2019 Toyota RAV4

CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA, Calif. — Toyota has taken its best-selling compact RAV4 crossover up a notch — perhaps two notches depending on your definition of a notch — with its all-new fifth generation. After experiencing several varieties of the stylish new RAV on Pacific coast highways and mountain roads, we think Toyota has done enough to keep its prized vehicle at the head of the class.

It's been more than two decades since the RAV4 was introduced into the U.S. market, essentially the first "crossover," before the crossover tag was invented, a small vehicle with front-wheel drive uni-body construction, for those people who desired a bit more elevation than the station wagon and with a modicum of off-road chops.

Not only is the RAV4 now the nation's top-selling crossover, it has eclipsed the vaunted Camry midsize sedan and compact Corolla as Toyota's best-selling nameplate. Toyota designers and engineers faced a daunting task in a complete redesign walking a tightrope between too much and too little.

Toyota focused on giving the RAV4 improved fuel economy, more standard features, a nicer interior, and styling that better stands out in a crowd with both gas and hybrids variants.  Although the RAV4 continues with basically the same dimensions as the outgoing vehicle — it has a 1.2-inch longer wheelbase, a wider track and more ground clearance — it is endowed with a beefier and more substantial look.

Now built on the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) that underpins the Camry, Avalon and Lexus ES, the new RAV4 sheds about 100 pounds while increasing passenger and cargo space over the outgoing model.

For those who desire a more off-road experience than offered in the past, Toyota has infused the new model with an outdoor theme in the Adventure trim level — with the look and feel of a smaller 4Runner. Adventure adds styling touches such as black fender flares and off-road trim that say, hey, I'm ready for that back-woods trail to the remote camping site. The Adventure injects a healthy measure of SUV swagger back into the crossover.

Here are the nuts and bolts of the new gas and hybrid drivetrains. The SUV gains 27 horsepower and 12 pound-feet of torque over the outgoing vehicle, having been endowed with the same powertrain as the current Camry. The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine generates 203 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. It is rated at a solid 27 mpg city, 34 highway and 30 combined in front-wheel drive burning regular gas. Mileage suffers just slightly with all-wheel drive at 25/33/28.

The real star of this show is the hybrid drivetrain. It surprised us after a 50-mile drive along the Pacific coast, standing out with a sophisticated ride, better performance than the standard gas-engine model, and with the prospect of delivering a gas-stingy 41 mpg city, 37 highway and 39 combined. Currently the hybrid represents only about 12 percent of RAV4 sales. That should more than double with the 2019 model.

In addition to better gas mileage, the hybrid is infused with more horsepower — and it can be felt on the road. Powering the RAV4 hybrid is a  2.5-liter four-cylinder engine producing 176 hp and 163 lb-ft of torque.

The engine is mated to an electric motor sending 118 horsepower and 149 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels and 54 horsepower and 89 lb-ft to the rear wheels for a combined system output of 219 horsepower, 25 more horsepower than the last-generation hybrid.

Toyota has elected to shun the more popular lithium ion battery, retaining a nickel-metal hydride unit, and the transmission is an electronically controlled CVT with sequential shift modes. All 2019 RAV4 Hybrids will continue to have standard all-wheel drive.

Like the previous generation, the hybrid is differentiated from the non-hybrid model with a blue-accented Toyota logo as well as hybrid badges on the sides of the vehicle. Inside, there is attractive blue stitching on the seats, center console, and door panels, as well as blue needles on the dashboard gauges. The 8.0-inch touchscreen can display the hybrid powertrain's battery activity, similar to other Toyotas including the Prius.

The hybrid's battery pack is located underneath the back seat so that interior space isn't compromised. Seats can still be folded flat, and just like the non-hybrid version, five people can sit inside comfortably. Cargo space behind the rear seats is 37 cubic feet just like the standard models.

The new cabin has a more spacious feel with improved materials that look and feel better to the touch than the outgoing model. The dashboard's cleaner design is an improvement. Seating is comfortable, and rear-seaters will find ample legroom. There are three audio systems to choose from with premium option featuring 11 speakers and 800 watts. No matter which one you chose they all have Apple CarPlay, WiFi Connect, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. Toyota still does not support AndroidAuto and officials offered no comment as to the reason.

To Toyota's credit many standard safety features are bundled into what Toyota calls its Toyota Safety Sense package. The package includes pre-collision warning with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist, automatic high-beams, lane tracing assist, and road sign assist. One sour note, however, blindspot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert — something we think should be standard equipment on all new cars — is not included in the package and is available only on top trim models.

Prices range from $26,545 (including destination) for the base LE trim with front-wheel drive and top out at $36,745 for the top Limited trim for the RAV4 Hybrid. While all-wheel drive is standard on the hybrid model, it is a $1,400 option on the gas models.

The 2019 RAV4 gas model is now reaching showrooms, but customers will have to wait until March for the hybrid version.

— Jim Meachen