The new Toyota RAV4 is a car that the Japanese giant needed to get right. With the mid-size SUV segment more convoluted than ever these days with an incredibly broad range of models to choose from, and since so many of those are really excellent cars, Toyota, one of the segment’s originators, clearly had its work cut out for it with this one.
But with current Toyota President Akio Toyoda – who is quite possibly the coolest businessman in the world – having put an emphasis back on fun for the Japanese giant, combined with Toyota’s long-time environmental push making this the marque’s first-ever hybrid SUV, going into it, I realised there was a very good chance I’d come away as impressed as I hoped I would be.
And that, I really hoped I would be, as the drastically reworked lineup that now encompasses four trim levels – GX, GXL, Cruiser, and Edge – and five drivetrain options – a 2.0-litre petrol with front-wheel drive and a manual gearbox or CVT, a 2.5-litre petrol-electric hybrid with front or all-wheel drive, and a 2.5-litre petrol with an eight-speed auto – has seen pricing rise drastically by as much as three grand drive-away.
It’s the base GX with the up-spec all-wheel drive hybrid drivetrain that I was lent to spend some time with, which sees itself sitting in the middle of the RAV4 range price-wise at $38,140, meaning it sees a $3000 premium over the front-wheel drive GX Hybrid, and a $7500 increase over the cheapest GX model, the manual petrol.
Despite its positioning at the bottom of the RAV4 range, the GX still boasts an impressive list of standard equipment. Automatic headlights with auto high beam control, rain-sensing wipers, in-built satellite navigation, DAB+ digital radio, an electric parking brake, and 17-inch alloy wheels. For the GX, a full-size spare is also an optional extra, and one which my tester did come with.
Opting for a hybridised GX rather than a petrol-only one also adds dual-zone climate control with rear air vents and push-button start as standard, too – features normally reserved for the GXL. Also worth noting is that all RAV4 variants including the GX will gain the long overdue addition of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto later this year, and don’t worry on missing out as it can be retrofitted if you buy one now.
The material on the standard cloth seats feels rather nice, and the seats themselves are a real standout as they are very comfortable and supportive with enough bolstering in the right places.
With that said, the rest of the cabin materials in the base model aren’t quite up to par with those in the many premium-feeling offerings in the class. There’s a real overabundance of harsh black and grey plastics that do bring down the overall cabin feel ambience, and while all of the switchgear feels high-quality, two of the things you’ll touch most – the steering wheel and shift knob – are cheapened down and made of bare polyurethane. That, in my mind, is reason enough to step up to the GXL, which adds a leather steering wheel among other features, while shopping even higher in the range will afford you with some brighter, more colourful interior trim.
Interior space is commendably good though, with plenty of headroom and legroom all around. The boot is also absolutely massive and has a very low flat load floor that makes it much easier for putting in heavier items.
As mentioned, there are a variety of engine and transmission options available in the new RAV4, and I managed to luck-out by getting one with the real star all-wheel drive hybrid drivetrain.
Up front, there’s a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol that produces 131kW and 221Nm, which is connected to a 202Nm electric motor and a CVT, while in the back, a 121Nm electric motor has been fitted to send drive directly to the rear wheels, with the whole system computer controlled to make the transitions between petrol and electric power, and front and all-wheel drive as seamless as possible. The 6.5Ah battery that stores recovered electricity harvested while braking is one of the old nickel metal hydride types.
With the system producing a combined 163kW – no combined torque figure is cited – it feels far pokier than you might expect when you really bury your foot into the throttle. The instantaneous torque delivery of the electric motors powering all four wheels really gets it going off the line nicely, and the petrol engine kicking in helps to carry it up to triple digits with confidence.
From there, the performance certainly starts to taper off quickly, but it still has enough on tap to make overtaking on country roads a fairly easy task. It’s a fairly quiet and smooth operator most of the time, too, although when you do put your foot down, the CVT will shoot the petrol engine up to the higher reaches of its rev range quickly, at which it can sound a bit coarse and intrusive.
Bringing it back to Akio Toyoda’s focus on fun, the RAV4 feels more dynamic than ever with this new generation, too. Now sure, with S-rated tyres with fat sidewalls, it’s never going to handle like an 86, but it remains composed enough to handle whatever degree the average punter would push it to on a backroad, although if you drive like a motoring journalist (consider me guilty as charged) you’ll find that you’re exposing weaknesses in the comfort-oriented tyres before you reach the chassis’ limits.
When it comes to it being a country cruiser, the GX specification is the one to go for in that regard, given those chubby tyres help to dampen anything the suspension can’t, affording it a very smooth ride on even the worst of country roads. And although I didn’t have a chance to see how it coped with anything more challenging than a quick drive onto the picturesque Moana Beach for our photoshoot, another journo had managed to rack up nearly 12,000km on the odometer and a veneer of red dust on the undercarriage driving through the middle of Australia in this particular example that had only been on the press fleet for six weeks.
As someone who actually prefers the cars I review to be a bit broken-in, rather than factory-fresh, this is a great indicator of its strong build quality – something that Toyota has always been a by-word for – as despite having been driven through some clearly rather rough conditions, it wasn’t enough to shake anything loose, with barely a rattle or squeak to be heard from anything inside it.
Despite it having been well-proven as a long-distance cruiser by its previous loanee – as well as by myself, as I racked up over 1000km during my extended week with it – hybrids aren’t exactly designed with country driving in mind, with the electric aspects of the drivetrain given the most justice when driving in stop-start traffic.
Regardless, I saw an indicated return of 5.9L/100km at the end of my time with it, and after brimming the tank and crunching the numbers to determine a truly accurate figure, the calculator spat out the same number as the trip computer – an incredible respectable figure for an all-wheel drive SUV, even if it is over the 4.8L/100km claim.
While the plasticky interior doesn’t feel quite up to the price point of this GX Hybrid AWD model, it’s undeniable how much of an advanced and competent drivetrain you are getting for the spend.
Sweetening the deal, of course, is Toyota’s recently upgraded five-year warranty with no mileage cap, along with very cheap capped-price servicing which is just $210 a visit every 12 months/15,000km.
Personally, I’d look at stepping up in the range to the GXL as the extra spend would be justified by some nicer interior appointments, but irrespective of which trim level you go for, the hybrid variants of the RAV4 feel like a long-overdue addition to Toyota’s lineup, and to the wider car market as a whole. For the environmentally or economically-minded buyer, then, it’s a solid bet if an SUV is on the shopping list.
2019 Toyota RAV4 GX Hybrid AWD List Price: $38,140 | As Tested: $39,076
- Performance - 7.5/107.5/10
- Ride & Handling - 8/108/10
- Tech & Features - 8/108/10
- Practicality - 8.5/108.5/10
- Value for Money - 8/108/10
Pros: Powerful and efficient hybrid drivetrain, spacious interior, good ride on smaller wheels
Cons: Better value can be had by stepping up to the GXL, cheap interior finishes, not the prettiest
In a nutshell: So you’re after a practical and cheap-to-run SUV? Look no further than this.
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Toyota Australia for 10 days with fuel expenses covered. Our good friends at MPF Detailing also gave it a complimentary Express Detail for us prior to our photoshoot.