I last drove a Toyota RAV4, in Southern California, in the autumn of 2015. Whilst there was nothing to cause me actively to dislike it, nor was there anything about it to cause me to rate it more highly than any number of similarly-sized and priced rivals. Since that time, two things have happened: the model has received a mid-cycle update, which was first shown at the 2015 New York Auto Show, and became available late in the year as a 2016 model, and US sales have increased, with there being some months when it has been Toyota’s best-selling product in America, with US sales rising a further 50,000 units in 2017 compared to 2016, to top out at around 408,000 cars. Given that the Camry and Corolla also sell in vast quantity, and neither of those has exactly taken my breath away with their desirability or their excellence in any respect, then sales volumes are not necessarily a guide to whether the product really is “better” than its many competitors, and I note that most of the online US car review pages place it pretty much at the bottom of their assessments. Even so, I thought that perhaps I should have another look, and when I arrived at the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport to find a lot of cars, but most of them crammed close together and not available for immediate rental, it was a rather bright blue-coloured (Electric Blue Streak, Toyota call it) and pretty much brand new 2018 model RAV4 that stood out as about the only available car that I had not sampled recently. Noting that this one, like all the other RAV4 models I had seen at Hertz in the US recently bore XLE badging on the tailgate as opposed to the entry level LE that had been the ones on fleet, I thought I could at least look forward to a better equipment level, if nothing else, though I did want to find out whether there were other changes which had caused the model’s sales to rise so significantly every year since that 2015 test.
The changes made in 2015 were mainly cosmetic. New front and rear styling introduced LED headlights to all models, and brought the RAV4 in-line with the latest family look, and a new instrument cluster using TFT technology updated the dashboard a little. The big news was the introduction of a Hybrid version, which combines the 2.5 litre Atkinson cycle petrol engine with a powerful electric motor, a 204 cell nickel–metal hydride battery located under the rear seats, a power control unit, and a power split device. RAV4 Hybrids are available in both front and all-wheel drive variants. The all-wheel edition comes equipped with a second, 50 kW high-voltage, rear mounted electric motor that offers increased traction and a 1,750-pound (790 kg) towing capacity. The engine is capable of operating independently from the hybrid system front’s electric motor, driving the rear wheels alone. It has proved to be a popular option, taking around 12% of sales in the US, and as Toyota mode to eliminate diesel technology from their range entirely, which they say will happen by the end of 2018, then we can expect to see more of this. There were no other significant alterations to the fourth generation RAV4 as part of this update, apart from some detailed changes to standard specs and colours, and the introduction of the SE version nothing much has changed since then, either, save for the addition for 2018 of a new trim version, the Adventure, with raised ground clearance and a greater towing capacity.
Unless you opt for the Hybrid model, which Hertz have not done, then all RAV4s in the US have the same familiar 2.5 litre 4 cylinder petrol engine which generates 176 bhp, a 6 speed automatic gearbox and the choice of front- or all-wheel drive. The test car was the former. The engine is no different from the one that has been used for a while, and that increasingly is a pity. Although it proved quite smooth once underway, it did not exactly endow the Toyota with a spritely performance, and there was more than one occasion when I had to be pretty brutal with the throttle to get any meaningful acceleration from the car. After a momentary pause, it did seem to wake up and get going, but the hesitancy to kick down was disappointing. Once underway, there is a fair amount of engine noise, and wind noise is not that well suppressed, either. Road noise seemed to depend on the surface, being very evident at times, and almost eradicated at others. Although it felt like the RAV4 was having to work quite hard at times, there did not seem to be an undue penalty at the pumps. Having covered 270 miles, the tank swallowed 9.45 gallons of Mr Chevron’s finest 87 octane, which works out at 28.57 mpg US or 34.1 MPG Imperial, a good result for a car of this size. There is a small ECO light in the dash, and this illuminates when the car thinks you are being economical, I assume, which seemed to be under 2000 rpm, or at a steady speed on the freeway, when the gearing was such that at 75 mph (the limit on the 10 freeway between Phoenix and Tucson), it was spinning a little more than that, but at a constant rate.
It is the other driving dynamics that really let the RAV4 down. My notes use the word “soggy”. That’s certainly the case for the steering, though at least there is a nice leather-wrapped wheel to hold in an XLE trimmed car. Initially, I found it unbelievably light and vague, as bad, almost, as the worst of other Toyota products that I have sampled, and I did not recall that last RAV4 being as bad as any of them. I then realised that the car was in the Eco mode, one of three choices that you have. Switching that off made a noticeable difference to the steering. Whilst still light, it did at least have some sensation about it as to what the steered wheels might do. Pressing the Sport button, which is the third of the available models (Eco, Normal and Sport), seemed to have limited difference on the steering, but it did sharpen the throttle response marginally. Eco is clearly a mode that you might use for car park manoeuvering, but is otherwise not for me at all. Nothing much was going to help with the handling, which is, well, dull. There is some roll if you go into the bends at even moderate speed and whilst there seemed to be sufficient grip, the RAV4 resorts to understeer very readily. At least it rides quite well, the soft suspension on the high profile 225/65 R17 wheels no doubt helping. The brakes were plain mushy. There seemed to be nothing much happen in the first bit of travel of the pedal, and then they clearly woke up and stopped the car as you would want. There is a conventional pull-up handbrake, still, fitted between the seats. Toyota make much of the active safety features of this model. It has what they call Toyota Safety Sense-P. Among these is a blind spot warning on the door mirrors, which was useful, and a lane departure warning system, which beeps at you every time you change lane without indicating. It was less intrusive than some systems I have encountered recently, but was a bit wearing. You can turn it off, though I resisted the urge. There is a display buried in the digital display area between the instruments which identifies when you might be due a break due to potential drowsiness, which it computes based on your “weaving”., so presumably you get minus points for going back and forth over white lines. The RAV4 is actually a very easy car to drive It is light – too light in some respects! – and easy to position on the road. It was not hard to manoeuvre it and with a rear-view camera, was easy to back up. Unlike earlier generation RAV4 models which had a spare wheel on the rear door, this one does not.
I was not exactly impressed by the overall cabin ambience of the last RAV4 that I drove but there were two differences between that car and this one. The first is that Toyota did make some changes as part of the mid-cycle update and the second is that this one was an XLE trim whereas the earlier test car had been a lesser LE. It is the latter of these two that accounts for more of the improvements that I noticed this round time round. For a start, much of the dash and door casings is trimmed with stitched leather which looks far nicer than the cheap and scratchy plastics that had constituted the LE. There’s a leather wrapped steering wheel and gearlever as well. So whilst the overall effect is still very black, with just some thin dark grey inlays to provide a bit of colour contrast, this actually looks quite reasonable. The overall dash design has not changed, but the instrument layout has. The cluster is the same shape, but rather than have a central dial with gauges to either side, there are now two equal sized dials, with a central display area for trip computer data, Fuel level and water temperature gauges are inset in the lower part of the speedo and rev counter. That central digital display area has a lot more than just a trip odometer and average fuel consumption data, with several menus and sub-menus which you cycle through using the buttons on the right hand steering wheel spoke. The same pair of column stalks remain, with lights operated off the end of the indicator stalk. There is a small stubby stalk lower to the right of the wheel for the cruise control, meaning that the steering wheel boss has space for audio repeater buttons on the left hand spoke. The centre of the dash has an audio infotainment unit which is the same form factor as what went before, but there is an upgraded Entune system here with a 6.1″ colour touch sensitive screen, as well as a useful collection of knobs and buttons around it to operate it. I was not that impressed that if you press the “Home” menu selection, you get a screen telling you that until you have paired your phone, the functions such as navigation – standard in XLE trim – are not available. So yes, you do get navigation, but it is driven through your phone and will use bandwidth from your phone plan to do so. Not something that overseas travellers are going to want to do. XLE trim brings dual zone automated climate control, so instead of the three rotary dials of the LE, you get controls appropriate for this set up, which fill the panel below the audio unit more completely. The engine Stop/Start button is to the left of these, as well. With no key to be inserted, the usual Toyota bug-bear of scratched plastic around the key slot was completely absent here (and it was a new car with less than 1000 miles on the clock). Deep down, and further back in the central part of the dash are the buttons to select Eco or Sport mode, a bit of a stretch, but you are not likely to be selecting these very often. The overall impression is one of ease of use, lack of fussiness, but no real design flair at all. Typical Toyota, in other words.
XLE trim still means manual adjustment of the seat, with a bar underneath for fore/aft and two levers on the side for backrest rake and seat height. The front passenger does not get height adjustment. The steering wheel telescopes in/out, as well as up/down. The seats, trimmed in a tough black cloth with a slightly patterned effect, proved quite comfortable, with support in all the right places. Space in the rear is very good for a car of this class, and would be one reason why shoppers put the RAV4 high on their priority list. The rear seat backrest – split asymmetrically – can be reclined somewhat, and there is a drop down central armrest which has cupholders in the upper surface. You can’t alter the position of the seat cushion, but you probably won’t need to, as there is ample leg room, even with the front seats set well back. Headroom, thanks to the SUV styling is also in generous supply.
The boot is also of a good size. It’s a nice regular shape, with a very low load height, and is long from front to back. There is a space saver under the boot floor and you could tuck the odd small item in around it. Fold the rear seat backrests forward, and you get a whole load more luggage room. You do need to pull the headrests forward as the backrests is folded down, but then you get a nice, flat load bay. I was pleased to see that although the third rear seat belt is mounted in the roof, it retracts all the way up there, so does not get in the way of the extended cargo bay unlike in some cars. Toyota provide plenty of places for odds and ends in the cabin. The glovebox is a good size. There are bins on all four doors, with mouldings shaped to take bottles. There is a cubby under the central armrest, and there is an open tray area in front of the front passenger, above the glovebox area, as well as plenty of recesses in the moulding in front of the gearlever, one of which is cupholder shaped. In the back, there are map pockets in the back of the front seats.
There used to be three different RAV4 trims available, but now there are five. All trims come with front-wheel drive, and you can add all-wheel drive to most for $1,400 (or $700 in the RAV4 Adventure). Starting point is the RAV4 LE. Listed at $24,410, the focus here is on the full array of advanced safety features which are included. These comprise a rearview camera and Toyota Safety Sense P (a safety bundle comprised of a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, automatic high beams, and adaptive cruise control), which are included in every edition. Other standard features include a 6.1-inch touch-screen infotainment display, six speakers, a USB port, Bluetooth, voice recognition, and cloth seats. The test car was an XLE, which for $25,500 includes navigation, Siri Eyes Free, satellite radio, and HD Radio as well as dual-zone automatic climate control, a glass tilt/slide sunroof, leather wrapped steering wheel and gearlever, upgraded trim and a power liftgate. Most of the differences that set the $27,700 RAV4 Adventure apart – a new model for 2018 – from the other trims are styling elements or mechanical components (such as the standard Tow Prep package). This trim level builds off the standard features of the RAV4 XLE, adding a few features like a household-style power outlet in the cargo area. The RAV4 SE, at $28,790, is the athletic sibling (it’s a relative term!), with paddle shifters on the steering wheel and a sport-tuned suspension. It comes with synthetic leather seats, power-adjustable heated front seats, a proximity key, push-button start, blind spot monitoring, and rear cross traffic alert. The range-topping RAV4 Platinum boasts an 11-speaker JBL sound system, smartphone integration via the Entune App Suite, a 7-inch touch screen, a bird’s-eye-view camera with a 360-degree view around the car, a heated steering wheel, and a hands-free liftgate with height adjustment. Prices start at $34,750. I thought the nicer trim and added features of the XLE over the base LE were very worthwhile for the extra $1,100. Rather than upgrade to the more costly trims, you can add on a few extras through the numerous packages Toyota offers for this trim. One of the best deals is the aptly named Extra Value “Plus” package, an $890 bundle with blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, and a proximity key. Other available add-ons include enhanced smartphone integration, heated front seats, and front and rear parking sensors.
When I took the RAV4 back, I saw the same check-in agent as the one who received me with the Yaris a few days earlier. She asked if I had liked this car better, and of course the answer had to be “yes”, as that Yaris really was hair-shirt style motoring. However, it would be stretching a point to say that I truly liked the RAV4. It remains rather soggy and insipid to drive, something which most of its rivals manage to avoid. However, I can see why people do buy it, and in such quantity. There is plenty of space in it, so for carrying people and luggage around, in what is still quite a modestly sized vehicle, it scores highly, and you just know that the ownership experience will be completely painless. So yes, objectively, there are better cars out there, but if you really don’t care about how the thing drives, then the RAV4 will fit the bill. And if you go for the XLE rather than the LE, you get a nice balance of features for the money. An all-new RAV4, the fifth generation model, was unveiled just as I was driving this one. It will be interesting to see if that continues the trend for “dull” or whether the new tougher-looking styling marks a change in approach from Toyota. With competition in this class getting ever tougher, they really cannot afford to carry on the way they have been doing – as the downwards spiral of Corolla sales is finally evidencing.