CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.
The 2020 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road is a rugged-looking small SUV that sits at the top of its model range. Not only does it offer modestly enhanced trail-bashing capability, it's every bit as refined and versatile as more mainstream versions of the likable RAV4. With handsome lines and plenty of wholesome goodness, there are few reasons not to consider parking one of these machines in your garage.
Separating the TRD Off-Road model from more workaday RAV4s is a range of enhancements. Moderately broader fender flares help give it a bulkier, more planted appearance. Front and rear, the bumpers are new, and there's a different grille up front. The overall look is cohesive and eye-catching, even if it's quite similar to what you get with the more affordably priced Adventure-trim version of this Toyota.
As for actual, substantive upgrades, they're fairly minor. These RAV4s roll on special 18-inch wheels that are treated to a matte-black finish. Providing enhanced traction in a variety of conditions are a set of 255/60R18 Falken Wildpeak all-terrain tires. Their sidewalls may scream Rubicon Trail, with their squared-off shoulders and blocky lettering, though the actual tread pattern is much less aggressive and better suited for everyday road use.
Behind those upgraded wheels is a special suspension setup. The RAV4 Off-Road model features twin-tube shock absorbers, red springs for a jaunty look should you bury your face in a wheel well and new bump stops that supposedly provide better body control when tackling rugged terrain. With Michigan still largely locked down, I haven't been able to put this claim to the test by doing some proper off-roading, but this vehicle does keep an even keel when faced with potholes or while tackling pockmarked dirt roads.
Working in conjunction with those all-terrain tires is a standard torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system. With a couple of user-selectable settings for different conditions, this arrangement can send up to 50% of the engine's torque to the rear axle and it can apportion that twist from the left side to the right as needed for improved handling. The rear section of this driveline can also disconnect when not needed to help improve fuel economy.
Curiously, the RAV4 TRD Off-Road has no increase in ground clearance. It's got the same 8.6 inches you get in other models. If it's designed for trail crawling as Toyota indicates, shouldn't it have more? Also, there are basically no skid plates protecting this vehicle's delicate underbody, so if you do decide to take one of these from the mall to Moab, be careful. I don't want to see you rip out a brake line or puncture the fuel tank while traversing rough terrain, and you certainly don't want to pay for associated repairs.
While a hybrid drivetrain is available in other RAV4 models, the TRD Off-Road only comes with one engine: the familiar 2.5-liter Dynamic Force four-cylinder, which is used in other products like the Toyota Camry sedan. This engine's corporate name is a bit schmaltzy, but the performance it delivers is perfectly respectable.
Put that quartet of pots on the boil and you're rewarded with 203 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. This engine definitely isn't afraid to let its voice be heard when working hard, but I actually think it sounds pretty good, emitting an assertive rumble, especially at higher revs.
A responsive eight-speed automatic transmission is your only choice, which I guess means it's not really a choice at all. Fortunately, this gearbox is attentive, both smooth and quick to shuffle through its gears, making the most of the engine's available grunt. It also helps deliver respectable fuel economy. Driven normally, you can expect 25 miles per gallon city and 32 mpg highway. Combined, the RAV4 TRD Off-Road is rated at a not-unreasonable 27 mpg. These figures compare favorably with other small crossovers. According to the EPA, a Honda CR-V, one with all-wheel drive and the available turbocharged engine, should return 29 mpg in mixed motoring.
On normal streets, the RAV4 TRD Off-Road is pleasant enough to pilot. Its steering is unexpectedly crisp, both for a crossover and a Toyota, with a light and precise feel. Aside from a bit of tire noise, its interior remains mostly quiet, even at highway speeds.
Stand on the accelerator pedal and this RAV4 moves with reasonable authority. No, it won't shove you back into your seat like getting kicked in the chest, but the performance it offers is perfectly fine and more than competitive with rival crossovers.
For the most part, I really like what Toyota has done with the RAV4's interior. The front seats are comfortable and there are plenty of soft plastics and storage cubbies, plus I love the red stitching you get in TRD Off-Road models.
In lieu of animal hides, my tester's seats are covered in SofTex, a faux-leather material that not only looks good, it feels nice, neither cheap nor plasticky. To protect the carpet from winter slop or muddy boot prints, TRD Off-Road models also feature rubber floor mats. The first and second rows are protected by these all-weather floorcoverings, as is the cargo area.
Rear-seat passengers have plenty of space. At 6 feet tall, I have no complaints about this vehicle's accommodations because there's plenty of room for both my knees and noggin. As for cargo space, there's no shortage, either. With the aft backrest up, you get a claimed 37.5 cubic feet of junk-hauling capacity. Fold that 'em flat and you get 69.8 cubes. As an added bonus, the RAV4's floor is quite low, which makes it easier to load heavy or bulky cargo.
Up front, this vehicle's climate-control and audio knobs feature a grippy rubber texture and have a swirl pattern cut into them, which kind of brings to mind the blades of a turbine engine. They're easy to use and feel chunky. Unfortunately, they're flanked by a series of tiny, rectangular buttons. Not only do these switches look out of place, they can be hard to hit, especially while driving. Adjusting the fan speed or bringing up a menu can be like trying to thread a needle while whitewater rafting.
Keeping everyone happy and their devices fully juiced, five USB ports are sprinkled throughout this Toyota's interior. These are standard fare on every RAV4, ditto for Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa compatibility. My tester also features an up-level infotainment system with navigation and an 8-inch touchscreen. Passengers are also treated to an 11-speaker JBL sound system.
That infotainment system is fine, no more, no less. Toyota's multimedia offerings tend to be underwhelming, with unattractive graphics and obtuse user interfaces. This one is pretty responsive and it certainly gets the job done, but it's far from my favorite.
Other optional goodies include a handy wireless charging plate, parking sensors and a 360-degree camera, though this last item is hardly something to crow about. The resolution of the image it produces is appallingly low and the screen seems to flicker when it's on, and that's a whole lot of not good.
On the plus side, Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 is standard on all 2020 RAV4 models. This includes a slew of driver aids like lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control and automatic high beams. Blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert is included across the range as well, save for the most basic RAV4 LE model. All this kit is straightforward to use and highly effective.
Whether in more-everyday trim or range-topping TRD Off-Road form, I can't say the RAV4 is my favorite small crossover. It competes in a segment rife with excellent alternatives. The Honda CR-V is superb, Subaru's Forester is extremely well done and the Mazda CX-5 practically feels like a luxury car. Still, even though it may not excel in any particular area, this Toyota is good at just about everything. It's well built, it's spacious inside and it offers plenty of tech, plus it's refined, economical and attractively priced.
Including destination fees, an entry-level RAV4 LE starts at just about $27,000, which is more than fair these days; however, my generously optioned TRD Off-Road test model rings up for around $41,500, a price that's much harder to swallow. Yes, that outlay does get you some additional capability, but truth be told, it's probably not worth what Toyota is charging.
Instead, this is my recommendation: Sidestep the TRD Off-Road model and grab a more middle-of-the-road RAV4 variant, like the just-as-rugged-looking Adventure. You'll save a big chunk of change and the inherent all-around goodness should make you pretty happy.