When head rules entirely over heart, you buy a RAV4.
When the first Toyota RAV4 hit markets in 1994, it essentially kickstarted the high-riding urban runabout movement that saw SUVs take a more pedestrian approach to motoring. It almost entirely disregarded off-tarmac ability, with all-wheel drive thrown in as more of a nod to expectations than anything else. It really was a high-riding wagon rather than a proper sports-utility vehicle, and people bought them in droves.
Of course, in 1994, it was something of a niche. Fast forward to today, and suddenly SUVs are the hottest, most popular choice of personal transport out there. In Australia at least, there’s some merit to the numbers, with up to 80% of our roads unsealed and quite a number of us needing a little more grip and clearance when traversing gravelled paths. However, it cannot be denied that SUVs are mostly city-dwellers, with urbanites coveting them for their raised driving position and useful practicality.
We take a look at the urban-SUV that started it all.
“The original compact SUV has bulked up considerably, morphing into a sturdy, smooth and safe family wagon.” - CarsGuide
The original RAV4 was something of a compact SUV, with dimensions & practicality ratings similar to what you’d get today from the C-HR. Like all things, the RAV4 has grown considerably to a “Camry wagon” as one review put it. It’s big, and it dukes it out against cars like the Honda CR-V and the Subaru Forester in the burgeoning family SUV marketplace.
While competitors like the Mazda CX-5 offer a more dynamic look and the Subaru have more visual bulk, the RAV4 certainly looks like a car of today. The LED headlights that flank the fascia are standard fit, and the rear lights are also of the LED variety too. The face of the RAV4 is bang in line with the new Toyota corporate image, replete with a unibrow-like black element linking the headlights. The GXL model gains snazzy dual-tone alloy wheels, and roof rails help give the RAV4 a little more of an adventurous image.
Engine & Drivetrain
“Adequate diesel but a noisy petrol engine.” - WhatCar?
There are no less than three engines and three gearboxes on offer here, so we’ll try and help you make sense of it. The range kicks off with the smallest engine, the 107kW atmo 2.0-litre petrol that you can find only on front-wheel drive models. Next up is the 2.5-litre petrol that does duty in the all-wheel drive petrol models, which is good for 132kW of power. The range-topper is the 2.2-litre diesel with 110kW, and 340Nm of torque. The diesel manages all that twist while consuming a very respectable 5.6L/100km.
Front-wheel drive petrol models get either a 6-speed manual or a continuously-variable (CVT) automatic, while all-wheel drive models get a choice between the 6-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic.
“Upon entering the RAV4, those familiar with the old one might have the impulse to get out, walk around the back and check they’re in the right car.” - CarAdvice
The exterior of the RAV4 may be a little conservative and familiar to the brand, but the interior makes a stark departure from previous iterations of the RAV4. Some reviews have gone to say that it has a whiff of Lexus about it, and they’re not wrong. The aesthetic presentation of the RAV4 is excellent (for its category), with plenty of plush materials employed to elevate the tactility of the cabin a little further. The RAV4 looks like it’s struck the right balance between robustness and plushness, which is great in such a competitive segment.
There’s a newly-designed centre console that looks great and functions well, and the cupholders at the base can accommodate a mug with a handle. There’s a revised instrument cluster with a colour display, which presents relevant information well. A new media system improves leaps and bounds over the old infotainment unit, though its size is relatively small and can be prone to glare. The ‘leather accented’ seats in higher-end trims (it’s a mix between genuine and faux leather) are soft and cosseting, while we would advise staying away from the toffee-coloured trim as it may hurt resale value.
Behind the Wheel
“It sits relatively flat through bends, and deals well with mid-corner bumps – settling quickly and moving on. The steering, too, has enough weight to ensure confidence once stepping the pace up.” - WhichCar
When the original RAV4 hit showroom floors, its handling and agility were remarkable for an SUV of its time. It offered a more car-like driving experience than most, and was exceptional in its day. Today though, that car-like driving experience is demanded of every SUV. The RAV4 maintains a degree of agility despite its comfort-focused suspension setup, with body roll pretty well handled. The dimensions of the RAV4 are, however, apparent behind the wheel. This is a big car, and it feels it from the drivers’ seat.
Where the RAV4 is no sports car, it certainly is easy to manoeuvre. There’s a reversing camera to aid parking, with light controls and great all-round visibility making the RAV4 an easy SUV to handle. The manual handbrake (yep, no electronic button here) detracts from the experience somewhat with its bargain-basement feel, but that’s the only real down-side here. The 2.2-litre diesel is an especially good companion if you’re going to be eating up miles or hauling stuff regularly, with the petrols likely to be better suited if you’ll be in town most of the time.
Safety & Technology
“As with many other Toyota models, the RAV4 has a long list of active-safety equipment as standard on every model.” - Car & Driver
Toyotas have always had an ability to appeal to both the head and the wallet, and the RAV4 is no different. The laundry list of standard equipment includes things like seatbelt warning lights for all seats (parents, take note), reach/rake adjustment for the steering wheel, a 6.1-inch infotainment system, and Bluetooth connectivity. There are LED headlamps (replete with LED daytime running lights) for maximum visibility when it’s dark, as well as smart additions like roof rails, hill-start assist, electronic stability control, ABS, and brake distribution. Seven airbags feature here, and a space-saver spare wheel can be found in the boot (with a full-sized spare available as an option GX-trim models).
The RAV4 features a strong list of optional kit too, with autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, automatic high-beam, active cruise control, and front parking sensors available on higher models or as optional equipment. We would suggest tacking on those active safety aids, both for peace of mind and possibly stronger value come resale time.
While the original RAV-olutionised the segment, the current generation keeps up with the pace nicely. It doesn’t excite or entice in any particular way, but that’s no bad thing. It focuses on practicality and comfort, which are two aspects that a bulk of buyers will be focused on, as well as capped-price servicing ensuring that customers never get a shocking bill. This makes the RAV4 an almost-entirely pragmatic purchase, which will appeal to a great many people.
We can’t deny that there are more dynamic and more evocative contenders out there, like the Mazda CX-5 (which is the agility benchmark, to some extent), and the new Volkswagen Tiguan will definitely give the RAV4 a run for its money. But bulletproof reliability and dependability will likely see the RAV4 continue to solider on, with its sharp new face and smartly-packaged interior.
The RAV4 lineup is solid, with the higher trim levels offering more luxuries and niceties as expected of the steps up in price. Regardless of which RAV4 you settle on, you’ll end up with a tough-as-nails, efficient, comfortable, and dependable workhorse that will get you from point-A to point-B on time, every time.
CarAdvice - 8.0/10 - “Do the updates make the RAV4 a class leader? Well, the infotainment and the diesel’s middling outputs, plus the better but still not-class-leading ride comfort, mean maybe not quite. But this is a significantly better offering than before.”
TopGear - 5.0/10 - “Not a bad SUV, just a boring one. There are plenty more interesting contenders than this.”
Drive - 7.0/10 - “It's more of the same for the RAV but this latest freshen-up adds value and modernises the look. Tweaks to the driving experience have refined the acceptable, if not outstanding, road manners, particularly when it comes to comfort. Throw in an honest four-cylinder engine and functional cabin and it makes for an above average soft-roader, albeit one that doesn't bust any boundaries.”
CarsGuide - 3.0/5.0 - “The RAV4 Cruiser is now kissing $50K and that's an ambitious ask, especially given the modest performance. However, it's a Toyota — so competence is a given, ownership will be cheap and grief-free, you are protected by a formidable hi-tech safety net and the practicality-space-equipment trifecta is spot-on in the family SUV context.”
WhichCar - 4.5/5.0 - “The Toyota RAV4 kickstarted the whole city-focused SUV craze, and it remains one of the more popular. It has grown into a mid-sized model that rides nicely, corners well, is careful with fuel, and has great front seats. Service costs are low, and reputedly resale values are strong. A reversing camera is standard, and automatic braking is available on the more costly RAV4s.”
Car & Driver - 4.5/5.0 - “Its angled headlamps and sharply creased bodywork give the RAV4 an assertive presence, but don’t be fooled—under the skin, it’s a practical, comfortable, and easygoing ute.”
AutoExpress - 3.0/5.0 - "Even with this refresh, the Toyota RAV4 remains a car you’d buy with your head rather than your heart. It’s competent, efficient, spacious and better looking than before, but unlike the engaging Mazda CX-5 and distinctive Renault Kadjar, this SUV leaves you slightly cold thanks to its uninspiring cabin and merely average dynamics. Still, it will continue to appeal as a sensible, reliable and roomy choice in this class.
CarBuyer - 2.9/5.0 - "The Toyota RAV4 is a practical and well equipped SUV that's affordable to run and comes with a reassuring warranty.”