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The Toyota RAV4 has history. It was part of the initial small-SUV segment that eventually blossomed into one of the most desirable bunches of cars in the automotive industry. But by the time its fourth generation came around in 2012, the originally interesting crossover looked and felt about as exciting as an annual physical.
For its fifth generation, Toyota has seen to give the RAV4 some character again, and to great effect. While it may still be a safe choice amongst compact crossover SUVs, the RAV4 feels more interesting than it has in years.
Practicality might be a major purchasing factor for many small SUV buyers, but that doesn't mean a car needs to be devoid of anything interesting. One look at the 2019 RAV4's new design is all it takes to realize that fun has a place, as well. The soft edges of the fourth-gen RAV4 have been cast aside in favor of hard creases, giving it its most interesting look in over a decade. I'm especially a fan of the rectilinearity around the wheel wells. The hefty body cladding gives it even more character, too.
The inside is equally appealing, but not so much that it negatively affects its prime directive: function. The dashboard makes interesting use of layering, hiding a pair of very useful cubbies in front of the driver and passenger -- slathered in bright orange on my Adventure-trim tester. Throw in an extra storage area ahead of the shifter (or a wireless device charger in the case of my test car) and a big-enough cubby under the center armrest, and there's plenty of places to put all your junk.
Even though Toyota went a little heavier on the cabin styling than usual, it doesn't take anything away. The A-pillars are thin enough, lending to excellent forward visibility, and the size of the rear glass means it's not hard to see what's behind the RAV4, either. Both rows of seats offer loads of space; with the driver's chair set to accommodate my 6-foot frame, I still find plenty of available legroom for more adults in the second row.
My tester comes equipped with Toyota's $1,185 cold-weather package, which adds a heated steering wheel, heated and ventilated front seats and rain-sensing wipers. The rain-sensing wipers are a nice touch, existing in the background until I need 'em, but I do wish that the steering wheel and seat heat were a little stronger, never quite reaching the level of toasty I find in Toyota's competition.
While the RAV4's 37.6 cubic feet of cargo capacity lags behind competitors like the Honda CR-V and Nissan Rogue, it's still more than enough for a family's worth of groceries or a weekend trip's worth of bags. If you're out in the wilderness, as one might be with an Adventure-trimmed RAV4, there's a traditional plug and a 12-volt outlet in the cargo area for various camping appliances and the like. The rear seats fold down quickly and easily to offer 69.8 cubic feet of stuff storage, if necessary. That second figure is about even with the Rogue, but the Honda still has it beat by 6 cubic feet.
The Toyota RAV4 now rides on the same Toyota New Global Architecture platform as the Camry and Corolla, and just like those cars, the platform brings some big benefits to this small SUV. It's confident and competent, relaying little from the road to the cabin. Ride quality in general is very smooth, the suspension cruising over Michigan's sketchy roads without feeling too floaty. The 235/55R19 Toyo Open Country all-season tires offer an OK amount of sidewall, helping the suspension dissipate bumps. The steering has a nice weight to it, and its direct-enough action should be more than fine for small SUV buyers.
But while the chassis delights, the powertrain leaves me cold. The engine is a 2.5-liter I4 that puts out 203 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, improvements of 27 and 12, respectively, over the previous-generation RAV4. It provides enough vim for what the SUV's buyers will need, whether it's getting up to speed before the on-ramp ends or settling into a busy traffic pattern after turning onto a road. However, it's about as smooth as a cheese grater, sending mild vibrations into the cabin as the engine rises in revs and produces an unpleasant, quasi-agricultural note.
While some Toyota vehicles, especially on the Lexus side, sport world-class noise mitigation, the RAV4 isn't quite up to laudatory snuff. Whether it's the tires, the road or a lack of suitable sound deadening (or all of the above), the interior isn't as quiet as I would have liked. I don't need to crank the radio or shout to my passenger, but there's always something in the background punctuating an otherwise pleasant-enough drive.
The eight-speed automatic transmission isn't earning any favors, either. While it does swap gears smoothly once the car is up to speed, there are several instances at low speeds when it clunks rather heavily as it shifts up and down. This is most apparent in stop-and-go traffic, when I slow down to about 5 miles per hour and have to accelerate again before coming to a complete stop. Giving the transmission a little extra time to make a decision does help, but I feel that the eight-speed in this instance lacks the polish of similar transmissions from other automakers.
Front-wheel drive is standard on the RAV4, but my Adventure trim packs an all-wheel-drive system with torque vectoring and a rear axle that can disconnect from the front for better fuel economy. The EPA estimates my tester's thrift at 25 miles per gallon city and 33 mpg highway, numbers that are optimistic but not insurmountable -- I manage to achieve about 23 mpg in the city and just about 32 mpg on my local freeways.
Toyota has been at the forefront when it comes to democratizing its safety systems, and my RAV4 tester is no exception. Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 is standard across the lineup, offering adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, automatic emergency braking and automatic high-beam headlights. The adaptive cruise control keeps things nice and smooth on the highway, shaving speed without any jarring braking motions. The lane-keep assist isn't heavy-handed, either, gently guiding me back to the middle of the lane if I stray too close to the lines.
My tester adds a few more safety systems as part of a $1,265 tech package that includes blind-spot monitoring and parking sensors with automatic rear braking, the latter giving me a bit more confidence during parallel parking maneuvers. The package also includes a clever rearview mirror that replaces the traditional view with a digital display from the backup camera. I never loaded the RAV4 up enough to need it, but it's still a useful bit of tech for those who regularly haul a lot of stuff.
A 7-inch color display in the gauge cluster offers a digital speedometer wrapped around an information screen that gives me fuel economy and other relevant information at a quick glance. There's also an 8-inch infotainment display rising up from the dashboard. Toyota's Entune 3.0 system features more capability than prior versions, but it still wields the same old design that looks a little stale in 2019. That said, responsiveness is ample, and I appreciate the physical buttons on either side of the screen for quick hops between audio, navigation and phone screens. The volume knob lacks detents, though, so I find myself accidentally cranking the volume well past its intended level in both directions.
Apple CarPlay is a nice addition, but Entune still lacks Android Auto support. That shouldn't be the case for much longer, though, as Toyota has started adding it to some 2020 models. Other connectivity additions include a Wi-Fi hotspot and Amazon Alexa integration, the latter of which is helpful if you forgot to leave some lights on for the dogs. In-car app integration does require a standalone app download, but thankfully it's free on the App Store. Embedded navigation and a pleasant 11-speaker JBL audio system are part of a $1,620 entertainment upgrade.
With all the aforementioned packages, plus $850 for a moonroof, $500 for two-tone paint, $269 for floor mats and $1,045 for destination, my 2019 RAV4 Adventure comes out to a high-but-not-obscene $39,634.
While I'm not the most adventurous person, I do appreciate the aesthetic enhancements of the RAV4 Adventure, which starts at $32,900 before destination. I'll stick with my tester's two-tone paint, since it's a little more fun. Honestly, I can't think of a single package that I'd get rid of here, aside from the $269 for floor mats, so my ideal spec comes out to $39,365 including destination. Those looking for a bit more luxury should opt for the slightly more expensive Limited trim, which starts at $33,500.
The RAV4 competes in a very busy segment. It has better, newer tech than the Nissan Rogue, and its on-road livability absolutely spanks the Chevy Equinox, though it lacks the powertrain refinement of the latest Honda CR-V. The Subaru Forester is similarly priced and a bit smoother on the road, but our tests revealed middling fuel economy. If you prize driving dynamics or want the fanciest interior you can muster in this segment, there's always the Mazda CX-5, too. The 2020 Ford Escape will likely put up a great fight when it arrives later this year, as well.
Finding a well-rounded car usually means making a few sacrifices. While the 2019 Toyota RAV4 might lack a refined powertrain and best-in-class noise mitigation or cargo space, it's still an eminently capable small crossover that can move a bunch of stuff without making the driver feel bored, tired or angry. The SUV's new platform gives it a whole new life in a sink-or-swim segment. Even people who have only ever had RAV4s in their garage will appreciate just how compelling the fifth-generation model is.