I finally did it: I'm a dad. The funny thing is, I've always owned dad cars, even before I needed to. Owning anything with less than four doors never made much sense, which is how I ended up with a stable of souped-up grandpa cars from the Sixties and Seventies. Now that I'm a father, the '74 Oldsmobile sedan I brought my wife and son home from the hospital in seems a bit dated. And that, my friends, is how I found myself on this quest to find the perfect new dad car. The latest contender: the 2019 Toyota RAV4.
The 2019 Toyota RAV4: By the Numbers
- Base Price/Price as Tested: $26,595/$39,084
- Powertrain: 2.5-liter inline-four, 203 horsepower, 184 lb.-ft. torque; eight-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel-drive
- Fuel Economy: 25 mpg city, 33 mpg highway
- Towing capacity: 1,500 pounds
- Random dad fact: Redesigned for the 2019 model year, the North American market-focused fifth-generation RAV4 is based on the front-wheel-drive Toyota New Global Architecture platform (TNGA-K) that underpins the Toyota Camry, the Toyota Avalon, and the Lexus ES 350.
The summer before I turned 24, I worked as an oceanfront lifeguard—"ripping hapless beachgoers from the jaws of death," as our television camera-loving captain liked to put it. That winter was somewhat less glamorous. The Virginia Beach oceanfront shrivels up and dies when the weather turns cold, and so does all the seasonal work. Fortunately, a marine construction company was in town replenishing beach sand and needed an idiot out-of-work beach lifeguard to swim around in the Atlantic Ocean with a survey pole in the middle of the winter. They offered $12 an hour and a free wetsuit, so I was their guy.
That's how I found myself driving a '98 Toyota RAV4 to the construction site one morning. My skyjacked 1980 GMC 4x4 pickup was out of service due to some project, so I took my girlfriend's car to work. It was lightweight, peppy, and had a manual transmission and all-wheel-drive; other than the fact that it looked like an anime sketch, it was a great car. But not everyone thought so. "Hey Beeeeyn," a hard-hatted coworker said as the little car's tires crunched across the gravel parking lot, "Where'd ya git that li'l
ol' bitch cawr?!"
He had a point. Early RAV4s were particularly adorable. Fortunately for people who care about such things, the new RAV4 comes off as much more adult. It's not pickup truck-masculine (whatever that even means), but it is handsome in a way that exudes dignity. And this easy-on-the-eyes RAV4—which includes improvements that are more than skin-deep—comes at a time when crossovers are all anyone wants to buy. In other words, the RAV4 has arrived.
2019 Toyota RAV4: Interior & Cargo
There's little doubt that Toyota did its homework on the RAV4's interior. It looks fresh and modern, and even a bit upscale. The dash controls are simple and well-marked, and they aren't overabundant. A crisp aluminum spear ties together the vertical elements of the infotainment stack and instrument cluster.
But for you parents out there, your baby doesn't care about all that crap. As I find time and again, my son is most content in the back seat when there's enough space between rows for his child-safety-astronaut-pod to sit at the correct angle. This wasn't an issue in the right-sized RAV4, though it would be interesting to see how tight it would be with two car seats be there. There would still likely be enough room for an adult passenger, though.
The seats are comfortable and there's plenty of leg, hip, and shoulder room alike. With its height, the RAV4 also has plenty of headroom, too. My kid enjoyed gazing out the panoramic roof glass—a novelty since most states decided to face very young passengers rearward, with a view only of opaque seat cloth/leather for the first several years of their lives.
The rear cargo area is generous; at 37.5 cubic feet, there's plenty of space for a bulky medium-sized stroller, and a load of groceries or a weekend's worth of luggage plus the kid junk my parents wanted to get out of their garage after a couple of decades. With the rear seats folded almost flat (they don't go completely horizontal, unfortunately), cargo space is almost 70 cubic feet. One of my surfing buddies just bought a RAV4, and he loves that he can stash his boards and other gear inside the locked vehicle.
2019 Toyota RAV4: Driving & Fuel Economy
Anyone who's interested in a crossover like the RAV4, Honda CR-V, or Nissan Rogue—which are all basically slightly different versions of one another—shouldn't expect sports car performance. The RAV4 doesn't reach highway speed hastily, but it gets there in a reasonable amount of time (Car and Driver says 8.3 seconds). Curvy roads aren't the RAV4's forte, but it makes a compelling case for itself around town, in the 25-to-50-mph range. Good low-end torque from Toyota's marvelous naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine makes for smooth stoplight-to-stoplight driving.
On the highway, at baby-safe speeds, the RAV4 rides smoothly and accelerates without too much noise, so long as you don't mash the pedal to the floor. But there's a good reason not to drive aggressively in this tall crossover; fuel economy is noticeably sensitive to higher speeds. Despite the EPA's 28-mpg combined fuel economy rating, I had to slow down in order to keep that number at 26.5 mpg. The base front-wheel-drive models get slightly better gas mileage—30 mpg on average, according to the EPA—and Toyota has promised a hybrid model later this year. The hybrid will have a slightly higher 219-horsepower rating, as well as a 40-mpg fuel economy rating, though keep in mind that hybrid battery packs usually cut into cargo space. It could be a good option for families trying to avoid spending too much money on fuel. After all, if there's one thing that's certain besides death and taxes, it's that gasoline prices will eventually rise again.
2019 Toyota RAV4: Safety
Neither the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) nor the federal government has yet rated the new RAV4 for crashworthiness. Automatic emergency braking and a three-year subscription to a service called Safety Connect that contacts emergency services in the event of a crash are standard across the RAV4 lineup. Blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert is optional on the base LE and standard on upper trims. Rear cross traffic braking and low-speed braking sonar are unavailable on the LE, but either optional or standard as the trims become more haughty.
The Long and Short
Looks good, drives good, is good. When you compare the new RAV4 with its main competitors—the CR-V, the Rogue, the Mazda CX-5, the Subaru Forester—it holds up pretty well. What was once a pretty bland looking commuter lump has been sculpted into something that looks decent while performing its basic functions well. It's still an appliance deep down, but that's the point of this type of vehicle.
With only minute differences between various small crossovers, your choice between which one to pick really boils down to personal preference, cost-reduction promotions, and what's on the dealership lot (unless you're the type who special-orders mundane cars). Personally, if I ended up buying a RAV4, I think it's pretty unlikely that, two years in, I'd look back ruefully upon the day I pulled the trigger on Toyota's little family hauler and wished I had bought a Rogue instead. (Maybe a Forester, but that's because it comes standard with all-wheel-drive.) My kid won't know the difference anyway, so long as there's room for all his stuff back there.