Road Tests

First Drive: Don’t judge the new (2019) RAV4 by the way it looks

The RAV4’s first generation, especially as a three-door, was pioneering and not unfunky. Then things went downhill. The outgoing fourth-gen car, which sold mostly as a hybrid, was a visual assault and a dynamic misery.

Yet that RAV4 generation has been the world’s best-selling SUV, and its fourth best-selling car of all.
So imagine how much better place the world will be if the new one is actually a nice vehicle.

It’s got a chance, because it’s all-new. The smaller C-HR proves Toyota has more gumption now than for donkey’s years. (And really it’s the C-HR that’s the successor to the original RAV4.)

The new 2019 Toyota RAV4 has better proportions than it used to: longer in the wheelbase but shorter overall. That means not only that it looks less ungainly, but also that it still lines up against the big-middle-sized family crossovers. Think the inevitable Qashqai, and Honda CR-V, VW Tiguan, Ford Kuga and Peugeot 3008.

Its design is all about facets and creased octagons, and it’s more sober than recent Lexuses or the C-HR. No-one’s going to be scared by it, yet you’ll find interest and distinctiveness if you look.

Actually the new 2019 Toyota RAV4 more of an SUV than a crossover; boxy and roomy. The black lower-body cladding and wheel-arches are all part of SUV semiotics. A ‘trail mode’ button in the centre console activates a brake differential and different ESP strategy. It might just get you out of a slightly more challenging off-road hole than before.

This whole Toyota RAV4 range in South Africa will come in petrol as disappointingly (or perhaps a lucky escape) our market is denied the hybrid revolution. A 2.0-litre and 2.5-litre stick out like a sore thumb under the car’s global position which doesn’t portray South Africa in a particularity flattering light. The 2.5-litre is desirable because of the the 8-speed automatic gearbox and all-wheel drive but the 2.0-litre offers a choice between CVT (shaking our head) or manual gearbox connected to the front wheels. There is no diesel at all, leaving the door open for Qashqai and Tucson to swoop in and pinch sales.

All versions get a comprehensive bank of driver assist and safety kit but again not everything will be available when the RAV4 arrives in South Africa before mid year. Expect a truncated list but pedestrians will be safer should they step into the path of a VX model which also has the pre-collision system.

The new Toyota RAV4 might have a largely new 2.5-litre engine, but at wide throttle it sounds old and coarse and sends vibrations through the steering wheel. So turn up the radio, and change your driving style. Keeping smooth reduces the flailing undulations – and of course will further eke out your fuel. And to be fair, at times when you do want acceleration, pure performance isn’t an issue. Actual acceleration response is quite progressive and crisp.

The chassis provides mostly gravy too. Direction changes are accurate and progressive, the car gaining yaw and roll quite precisely, thanks to a reasonably alert steering setup and the new platform’s low centre of gravity.

No surprise that at the limit all RAV4s understeer, the front-drive one doggedly. Its steering is too light for our taste, mind, as it’s been set up for Asia and the Americas.

The ride’s really very good: supple and quiet in its reactions to bumps. Yet the damping stops short of being floaty, so the driver doesn’t lose confidence and the passengers don’t lose their stomachs.

The progressive outside styling meets a reasonably distinctive cabin – big blocky shapes conveying the sort of robust mental terrain that SUV drivers are presumably inhabiting. It’s nicely finished too. The dash and door tops are skinned in a stitched padding, and several of the knobs and door pulls have a tactile striped rubber wrap. Pity the cast-aluminium-effect parts are so transparently fake.

The front seats feel like a homely place to sink into. They’re heated and cooled in some versions, and the driver’s electrically moved. As a family SUV it ought to be roomy, and is. In the back grown-ups have plenty of room in every direction, and the boot too is bigger than you get in most members of the mid-size crossover crowd. Only, does the powered tailgate have to be so excruciatingly slow? There are five USB ports around the cabin, and a big inductive charge pad. It’s 2019. By the same token Toyota makes a song and dance about the connected services and apps on the screen.
No-one else would be very proud of them. Hi-res traffic info doesn’t come automatically; you have to tether your phone each time. And that’s tethering via the car’s own internal wifi. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto aren’t available. Not this year, possibly not next. They’re working on it, they say. If they can do an SUV vastly more fuel-efficient than anyone else’s, why can’t they do phone mirroring like everyone else does?

While we’re on the subject the graphics of the main touchscreen are pretty ugly, and ditto the driver’s display. You can opt for a small digital speedo or a big half-round one.

The verdict is a pretty easy one to call, but we can’t make the judgment in isolation. We need to know about your priorities.

If you want a manual transmission, or like working an engine for its own sake, go elsewhere. Simple. The RAV4 is quick and can do overtaking, but other cars, and even some other crossovers, are more fun to drive.

But as a family wagon it is much more appealing. It’s roomy, comfortable and nice to be in.
And as a financial and fuel-saving choice it really does take some beating.

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