Five years later, and we love RAV4s more and more

2020 Toyota RAV4 XSE Hybrid AWD

2020 Toyota RAV4 XSE Hybrid AWD
Exterior: Blueprint
Interior: Black
MSRP: $34,050 ($37,700 as tested)
Base MSRP: $25,950
2.5-liter 4cyl, 219 HP (combined)

My car reviewing hobby began five years ago in the 2015 RAV4, and as much as I loved that vehicle (my original review column is included below this one), the 2020 version is even better.

Seriously, folks, if you are a suburbanite, you want to consider the RAV4. When you drive downtown, you benefit from that little higher seating along with superb handling, so traffic is not as tedious as it might be in a coupe or sedan. You also benefit from great acceleration, responsive braking, and a ton of safety features. When you drive down the country, as we say, you can go off-road with no trouble, especially if you have an all-wheel-drive RAV4.

One of the smaller SUVs in the Toyota/Lexus lineup, the RAV4 still offers plenty of headroom and legroom, and its easier to enter and exit than its larger cousin the Land Cruiser. They are making the RAV4 more powerful, too, starting at 203 horsepower at the 2020 base level compared to 176 horsepower offered by that upper-end 2015 Limited Edition. If you get the 2020 XSE Hybrid, which is what we were recently loaned for a week, you are getting 219 horsepower at peak moments when the battery and engine work together. That might not feel like a lot in some vehicles, but it’s plenty in this compact five-seater.

Looking back at the 2015 RAV4, I think that year’s exterior styling still looks great, and you can get them for a bargain, even those with lower mileage. I have seen a few for sale in the Atlanta area for around $12K to $15K with mileage in the 40K to 50K range. If I were in the market for this type of vehicle but needed bank financing, I’d be looking at the 2015s or 2016s, because I think, being Toyotas, they will run well for a lot of years to come.

Back to the 2020 models, they have somehow made them look even more attractive. I would probably not go so far as to call the look of these new RAV4s aggressive, but they do look more confident than in years past.

The copy Toyota sent us was dark blue, called Blueprint, and the wheels were glossy black alloys. At first glance, it looks like a police vehicle, but then not so much. When you open the doors, you know you’re not looking at a cop car, because there’s just too much luxury going on.

From the outset, you need to know that RAV4s are fun. Everything they put into a RAV4 is meant to do one of two things: 1) make sure you’re having fun; or 2) keep you safe so you can have more fun. That’s really it.

Our loaner had an incredible sound system made by JBL featuring an eight-inch, touchscreen infotainment monitor, 11 speakers, including an amplifier and a subwoofer near the tailgate. And there’s the other bit: a tailgate. This RAV4 still features the full liftgate, but the threshold is flush to the floor, so you can sit there comfortably enjoying your favorite music while shielded by the overhead sun or rain or bird poop or blue ice or whatever. It’s a great tailgating vehicle.

Here’s the flipside, though. Having a flush threshold can also mean your cans of extra-large black olives that shifted out of their shopping bags might roll onto your feet when you pop the liftgate. Figure it out, because I don’t want to hear you whining about what is otherwise a cool design feature. Get a cargo box, tie up your Kroger bag handles. Whatever it takes.

Another ace feature on these new RAV4s is the LED projector headlight system. Unfortunately, I accidentally deleted my dashcam video footage of a predawn commute, because you’d have seen on my YouTube video review that nighttime visibility is nothing short of incredible in these vehicles. You’re seeing everything, including deer in the woods thinking about meeting you in the roadway. I still recommend you watch the YouTube video, of course.

One concern I have with the new RAV4 has to do with the engine compartment. It looks like you’d be able to rather easily access your spark plugs, battery, and the other more routinely maintained bits and pieces, but the serpentine belt looks like it may be difficult to reach, and certainly the components connected to it will be a challenge. If you’re a take-it-to-the-shop kind of person, you probably won’t notice the difference, but for the rest of us, it could mean an extra busted knuckle or two.

Having driven new RAV4s every year since 2015, I’m excited to know that Toyota is still investing in making this vehicle better and better. I look forward to seeing what they do to it next.

In the meantime, be sure to check out our YouTube review of this 2020 model, and also take a few minutes to read my first-ever RAV4 review below



2015 Toyota RAV4 review: A suburbanite’s dream come true

[This feature review was originally published in the Saturday, March 21, 2015 editions of Fayette County NewsToday in Peachtree City and East Coweta Journal.]

Don’t you love it when someone you met last year at an air show media event e-mails you and asks if you’d like to borrow a brand-new, trimmed-out Toyota RAV4 for a week to see how you like it?

Yeah, me, too.

It was all part of the “Toyota Road Trips” campaign, and the regional Toyota folks were kind enough to drop a dark-gray RAV4 off at my doorstep one recent Wednesday morning. Eight days later, I felt genuinely sad to say “goodbye” to that compact SUV, but please don’t tell my Honda.

My first impressions of the RAV4 were that I loved the firm but comfortable seats, which turned out to not be leather but a relatively new covering called SofTex that looks a lot like the real thing but is apparently more durable, easier to clean and more environmentally friendly in terms of how it is produced. The steering wheel and shift lever are real leather.

The second thing you can’t help but notice is that you don’t have to use the key directly to start the vehicle. As long as the key is in the vehicle, you simply push a Start button and the four-cylinder, 2.5-liter, 176 horsepower engine comes to life.

So then the third positive impression was that the RAV4 responded quickly and powerfully to the gas pedal while handling as precisely as a much smaller vehicle to the seemingly effortless steering wheel. It’s a sporty vehicle, especially the top-trimmed Limited edition, which is what I was loaned.

That first morning, I drove the RAV4 directly to work using the same route I take every day, and the ride was almost blissful. There is so much fun stuff happening inside the vehicle, including in my case an optional Entune Premium JBL Audio system complete with subwoofer; the standard (at the Limited trim level) Entune App Suite, which includes a 6.1-inch monitor in the console featuring GPS, weather, Bluetooth telephone controls and every musical entertainment option you can imagine; and heated seats.

Okay, so that last feature probably isn’t on most men’s top-10 automobile features list, but when my wife Joni was cold one moment and comfortable the next because of the flip of a switch, I was sold on it being a great add-on.

In real life, people like us with three young kids and a fourth on the way are going to look at something bigger, perhaps the larger Highlander SUV or the Sienna minivan, but the RAV4 is surprisingly spacious. At 6′ 1″, I was comfortable in every seat, and we were able to squeeze two booster seats and a full-sized car seat in the back row. A generous rear compartment makes it a good pick for hauling kids’ sports gear, vacation luggage or grocery bags.

Day One was fun, but it was on Day Two of my review that I discovered the RAV4’s best selling point, which is its ability to navigate a trip into Downtown Atlanta. On that day, I had to take Joni to the doctor’s office in Midtown, and this little SUV gave us the right height for good visibility as well as the agility and responsiveness to keep up with interstate and surface street traffic. The braking on the RAV4 is superb, which anyone facing Downtown Connector traffic will appreciate.

Parking in the Emory University Midtown Hospital multi-story lot was a breeze. The RAV4 seems to turn on a dime, though steering in high-speed traffic isn’t jerky. You’re getting the best of both worlds here.

So it occurred to me the RAV4 is a perfect vehicle for people with daily commutes from the suburbs into or through the ATL. It’s a city car.

But how does the RAV 4 fare on unpaved surfaces? We got a little taste of its capabilities on Day Two as we returned from Atlanta and got behind a car blocking Hwy. 54 trying to turn left. In my Honda, I would have stayed put and waited it out. In this true “sport utility vehicle” I opted to go around on the considerably sloped, unpaved shoulder but honestly felt as if we had never left the roadway, it was that smooth.

Then came Day Four, which is when we kicked up our off-roading a notch.

I spent my childhood in the shadows of Southlake Mall, and Joni grew up on the edge of the second-largest city in the United Kingdom, so when it came time to get the RAV4 “down and dirty”, we suburbanites were just brave enough to take it for a spin under the pines at Starr’s Mill.

One Facebook friend goaded me to take the RAV4 “muddin”, but all those high school stories of ripped-out axles and having to get big rigs to pull trucks out of the mud came back to mind, so we opted instead for middle ground. In this case, our off-road course was the short series of wooded trails behind Starr’s Mill, which offer fun turns, steep approaches and even a short span of challenging, above-ground pine tree roots. The RAV4 seemed just as at-home in that environment as it did turning the corners in Midtown Atlanta, which left me with the impression that this RAV4 may be a suburbanite’s dream come true.

Day Five, which was also the day of the big race down at Atlanta Motor Speedway, saw me and two of our kids cruising down to Hampton to take in the spectacle from outside the gates. By the time we got there it was afternoon, so there was no traffic, and we slipped behind the little airport there to take a sporty stroll down Wilkins Road.

Wilkins Road is half paved, half gravel and a whole lot of fun. We started on the paved part, got the RAV4 up to about 40 mph and then maintained that speed onto the gravel portion. Even when I wiggled the steering a bit, this front-wheel-drive SUV maintained perfect control, no problem. It was almost disappointingly smooth and steady on the gravel, though if I lived on a gravel road I think I would fall in love with these traits.

Other features we enjoyed along the way include the blind-spot back-up camera, the built-in hands-free mobile phone system and the presence of six front row cup/can/bottle holders. Call me a redneck if you must, but I like having multiple drink options at my fingertips. And if you’re a dipper, your spit can has its own holder to call home. [Editor’s note to the Toyota folks: Don’t worry. I don’t dip.]

Joni particularly enjoyed the very functional dual-zone climate control system on the RAV4. Set a temperature and perhaps a fan speed, and you’re both comfortable.

Now let’s talk about price, and here we arrive at the reason they had to take my RAV4 back on Day Eight. Fully-trimmed, like the vehicle I was driving, you’re looking at a retail of around $32,000. However, most of the same important features are also available on the LE version for about $9,000 less.

This coming week at Georgia World Congress Center, The Atlanta International Auto Show rolls back into town, and they’re bringing back free test drives. Toyota is scheduled to have several of its top sellers there, including the RAV4, so drivers over the age of 21 will have a brief opportunity to experience this fantastic ride for themselves.

If you do go to the car show, and if you see a dark gray RAV4 there, tell it hello for me. And if you see a 40-something bearded man hogging the driver’s seat while other people are asking to have their turn, well, that’s probably going to be me.

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