When Toyota Philippines launched the all-new RAV4 a few months ago, we were somewhat at a loss for words.
The reason wasn't because of the looks, the feel, or the price. It was because of the drivetrain: this RAV4 will only be offered (at least for now) in front-wheel drive only.
Some may not take issue with it particularly because most RAV4's in the Philippines are almost exclusively used on-road and often in the city, but we find it strange simply because of what the acronym RAV4 means: Recreational Activity Vehicle 4-wheel drive. It's right there in the name, and while in the past the four-wheel drive system was only reserved for the top-of-the-line variant, it was still always available as an option. Today's RAV4 doesn't have that option for our market. Some even commented they should call it the RAV2. Or RAV4... x2.
After spending some time behind the wheel of this new 2019 RAV4 LE, I'm trying to figure out whether Toyota's decision to snap away the 4WD variants was a bad move, or their most sensible one yet. We'll get to that later.
When the first generation RAV4 debuted, Ace of Base was at the top of the charts. While the popularity of that Swedish group may not have lasted beyond the mid-nineties, but the RAV4 certainly has. The reason is easy to see: the RAV4 was the original crossover utility vehicle, proving the market viability of building an SUV using the unibody or monocoque more commonly found in a car.
Every single one of the three generations of RAV4 that followed gradually built on that original and successful formula. Each successive model saw improvements such as more space, higher quality, more modern designs, better technology, safety, and more. At the same time, however, Toyota's competitors were playing catch up. Today's competition is quite fierce, with every major manufacturer fielding some very compelling examples that drive very well.
And so Toyota wanted a big change with the fifth generation RAV4 for 2019, and it seems they did it right. The look of any vehicle is really the first thing that draws you to it, and the RAV4 is no exception. The new crossover looks quite busy, with Toyota really going for a somewhat trick and edgy design.
The headlights are pushed way up and outward, and the shape of the snouted large intakes for the radiator dominate the face. Perhaps what we liked most about the RAV4's design is the way Toyota played with the body panels. Toyota used edges, angles, and lines to break up the two-box and slab-sized nature of bigger vehicles, and create a crossover that almost looks futuristic. If anything, the treatment of the RAV4 is rather reminiscent of the F-117. Yeah, the stealth fighter.
I quite like their treatment of the new RAV4, and mind you, this is still technically a base variant. What I particularly liked was -as with conventional crossover design- how Toyota nailed the two-toned color-to-black-plastic look. And so we get a RAV4 with big pieces of black plastic on the body, albeit executed rather differently. Those huge front and overriders, trapezoidal black wheel arches, and thin strips on the bottom of the A-pillars and top of the D-pillars generate that two-toned look somewhat.
As much as I liked the exterior, it was the interior that seemed more interesting to me. The cabin is what you see everyday in traffic, and I appreciated how Toyota crafted the RAV4's interior. Actually, the look and feel of the controls, the dash, the buttons and other bits and pieces do remind me of the crossovers from Lexus like the RX and NX. It sounds strange, but there it is.
Being a “base” model, this LE doesn't come with some of the niceties of range-topping models, but that's not to say it feels bare. Depending on the application, I often find myself preferring breathable fabric upholstery on the seats rather than leather. I don't mind twisting a key instead of pressing a button. Having a digital airconditioning system isn't really a downgrade from an automatic climate control system; it still keeps the cabin very cool, and that's without the aid of tint on a hot summer day. And it has all the power features you need to get on. The 6-speaker audio system is quite good too with connectivity for an iOS or an Android device; it can connect with 2 phones simultaneously via Bluetooth to make or take calls, or up to 5 phones for music.
Where the RAV4 excels is in terms of safety. Toyota is making it a corporate mission of theirs to gradually equip all of their new generation vehicles with as much safety features as they can. That's why all variants of the RAV4 have seven airbags, front and rear disc brakes, an anti-lock braking system, stability control, hill start assist and even a system that prevents a trailer (if you're towing jetskis, for instance) from swaying uncontrollably at speed. Higher spec models get extra convenience features like front and rear sensors and a back-up camera; nice to have, but not really that necessary with a crossover of the RAV4's size.
What powers the RAV4 is a 2.5-liter twin-cam straight four. Now while that sounds very familiar, the engine itself is a relatively high-output one, as it produces 203 PS and 243 Nm of torque. That's a significant improvement over the previous generation's 2.5-liter engine which made 180 PS and 233 Nm of torque. Also new for this RAV4 is an 8-speed direct shift automatic driving the front wheels. Toyota touts it as more responsive and more efficient than previous models, and we're going to put that to the test.
The more I drive it around town, the more I like it. What I find very different about the RAV4's style of drive are the intangibles. Sure, the gearbox is new and the engine does feel good, but what's different is the level of smoothness from the way the RAV4 feels over rutted city streets, to the odd pothole here and there.
One of the reasons is likely to be the dimensions: the RAV4 appears to be shorter than the previous model. That's odd because new generation models tend to be slightly bigger than the predecessor, yet the RAV4 is shorter in terms of length at 4600mm (previous: 4661mm) and in height at 1685mm (previous: 1705mm). The 2019 RAV4 is slightly wider at 1855mm (previous: 1845mm) and ground clearance is at 176mm; not very high up off the road, but decent. But one key improvement is the wheelbase: it's longer by 30mm at 2690mm. The track (erroneously indicated in the brochure as “thread”) is also wider at 1610mm in front and 1640mm in the back. The wheelbase and track will come into play later, especially in terms of straight line driving and handling.
The RAV4 also uses a new platform which Toyota calls TNGA-K which it shares with the Camry. The platform has significant improvements in rigidity through the use of a new design and high strength steel. It's not obvious, but if you've driven the older RAV4, you'll feel the difference immediately on a quick drive around the city. Toyota even took a page out of Subaru's book and used the superior double wishbone suspension system for the rear wheels. That's a difference you can feel even in casual driving.
The fuel economy is perhaps the biggest improvement. In casual city driving the front-wheel drive RAV4 was netting 8.4 km/l (21 km/h average), though that was with 4 persons (plus camera equipment) in the vehicle; I suspect better numbers are easily achievable if the RAV4 wasn't fully weighed down. Also, with the same load on an expressway, the RAV4 was doing 15.5 km/l easily at an average speed of 82 km/h. Not bad for a crossover and a testament to the capabilities of the new platform; the figures are definitely an improvement over the predecessor which wasn't known for good fuel economy.
Remember the part about the wheelbase and the track? On an expressway, you'll want a longer wheelbase and wider track for stability and better accuracy when driving at speed and in a straight line. That's what the new RAV4 delivers. If you're driving at the speed limit, the RAV4 simply feels much more stable and more confident; bumps on the road don't throw you off-course too much, and the vehicle resettles quickly even if you do hit a bigger bump.
But what I liked most was the handling. The feel of the steering could be better, but the braking and the precision of this Toyota's cornering feels optimized for its size, so much so that you really have to make a big mistake coming into a corner (i.e. overcook the entry) before the stability control indicator lights up. One of the reasons behind that is Toyota worked on lowering the center of gravity; that alone will benefit the handling performance. Yes, there are far sportier crossovers in the market, but the RAV4 holds its own very well for a front-wheel drive even on a dusty surface like the more disused and remote areas of Subic Bay.
The RAV4 could have improved on a few things like the cargo space; it seems the cargo room with the rear seats up is slightly less than the previous model. Personally I would have preferred that the one we tested came with a different and more striking color, but do note that the crossover does have up to 9 color options depending on variant, including red, blue and a darker and almost purplish shade of blue. I would have also preferred a different design for the wheels, as even with the top-spec LTD, the wheels still look too plain and conservative for the body.
Price-wise, well, the RAV4 LE will set you back PhP 1.638 million. It's a fair price, considering how much it has improved and how Toyota didn't spare any expense in terms of overall safety. Still, the 2019 RAV4 LE is a surprisingly decent package, one that would suit a very active, very adventurous lifestyle, just as much as it works well as a daily driven crossover.
I was actually prepared to be very critical of the RAV4 because, like you, I'm disappointed that Toyota didn't put out an option for all-wheel drive. But as it turns out, the RAV4 doesn't need it. Besides, if you want a serious 4x4 adventure vehicle, you can always opt for something like a Fortuner, a Prado, or a Land Cruiser.