First drive: 2019 Toyota RAV4 [Video review]

Toyota redesigns its best-selling model for 2019.

Toyota may be best known for its Camry and Corolla sedans, but it's actually the RAV4 small SUV that's the brand's best-selling model. In fact, over the last five years, RAV4 sales have doubled.

When a vehicle is performing that well in the marketplace, an automaker is typically hesitant to tinker too much with a winning formula. But not Toyota. The company started from scratch with its 2019 RAV4, creating an all-new vehicle from the ground up. But has Toyota managed to pull off new and improved with its 2019 RAV4? Read on to find out.

The basics

From a mechanical standpoint, the biggest news for the 2019 RAV4 is the switch to Toyota's new TNGA global architecture. Although the RAV4's overall length hasn't changed much -- it's still right around 181-inches -- the 2019 RAV4 boasts a longer wheelbase, and it's also shorter and wider than the model it replaces. Toyota has also pulled off the magical trick of lowering the RAV4 while still improving ground clearance by more than two-inches.

As before, you can get the 2019 RAV4 with a gas or hybrid drivetrain. Both models use a 2.5L naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engine. In gas form the RAV4 is good for 203 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque; the hybrid, with its extra electric motor, produces 219 total system horsepower. Toyota has not released torque specs for the hybrid version of the RAV4.

The gas RAV4 comes standard with an eight-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive. Two different all-wheel drive systems are available. RAV4 LE, XLE and XLE Premium models use a system known as AWD-i that functions pretty much like every other all-wheel drive system on the market. Spring for the RAV4 Adventure or Limited, however, and you'll get a torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system that can not only shift power between the front and rear wheels, but also from side-to-side based on available traction.

All RAV4 hybrid models, meanwhile, come standard with a continuously variable transmission and all-wheel drive.

Tougher looks

The RAV4 has never been a big, intimidating off-roader, but Toyota designers felt the previous-generation RAV4 skewed a little too car-like. So when penning the all-new 2019 RAV4, designers gave it a dose of truck DNA.

The front of the 2019 RAV4 has a decidedly upright design that gives it the look of a proper SUV. You can also see a clear family resemblance to the Tacoma pickup truck in the RAV4's grille design, especially when you're gazing at the Adventure model.

In profile the RAV4 looks more muscular than before thanks to bulging front and rear fenders, pronounced wheel arch flares and lower-body cladding. You can also get the 2019 RAV4 with an alternate color roof, which is a nice nod to some of Toyota's previous off-roaders.

The rear of the RAV4 isn't as successful, with a couple of misses in our eyes. The first is a set of slanting D-pillars that don't really jive with the RAV4's general upright design. Moreover, that slanting roofline also eats into the available cargo space.

The second whiff has to do with the RAV4's exhaust. From an aesthetics standpoint, the dual exhaust outlets look like an afterthought, dangling below the back bumper without any kind of integration. Those tips also limit the RAV4's departure angle, which seems odd for a vehicle that Toyota is pushing as off-road capable. Luckily, we doubt many RAV4 owners will ever be in jeopardy of pinching their exhaust on a challenging off-road trail.

Inside the new RAV4 is also more truck-like. The interior design uses big, blocky design elements, giving the small 'ute a much more substantial feel. We especially like the chunky HVAC dials and stubby shifter.

But the new RAV4 isn't all muscle and no brains. The interior layout is actually quite clever, with plenty of nooks and storage spaces; we found the bin just above the glovebox to be particularly useful. Controls are also logically arranged and easy to use.

There's also plenty of tech integrated into the new RAV4. The new RAV4 makes use of a standard 7-inch touchscreen display running the latest Toyota Entune 3.0 infotainment system. That means you get Apple CarPlay, Amazon Alexa compatibility, WiFi connectivity and in-car app integration right out of the box. You can also equip the 2019 RAV4 with an optional 8-inch touchscreen with embedded navigation. If you crave even more LCD square footage, a digital gauge display is available as an optional extra.

The RAV4 also checks all the boxes when it comes to semi-autonomous tech. Every model comes with Toyota's TSS 2.0 safety suite that includes emergency braking, lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, lane tracing and road sign recognition. Upper-end models get blind spot monitoring as standard, but you'll have to pay extra to get that on a lesser RAV4 model.

Drive time

Our day began riding shotgun, which revealed one of the RAV4's biggest flaws -- the ability to get in without sustaining a concussion.

The RAV4's front passenger's seat is mounted very high without any controls for adjustment. Meanwhile, Toyota lowered the RAV4's roofline for 2019, creating the perfect conditions for a head contusion.

You simply can't get into the RAV4's front passenger seat like you would in any other car. You either have to go in head first, or remember to cock your head to the side as you get in. It's not Acura ZDX rear seats bad, but it is shocking that Toyota would let such an ergonomic faux pas make it through to production.

Luckily the driver's seat can be lowered, so you can get behind the wheel without the need for any type of head protection. Once safely positioned behind the wheel, we found the 2019 RAV4 to be a comfortable ride with secure handling. Steering is actually better than we were expecting, with good weight and quick response. Body roll is well managed.

The 2019 RAV4 hybrid feels a little peppier off the line than its gas-only counterpart, but really, both drivetrains deliver more than adequate oomph for everyday driving. The CVT in the RAV4 hybrid works as expected, and the eight-speed auto in the gas-powered RAV4 is smooth and refined in normal driving.

If we could make one improvement to the new RAV4, it would be better noise isolation. The noise the 2.5L four-cylinder makes isn't very pleasing, and it easily penetrates the cabin during any kind of acceleration. Road and wind noise are at least kept at bay.

We rotated through all of the RAV4's available drivelines, but it was difficult to gauge the varying systems' strengths and weaknesses on dry roads with posted speed limits of 45mph. However, an off-road course really brought out the differences between the available all-wheel drive systems.

The RAV4 hybrid did OK off the beaten path, but it struggled with some sections of the off-road course. Excessive wheel spin was an issue, particularly over a couple of sections that lifted two wheels off the ground. The RAV4 hybrid eventually made it through, but it took a couple of tries.

The RAV4's available torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system, meanwhile, made it through the entire course without much fuss. The system instantly shifts power to the wheels with the most traction, which limits wheel spins and keeps you moving forward. There's also a cool function of the digital gauge cluster that shows you exactly how the system is divvying up power.

The numbers

The hybrid model is obviously the most fuel efficient version of the RAV4 you can buy, with the gas-electric SUV returning 41mpg in the city, 37mpg on the highway and 39mpg in mixed driving.

The most efficient gas-powered RAV4 comes with front-wheel drive and ratings of 27/34/29mpg city/highway/combined. Adding all-wheel drive reduces city and highway ratings by 1mpg. RAV4 Adventure and Limited models with the torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system net 24mpg in the city, 32mpg on the highway and 27 in combined driving.

Pricing for the 2019 Toyota RAV4 LE starts from $25,500. Adding all-wheel drive adds $1,500 to the bottom line. The volume RAV4 XLE AWD carries a starting MSRP of $28,700. The RAV4 Adventure model can be had for $32,900, while the range-topping Limited is priced from $34,900.

On the hybrid side, the RAV4 LE starts from $27,700. The sport-oriented Hybrid XSE carries a base MSRP of $33,700, with the Hybrid Limited priced from $35,700. All prices exclude a destination charge that's just over $1,000.

Leftlane's bottom line

With its 2019 redesign, Toyota has managed to make a RAV4 that's both new and improved. However, it's far from new and perfect.

On the positive side, the new RAV4 looks much better than the outgoing model, especially in Adventure trim. We also like the looks of the RAV4's well thought out interior. And there's plenty of standard tech to keep modern car shoppers happy.

But the issue of front seat ingress is a pretty glaring issue for a vehicle that will be mostly used for family car duties. The slanting D-pillars also eat up cargo room while creating massive blindspots, which is a bit of an issue because blind spot monitoring isn't standard. And a gruff and loud engine note wouldn't be our first choice for a road trip partner.

But overall, the 2019 RAV4 is an attractive package that should keep the line's winning streak going.

Photos courtesy of Toyota.

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