much as reality.
Jeep’s TV campaign proclaiming, “SUV. These letters used to mean something. Letters earned in backwoods, high hills and step dunes …” is one sign. Toyota’s new RAV4 compact SUV is another.
As the number of SUVs on the market mushrooms, automakers will spend billions to make theirs seem different and special. Some will go for sleek looks, luxury, power and handling. Others by offering room for the kids and pets.
The 2019 Toyota RAV4 compact SUV does it with styling and some features intended to evoke a tough and capable image similar to what Jeep’s images of military air drops and rock climbers recall.
The RAV4 doesn’t have a history of heroic exploits off-road, but that doesn’t mean it can’t look like it does.
Behind the Wheel
2019 Toyota RAV4 Limited AWD
All-wheel-drive, five-passenger compact SUV
Price as tested: $38,989 (excluding destination charge)
Rating: Four out of four stars
Reasons to buy: Looks, fuel economy, hybrid model
Shortcomings: Engine noise; Android Auto not available.
The RAV4 was one of the pioneering car-based SUVs, debuting in 1995, a misty past when combining an SUV’s height and visibility with the soft ride and fuel economy of a sedan made it rare and special. Today, SUVs with the kind of chassis once reserved for sedans are a dime a dozen. They account for about 50 percent of U.S. vehicle sales, pushing traditional sedans to the brink of extinction.
The RAV4 is in a pitched battle to be America’s best-selling non-pickup, a fight it will wage with Nissan and Honda till the last registration slip is signed this year.
In 2019, an SUV with the rugged looks and purposeful engineering of a serious off-roader stands out in the crowd. That makes the new 2019 RAV4’s angular looks, flared wheel wells and optional knobby all-terrain tires forerunners of what’s likely to be a surge of small SUVS offering off-road design cues, if not the mechanicals to match them.
The 2019 RAV4’s looks are an intentional departure from its predecessor’s smooth, flowing lines. “It’s about the feeling of adventure as much as it is about the experience,” a company statement says.
The 2019 RAV4 looks bigger than its sleek, rounded predecessor, but is almost exactly the same size. Once you go more than skin deep, the new SUV offers more options including capable springs and an upgraded all-wheel-drive system, but it is primarily what a generation of happy owners turned to RAV4s for: a safe, fuel efficient alternative to a sedan.
Specifications as tested
Engine: 2.5L four-cylinder
Power: 203 hp @ 6,600 rpm; 184 pound-feet of torque @ 5,000 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 105.9 inches
Length: 180.9 inches
Width: 73.0 inches
Height: 67.2 inches
Curb Weight: 3,620 pounds
Assembled: Aichi, Japan
Prices for the 2019 Toyota RAV4 start at $25,500 for a front-wheel-drive model. A 203-hp 2.5L four-cylinder engine and eight-speed automatic transmission are standard. Adding all-wheel drive raises the base price to $26,900.
A gasoline-electric hybrid is available starting at $27,700. All RAV4 hybrids have all-wheel drive because the rear axle is powered by an independent electric motor. The hybrid has 219 hp of total power between the e-axle and 2.5L engine. Hybrids use a continuously variable transmission. The RAV’s hybrid is rare in the segment. The Rogue is the only competitor to offer one.
The compact SUV class is one of the auto industry’s most crowded and competitive
Players include the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-5, Nissan Rogue and Volkswagen Tiguan.
I tested a well-equipped RAV4 Limited AWD with adaptive cruise control; pedestrian detection; automatic front braking; lane departure alert and assist; lane centering; automatic high beams; touch screen; Apple CarPlay; panoramic sun roof; 19-inch chrome wheels; heated steering wheel; heated and ventilated front seats; power tailgate and more.
It stickered at $38,989. All prices exclude destination charges.
RAV4 prices compare well with its competitors.
Competitive base prices
(Excluding destination charges)
(Automatic transmission, all-wheel drive models.)
Toyota RAV4 Limited AWD: $34,900
Chevrolet Equinox AWD Premier 1LZ: $32,900
Ford Escape Titanium AWD: $34,120
Honda CR-V Touring AWD: $34,150
Hyundai Santa Fe Night AWD: $32,050
Kia Sportage SX turbo AWD: $34,990
Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring Reserve AWD: $34,870
Nissan Rogue AWD SL: $32,840
VW Tiguan 4Motion 2.0R SEL R-Line: $34,945
Lots of safety features, high mpg
The RAV4 Limited AWD scored 25 miles per gallon in the city, 33 on the highway and 28 combined in EPA tests. The key combined rating beats every competitor but the Honda CR-V.
The hybrid, which I did not test, rated 41 mpg in the city, 38 on the highway and 40 combined.
The RAV4 uses Toyota’s latest platform, which resulted in a 1.2-inch longer wheelbase that contributes to good maneuverability and a comfortable ride.
The steering is responsive, with good on-center feel. The interior is comfortable, trimmed mostly in soft touch materials. The controls are easy to use, with plenty of buttons and dials. Toyota’s failure to offer Android Auto to complement its standard Apple CarPlay will disappoint some owners.
Toyota is among the leaders in making advanced driver assistance and safety features standard. Every RAV4 has pedestrian and cyclist detection; lane departure alert and assist; adaptive cruise control; lane centering and automatic high beams. Blind spot alert, which I think is the most useful of all new safety features, is an option on the base model, standard on all others.
Noisy engine, anti-Android
My RAV4 had noticeable engine noise when accelerating, and some engine vibration when running at low rpm to maximize fuel economy.
The audio quality of hands free phone calls was dodgy.
Toyota’s failure to offer Android Auto is unacceptable. All its competitors do, and smartphone integration is a big component of owners’ safety and satisfaction.
Other than that, the new RAV4 does everything well, and does it in an attractive package that should please owners, as long as they don’t expect backcountry capability matching its rugged looks.
Competitive EPA fuel economy ratings
(Automatic transmission, all-wheel drive models.)
All vehicles tested with regular gasoline
Toyota RAV4 Limited AWD: 27 miles per gallon city/ 33 highway
Chevrolet Equinox AWD Premier 1LZ: 25/30/27
Ford Escape Titanium AWD: 21/27/23
Honda CR-V Touring AWD: 27/33/29
Hyundai Santa Fe Night AWD: 21/27/23
Kia Sportage SX turbo AWD: 20/23/21
Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring Reserve AWD: 22/27/24
Nissan Rogue AWD SL: 25/32/27
VW Tiguan 4Motion 2.0R SEL R-Line: 21/29/24