Toyota pioneered the crossover category when it debuted the RAV4 in 1995.
Two years later, its Prius kickstarted the hybrid revolution.
The inevitable marriage of the two was consummated in 2012, with the advent of the RAV4 Hybrid.
Now, buyers could enjoy the utility of a crossover without suffering the usual mileage penalty.
Fast forward to 2019. The RAV4 ($25,650) reigns as the country’s best-selling vehicle that’s not a pickup. And its hybrid variant is one of the industry’s best high-mileage values.
Year of change
This is a year of change as the RAV4 gets its first full makeover since 2012.
The fifth-generation RAV is built on a new, front-wheel-drive platform and gets a more powerful and efficient four-cylinder base engine.
The new RAV is lighter than before, a little smaller and quieter and more assured underway. Its cabin accommodates four six-footers and its cargo hold is one of the roomiest in the segment. There’s ample casual cabin storage.
The small CUV borrows styling cues from its truck siblings, especially up front, where burly fenders flank a prominent grille.
The base LE is fairly well equipped. Dual-zone climate control is standard, as is a height-adjustable driver’s seat, a rearview camera, LED headlights, daytime running lights, 60/40 split-folding rear seats and 17-inch alloy wheels,
Safety suite standard
Infotainment is handled by a 7-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay smartphone integration, Toyota Connected Services (includes onboard Wi-Fi), Bluetooth, one USB port and a six-speaker sound system.
Cabin design is undistinguished, though contrast stitching brightens the padded dashboard and the leather-wrapped steering wheel is an unusual touch in this segment. Real leather is not available on any trim and the simulated leather on the top trims doesn’t look, feel or smell like the real thing.
Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 is standard on all RAV4s. It includes forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, pedestrian detection, lane-keeping assist, automatic high-beam headlights and adaptive cruise control.
The new platform on which the RAV4 is 57 percent more rigid than its predecessor, enabling precise suspension tuning and substantially reducing noise, harshness and vibration.
The ride grows firmer, yet more compliant. Suspension enhancements limit body lean in corners and minimize the impact of potholes.
Best-handling RAV yet
Steering feel is light, though it firms up during cornering. The system is vague on center but the RAV tracks well in its lane. It’s less engaging than some competitors, but this is by far the best-riding and best-handling RAV4 yet.
A 203-horsepower four-cylinder engine powers the gas-only trims. The hybrid makes 219 hp.
The hybrid is quicker and more frugal than the standard trims. It runs the 0-60 sprint in 7.8 seconds, a half-second quicker than the gas trims.
Gas RAVs earn an EPA-estimated 28-30 miles per gallon in combined driving. The hybrid returns an eye-popping 40 mpg and trails its siblings in one metric; its 2,000-pound tow capacity falls well short of their 3,500-pound limit.
Central to the hybrid’s AWD system is a continuously variable transmission (CVT). In most situations, it effectively simulates the operation of a regular automatic. During hard acceleration, though, it’s prone to the usual CVT behavior, sending engine revs soaring noisily.
Unlike manufacturers who reserve their hybrid systems for their top trims, Toyota makes its system available on all but one RAV trim — and does it for an entirely reasonable $800 premium.
Hybrid pricing starts at $27,850.
All-wheel-drive is available on all models. But, because it has an electric motor that powers the rear wheels in low-speed conditions, every hybrid is AWD by default.
We tested an XSE Hybrid. The XSE ($33,700) is a hybrid-only trim with a sporting bent. Its two-tone color scheme and piano-black accents lend it a vibrant street presence. Projector-beam LED headlamps produce a crisp and road-defining illumination.
The XSE has a sport-tuned suspension of questionable merit. It didn’t significantly boost handling and had a tendency to lapse into brittle busyness when confronted with undulating or broken road surfaces.
Faced with the opportunity — and challenge — of updating its most important product, Toyota easily cleared the bar. The 2019 RAV4 seems well-positioned to lead the field into the foreseeable future.
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2019 Toyota RAV4 XSE Hybrid
Vehicle base price: $27,850
Trim level base price: $33,700
As tested: $37,899 (includes destination and handling)
Options included heated steering wheel; rain-sensing wipers; Entune premium audio with dynamic navigation, 11-speaker JBL audio system, satellite radio, Siri Eyes Free and Apple CarPlay; panoramic sunroof; carpeted floor and cargo-area mats.
Tow rating: 2,000 pounds (non-hybrids, 3,500 lb.)
EPA rating: 40 combined/41 city/38 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified