NZ exclusive: new Toyota RAV4 Hybrid gets tested, on and off road
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There’s nothing more certain to spur on conjecture than the search for “who was first”.
Sure, there are easy ones such as Sir Edmund Hillary or Neil Armstrong. But, by the same token, there are certain aviation-heads that will wear your spine as a necklace at the mere mention of the Wright brothers.
Naming the first crossover SUV can be an exercise filled with semantics and rabbit holes. Some ardently say it was the American AMC Eagle, but most conclude that the pioneer was the 1994 Toyota RAV4.
Unlike the maligned AMC, the RAV4 is a definitive survivor. Four generations have come and gone, with generation No. 5 having just landed on our shores.
Like the previous-generation Camry and Corolla, the last RAV4 wasn’t exactly a critical smash. But that didn’t matter — it still sold like absolute hotcakes worldwide, thanks largely to its quintessential crossover status.
Last year, in an effort to rip the Camry and Corolla from their middle-of-the-road position, Toyota gave both models a grand overhaul. And critics (us included) labelled both a success. Now, thankfully, the time has come for the RAV4 to slip on the same Cinderella slipper.
Toyota has deployed the requisite set of modern motoring design tropes to the RAV4’s exterior. The front fascia is rammed with vents of all shapes and sizes — some functional, some not. The side-profile is framed by a bold character line at the base of the doors, a “floating” roof-line, and acres of rugged-looking black cladding.
That may sound like the same formula everyone else is using in their designs these days, but Toyota has done a better job than most of marrying all the elements together.
The RAV4’s innards have also been given a generous lick of attention. Materials feel vastly improved, with surprisingly plush soft-touch surfaces on the door tops, dashboard, and other touch-points. Most satisfyingly, there’s almost no piano-black plastic to be seen; hopefully a sign that Toyota has listened to our complaints about the serial fingerprint — and dust — magnet surface.
Pricing for this more chiseled, all more serious looking new RAV4 starts at $34,990 for the 2WD GX. The cheapest AWD GX-spec hybrid model sits at a competitive $38,990, and our top-spec AWD Limited will set you back $47,990. It's the hybrid that Toyota expects to be its volume seller, which makes this model a doubly important one to get right.
The RAV4’s hybrid powertrain makes 163kW/221Nm from a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, sending power to all four wheels via a revised new E-Four all-wheel drive system. And, over our time with it, those figures proved to be a stable balance between performance and economy.
It’s got enough guts to do 0-100km/h in about 8s and we also scored a commendable indicated economy number of 4.6L/100km (Toyota NZ quoted 4.8L/100km at the RAV4’s launch in April). Those questioning its performance capabilities will rarely consider it underpowered, and the remainder will find its hybrid silence to be an apt fit for urban commuting.
The petrol engine can drone a bit when being revved out, but in most instances the RAV4 Hybrid is a quiet, well-insulated joy to drive.
Beyond all the extra hybrid badging littered proudly all over the bodywork, and the larger 18in wheels, you’d be hard pressed to tell the Limited Hybrid from entry-level models at a glance. But naturally, most of the differences become apparent once inside.
That $9000 of extra dosh goes into added features such as leather-accented seats that are heated and powered up front, a fabulous 9-speaker JBL sound system, an admittedly less fabulous 360-degree camera, electric tailgate, sunroof, extra USB ports for rear passengers, dual-zone aircon, and a 7in digital display behind the steering wheel.
These additions come alongside standard RAV4 equipment, including one of the most comprehensive safety suites in the segment. Adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, blind-spot monitoring, and lane keep assist are all standard from the cheapie GX, upwards.
What’s not included is Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Despite these slowly becoming optional extras in overseas markets, Toyota New Zealand continues to not offer them for Kiwi buyers.
Although the standard 8in touchscreen is easy enough to use in the their absence, buyers used to plugging their phone in to use Google Maps or the like while on the run will need to accommodate a step backwards in tech.
It’s a shame, because the lack of connectivity options is one of the new RAV4’s valid faults. Whereas its Corolla sibling is fundamentally flawed by a poor boot and a lack of rear legroom, it’s hard to make similar complaints here.
The RAV4 is based on Toyota’s much-touted TNGA platform — specifically the elongated K-designation variant that also underpins the Camry and Lexus ES. This means benefits both in driving dynamics and spaciousness. In theory, at least.
It now sports more passenger room front and rear, with all-round driver visibility among the best in the class. Sadly boot space is down across the RAV4 range from 577L to 542L, but that’s still roomier than the 442L from a Mazda CX-5 or the 522L of the Honda CR-V.
Second-row space is commodious, with head and knee room both more than adequate for adults (sitting behind my driving position, I had no troubles). Three will fit side-by-side without much in the way of complaint.
Historically, the CX-5 and CR-V would pull back this deficit with a superior driving experience. But, thanks in part to the TNGA platform, there’s not much to separate them.
As you’d expect, the RAV4 retains the car-like driving characteristics it’s always had. But now, thanks to more direct and predictable steering as well as improved road holding abilities, the new RAV4 is closer to its competition than ever before. A CX-5 will still provide more thrills, but the RAV4 feels assured enough to make B-road blasts more of a pleasure than a chore.
Following a trip out to Whatipu Beach, we can also confirm that it feels assured and planted on gravel, too.
The unsealed road of the same name that leads up to the picturesque beach takes about 15 minutes to complete, with ruts, holes, and plenty of tight sharp corners to keep things interesting. The Toyota felt at home on the surface, munching up and spitting out each crater and fissure without so much as a squeak from the busy suspension or a creak from the interior trim — all while feeling composed behind the wheel.
Yes, the new RAV4 is a worthy edition to the Toyota line-up. Far from being a mere rental company favourite, it's a vehicle that now deserves to find its way into the garages of plenty of private buyers, too. It's at the point where its comprehensive approach to SUV-dom might see it steal sales from its big 7-seat brother, the Highlander.
What started out as a simple, jelly-bean looking 1990s oddity before evolving into a stock choice in a competitive segment has now become a genuinely likable, handsome, versatile entry worthy of its enviable popularity.
And, with a sharply priced hybrid now in the line-up too alongside this Limited model, expect that popularity to reach new heights.
2019 Toyota RAV4 Limited Hybrid AWD
PROS: Chunky styling, confident road manners, surprisingly plush, hybrid tech
CONS: Mobile connectivity still lacking, petrol engine sometimes noisy
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