Quite simply, the Toyota RAV4 is the biggest-selling SUV in the world.
Originally launched way back in 1994 as the “Recreational Activity Vehicle: 4-wheel drive”, it’s now into its fifth generation.
It was a new kind of car – one that combined the go-anywhere performance and rugged stance of an SUV with compact dimensions and handling not dissimilar to a hatchback.
The 4×4 market has changed a lot in the last 25 years and the RAV4 is now swamped with rivals including the VW Tiguan, Ford Kuga, Peugeot 3008, Mazda MX-5, Honda CR-V and Hyundai Tucson.
The good news is that Toyota hasn’t rested on its laurels and has really stepped up to the mark to create a new car worthy of the RAV4’s reputation – and with eco credentials too.
That’s not to say that the latest RAV4 isn’t without controversy because, for the first time ever, it’s only available in the UK as a petrol hybrid.
Thanks to the demonisation of diesel, all RAV4s have a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine paired up with an electric motor, developing 215bhp (front-wheel drive versions) and 219bhp (4×4). What’s more, there’s no manual option – just a CVT automatic.
If you’ve recovered from that bombshell (some traditionalists won’t), it’s worth saying that the new RAV4 does make up for this loss in other ways.
It’s arguably the best-looking iteration ever. At first glance, it doesn’t look a million miles away from the previous generation. Study it more closely and you’ll see that it’s now better proportioned with a longer wheelbase, while aggressive angles and a bold new grille help to give it a more rugged appearance.
Inside, there’s plenty of space for five, the build quality is faultless and it feels smart and well designed.
There are lots of smaller storage spaces too, while the 580-litre boot is impressive – even more so if you flip down the 60:40 rear seats (1,690 litres).
Priced from £29,940 to £36,945, standard equipment includes a 4.2-inch digital driver’s display, LED headlights, rear parking sensors, automatic headlights and wipers, power-folding mirrors and an 8.0-inch infotainment system.
Step up from entry-level Icon to Design, Excel and Dynamic trim levels, and goodies including keyless entry, an electronic tailgate, blind spot monitors, rear cross traffic alert, puddle lights and headlight cleaners are available.
It’s safe too. Awarded a maximum five stars by Euro NCAP after crash testing, its suite of safety tech includes autonomous emergency braking (AEB), adaptive cruise control, automatic high beam and road sign assist.
The new Toyota RAV4 is a self-charging hybrid, which means that you can’t plug it in to recharge the battery. Instead, energy is recuperated as you drive along via braking. It’s capable of running electric-only for short period (great for traffic jams) and it’s remarkably frugal, especially when cruising motorways.
I tested the front-wheel drive version of the RAV4 in Dynamic trim and it’s genuinely capable of 50mpg (officially 49.2–51.2mpg), while CO2 emissions are as low as 102g/km. Top speed is 112mph and it’s swift from 0-62mph with a time of 8.4 seconds. The AWD drive is a little more frugal and fractionally faster accelerating.
Frankly, unless you really need four-wheel drive for those few days of the year when the weather is extreme, we’d suggest sticking to the cheaper front-wheel-drive models. Either way, you’re onto a winner.
As you’d expect, the CVT gearbox means that flooring the RAV4 isn’t necessarily the most pleasant aural sensation. The revs soar and the engine’s a bit harsh, but it soon settles down and it’s generally a very responsive unit.
The cabin is refined and comfortable and the driving position is suitably commanding, while the handling is surprisingly nimble for a big car – especially if you select the Sport driving mode. In short, it never feels anything other than planted and safe.
There’s a bit more body roll in Eco, EV, Normal modes, but overall it’s just fine, whether you’re munching miles on a motorways, tootling along on everyday roads or stop-starting in the city.
Apart from the CVT gearbox, there are just a couple of negatives worth mentioning. This may be a deal-breaker for a few, but Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are not currently available infotainment-wise.
The only other big consideration, if you tow a caravan, trailer or horse box, is that the RAV4’s limit is 750kg or 1,650kg, depending on whether it’s FWD or AWD.
It has a fair amount of rivals, but it’s only self-charging SUV competitor is the new Honda CR-V. Both cars are fairly evenly matched, but for me, the Toyota edges it on refinement, looks and build quality.
Verdict: The all-new Toyota RAV4 is a smart SUV choice. Classy, economical, practical and safe, once you add Toyota’s solid reputation for reliability, it becomes a winning package.