TESTED: Check out the radical 2019 model Toyota RAV4
THE ghosts of Toyota's past are being exorcised. Company chief Akia Toyoda has dictated that the famously vanilla vehicles cop an infusion of spice to design and driving dynamics.
The results are showing in increased sales for the maker and increased appreciation for its products among people who like to drive rather than those who cleave to a trusted nameplate.
The fifth-generation RAV4 continues that form, joining the Camry and Corolla as vehicles you're not embarrassed to park in the driveway or to steer through a sweeping series of bends. And the Supra sports car is still to come …
Toughening up the RAV4 was a design priority. Toyota Australia vice-president of sales and marketing Sean Hanley says pushing the wheels out to the corners and adapting the honeycomb grille found on the company's four-wheel drives has made it more "truck-like".
"We've seen with the HiLux Rugged and Rugged X that people want a tough-looking truck," he says. "I think that trend will move into the SUVs."
Three new engines are fitted to the RAV4, starting with a 2.0-litre with more power than the current version, which drives the front wheels through a six-speed manual or continuously variable transmission.
Power from the new 2.5-litre petrol engine is also up and this combination is used exclusively with an eight-speed auto and all-wheel drive. It also comes with a unique front bumper and grille that almost could have been grafted from a HiLux.
A petrol-electric hybrid headline act will be sold here in front or all-wheel drive guise. Opt for AWD and a second electric motor drives the rear wheels and uses a limited-slip diff to help on low friction surfaces.
Expect prices to be up by about $2000, the hybrid asking a $1500 premium over similarly equipped petrol versions.
The RAV4 may be the real deal on the outside but the interior is less cutting-edge. Toyota Australia has yet to announce local specification - understandable given the SUV doesn't arrive until May - but the Canadian-built cars we tested in California earlier this month are fairly sophisticated, which makes the so-so aspects stand out like the proverbial.
The good stuff includes standard autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist and auto high-beam on all versions.
The beltline - where the doors stop and the glass starts - is lower than in most SUVs, improving outward vision for all seats. For the same reason the side mirrors have been relocated from in front of the window to the doors.
Less enamouring is the fact the seven-inch infotainment screen won't come with smartphone mirroring in Australia. Under-bonnet sound-deadening is also missing on lesser-spec vehicles, contributing to more noise entering the cabin even if it's still a decently quiet drive.
The soft-touch material on the top of the door trim is also absent on the base version and, beyond the centre storage bin, stowage space is sparse. The front door pockets won't accommodate much more than a bottle and a purse or wallet - the back pockets are pretty much bottle-only propositions.
The seats are also flat and lack support, though the materials look stylish and feel durable.
On the road
There are very few chinks in the RAV4's on-road armoury. The steering now has enough feedback to confidently tip into a turn knowing the wheel is going to give you an early indication of where the grip levels are.
Adjust to this much-improved response over its predecessor and you're rewarded with very little body roll, along with an inherent resistance to pitching backwards or forwards under hard acceleration and braking - traits that the hybrid shares.
The suspension is almost Mazda-firm, so it will be interesting to see how it copes with Australia's sorely neglected road surfaces. Still, the SUV settles smartly over big bumps rather than displaying any secondary bouncing and is quiet in-cabin even under full throttle.
The 2.5-litre engine feels almost as strong but the eight-speed is indecisive when going uphill, shuffling between two or three cogs as it attempts to balance the incline of the ascent and the depression of the accelerator. It's also noisier than the hybrid and there's more tyre roar over coarser surfaces.
Better in every regard, Toyota's first hybrid SUV may make as big an impact for the way it goes as it almost certainly will for the way it looks.
Price: From $30,990-$45,990 (est)
Warranty/service: 3 years/100,000km, $1080 for 3yrs/60,000km (est)
Safety: Not rated, 7 airbags, AEB, traffic sign recognition, adaptive cruise, active lane-keep
Engines: 2.0-litre 4-cyl, 127kW/203Nm; 2.5-litre petrol-electric hybrid, 155kW (combined)/221Nm (petrol only); 2.5-litre 4-cyl, 152kW/243Nm
Thirst: 6.0L-9.0L/100km (est)