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The Trail edition of the 2019 RAV4 has improved off-road capability.Toyota

Compact SUVs are the best-selling vehicles on the road. Every manufacturer makes them, and they’re usually the most popular models in their lineups.

Toyota’s RAV4 is no different. It first arrived in 1996, when Toyota Canada sold 1,900 of them; today, Canadians buy that many in 10 days. It’s now the best-selling Toyota in both Canada and the United States, with sales last year of more than 600,000, and an additional 600,000 in the rest of the world. And its gas-powered models are built in Canada, at the company’s plants in Cambridge and Woodstock, Ont.

In fact, if you exclude pickup trucks, the RAV4 is the most popular new vehicle on the market. It nudges the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape into second and third place. And yet, Toyota’s taken a vehicle that so many people love and totally redesigned it for a fifth generation.

It will arrive in dealerships this December, priced similarly to the current generation: the most basic front-wheel drive trim has an MSRP of $27,990, rising to the most luxurious AWD edition at $40,490.

Wait, what? Toyota, the Japanese brand established on cautious conservatism, just threw away its best-selling vehicle to replace it with something new?

“The risk is really, really huge, but you’ve got to keep it fresh. The benefits outweigh the risks,” says Robert Karwel, a senior manager with JD Power’s Power Information Network in Toronto.

“You don’t want to let it die on the vine – you want to redesign it and keep it fresh. Consumer taste is a fickle thing and can change quite quickly, especially in a hotly contested segment like compact SUV.”

The hybrid edition combines a 2.5-litre engine with an electric motor to drive the rear wheels.Toyota

The new Toyota RAV4 is completely redesigned to drive on the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform, just like the Prius and the upcoming Corolla. It’s a quieter and much stiffer chassis, which creates a better-handling vehicle, with the engine mounted a little lower to bring the centre of gravity closer to the road. Ground clearance is increased by 15 mm, however, and the wheelbase is stretched by 30 mm, with an extra 10 mm of total width. The windows’ beltline is lowered and the side mirrors pulled back for better outside visibility.

Under the hood, there’s a new 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine that’s shared with the 2018 Camry. It’s much more powerful, at 203 hp instead of the 172 hp of the current generation, and that gives it a towing capacity of 3,500 lbs instead of the current 1,500 lbs. It’s also now matched to an eight-speed automatic transmission, and that new drivetrain helps reduce fuel consumption by about 15 per cent.

On the road, however, the new engine doesn’t make the RAV4 feel especially exciting or powerful. It’s smoother than before and very comfortable – it gets the job done – but it doesn’t seem particularly quick. Its official time from zero-to-100 km/h is just under 8.5 seconds, and that will be fine for most of its intended market.

Smoothness was a priority for the new RAV4, says its chief engineer, Yoshikazu Saeki, and the extra power provided that. “When a car has less power, you have to push harder on the throttle, and then you’ll have an instant push of G-force,” he explains. “Then you let off, and the G-force decreases, and the moment of inertia creates a rocking sensation. The surface contact area of the tires changes.

“For this RAV4, I focused the most on those contact patches, for stability, to make sure the tire-contact patch area moves as little as possible.”


The new RAV4 benefits from a redesigned cabin and an updated technology suite.Toyota

There are actually three different versions of the new RAV4, in up to 12 configurations of engine, drivetrain and trim. The Trail edition has greater off-road capability with larger, 19-inch wheels, a distinct grille and some extra drive modes for handling dirt and rocks. It starts at $38,690. It proved itself on a dusty hillside track, where it was sure-footed and didn’t get stuck, even on a steep sandy trail. It will be quite capable of handling rough cottage roads, though does not claim to compete with Jeep Wranglers or Land Rovers.

The Trail edition, as well as the line-topping Limited edition, includes torque-vectoring technology that can send power to either the left or right rear wheels. This is a first for the RAV4, and it helps considerably to keep everything stable on slippery roads and tracks.

The crowning achievement for the 2019 RAV, however, is the new hybrid edition, which combines the 2.5-litre engine with an electric motor to drive the rear wheels. It creates more power, at 219 hp, and will be marketed as the sportiest RAV4 when it comes on sale next spring.

What’s more, while its pricing has not yet been announced, Toyota Canada’s corporate vice-president says it will start at a “significantly” lower price than the $34,790 of the current hybrid RAV4. “The new hybrid will offer you better value across the board, because it’s going to be closer to each of the trim levels of the internal combustion models,” says Stephen Beatty.

It’s priced lower than before because Toyota wants to improve the overall exhaust emissions of its fleet, says Beatty. The company plans to double the proportion of hybrids to 30 per cent of all RAV4s sold. What’s more, the hybrids will be built in Ontario plants, not imported from Japan as they are now.

On the road, the more powerful hybrid powertrain offers the driving dynamic that’s missing from the gas-powered models. It’s quicker to 100 km/h from standstill by about 0.7 seconds, but most important, it has swift acceleration for overtaking and a sport-tuned suspension for handling corners.

The hybrid uses a continuously variable transmission (CVT) for driving the wheels, but it feels like an automatic. There are no paddle shifters for quicker downshifts and upshifts, however. Saeki says nobody ever asked for them, so he didn’t bother to include them. There are three selectable driving modes – Eco, Normal and Sport – and they mostly change the artificial shift points on the CVT, but they do also tighten the steering for more spirited driving in Sport.

Remarkably, though, Toyota says the hybrid powertrain is capable of using up to 30 per cent less fuel than the conventional gas-powered RAV4, even though it’s 113 kg heavier. With the lower price difference, this means the more powerful SUV could well pay for itself over a normal lifetime of ownership.

Official fuel consumption ratings have not yet been released, but in test-driving in California, the gas-powered RAV4 delivered an average of 10.7 L/100 km (surely worse than whatever will be the official rating, but taken from faster driving on hilly, winding roads); on the exact same hour-long route, the hybrid RAV4 delivered an average of 6.2 L/100 km. That’s a huge improvement that lends credibility to Toyota’s claim of considerable savings.

A digital rear-view mirror can help when the rear seats or cargo space are filled and blocking the driver's view.Toyota

Of course, the new generation benefits from a redesigned cabin and cutting-edge driving technology. It features Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, which includes such advanced driver’s assistance features as active cruise-control that will follow the speed of the vehicle in front, right down to a stop if necessary, and “lane tracing,” which uses a camera to keep the RAV4 in the centre of the lane. Pre-collision assistance watches out for other road-users, be they cars, bicycles or pedestrians, and will apply the brakes if needed to try to avoid hitting them. This is all available as standard on all trim levels.

There’s even an available digital rear-view mirror, similar to that first seen on Cadillacs a couple of years ago. In regular use, the mirror on the windshield is just that, a mirror, but flip it up and it turns into a screen, displaying the wider image from a camera on the rear door. This is a bit of a gimmick, but it can sometimes help, especially if the rear seats or cargo space are filled and blocking the driver’s view.

With a new platform, new engine and new focus on hybrid technology, the fifth-generation RAV4 is a risk for Toyota, replacing a vehicle that’s proven and popular, but the automaker is keeping ahead of the curve and raising the stakes once again. The compact SUV segment is the most hotly contested in the market, and the new RAV4 ensures it won’t cool down again anytime soon.

Tech specs

  • Base price/as tested: $27,990 / $40,690
  • Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder, and 2.5L four-cylinder hybrid
  • Transmission/drive: 8-speed automatic, and CVT / FWD and AWD
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): n/a
  • Alternatives: Honda CR-V, Ford Escape, Nissan Rogue, Hyundai Tucson

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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