2021 Toyota RAV4 review: Satisfying if not quite superb

The RAV4 is a sharp looking small SUV.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

The 2021 Toyota RAV4 is a lot like that one friend everyone seems to have: always there to lend a hand, provide a shoulder to cry on or show up at a moment’s notice if you find yourself in hot water at 2:00 a.m. in Tijuana. No, the RAV4 doesn’t really lead the compact SUV class in any one area, but it’s well rounded, perfectly capable and ready to serve.

LikeAttractive interior designStandard driver aidsAdded capability

Don’t LikeSo-so infotainment systemGritty reversing cameraGrumbling engine

Offering drivers plenty of choice, three basic flavors of RAV4 are available. There’s the standard model, an economical hybrid and then the RAV4 Prime, the plug-in hybrid variant with up to 42 miles of electric-only range. The example seen here is the most rugged of the bunch, the TRD Off-Road, which features a non-hybrid drivetrain and some additional features to make it perform better out on the trail.

For 2021, the TRD Off-Road model gains a swanky stainless-steel front skid plate, a first for the RAV4. This should help shield some of its delicates while thrashing around in the dirt. This Toyota’s body is supported by a uniquely tuned suspension, which features racy-looking red springs that supposedly provide better small-bump isolation on rough roads. This vehicle also boasts re-valved twin-tube shock absorbers for better body control over large surface irregularities. Providing and extra helping of traction is a set of Falken Wildpeak A/T Trail all-terrain tires mounted to 18-inch TRD wheels. These rubbers look super aggressive but are surprisingly agreeable. Indeed, the TRD Off-Road’s suspension tuning is totally livable, providing an impressively smooth on-pavement ride with little tire noise. If towing is your thing, this RAV4 can drag up to 3,500 pounds, enough for a couple snowmobiles or a small trailer.

My tester is also fitted with what have to be the most useless running boards in automotive history. The RAV4 sits low enough that they’re completely unnecessary. Making matters worse, these things are sure to get in the way while off-roading, plus they stick out far enough to streak your pant legs with whatever slop you last drove through. But here’s the kicker: All this added inconvenience costs an extra $549.

Get past those optional running boards and you’ll find this SUV’s interior is well built and the overall design is easy on the eyes, without any frou-frou add-ons or unnecessary sculpting. Mazda’s CX-5 is clearly more upscale and the Honda CR-V’s cabin is nicer, too, but there’s no shortage of soft materials in this Toyota and I love the racy-looking red stitching that runs across the dashboard, door panels and seats. This is complemented by crimson accents around the cup holders and available wireless charging plate as well as on the rubber floor mats.

The 2021 Toyota RAV4’s interior is handsome and functional.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

An 8-inch touchscreen is perched on the dashboard where it’s easy to reach and see (lower trims feature a 7-incher). Unfortunately, this display is home to an outdated infotainment system that’s challenging to use and rather unattractive. But hey, at least Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Amazon Alexa are all supported. I appreciate the rubbery temperature- and audio-control knobs, which feel great in my hands, but some of the other HVAC buttons are a bit too small to easily see while driving. Beyond all that, this RAV4 also features the $1,620 Premium Audio package, which includes an 11-speaker JBL sound system, embedded navigation and a few other goodies.

As in other Toyotas, the RAV4’s back-up camera is poor, providing a low-resolution image of what’s behind you. The $1,950 TRD Off-Road Technology Package includes a 360-degree camera system, which is helpful, but just as gritty looking. This options group contains other goodies, too, like a digital rear-view mirror, parking sensors, a wireless charging plate and more, so it is worth the extra outlay even if the camera system is merely so-so.

The RAV4’s front chairs are supportive and comfortable, helping provide a good view of the road ahead. This SUV’s backseat is also spacious, with plenty of room for knees and noggins, though the rear cushion is just a tad too low for it to be totally accommodating. Also, the back door openings are narrow, so it can be challenging to access the rear accommodations.

This Toyota’s four-cylinder engine works surprisingly well, even if it’s a bit noisy while working.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

This example’s wide, power-opening hatch makes it a snap to access the cargo hold, which provides 37.5 cubic-feet of storage space behind the rear backrests or 69.8 cubes with them folded down. That’s more space than you get in a CX-5 or Ford Escape, but those scores do fall slightly behind the capacious CR-V.

The RAV4 is propelled by a familiar drivetrain, one used to great advantage throughout Toyota’s automotive empire. Nestled between this SUV’s front fenders is a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder that delivers a reasonable 203 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. The engine is backed by an eight-speed automatic transmission that is, for the most part, quick-witted and smooth, though occasionally gearchanges can feel a bit uneven. The performance this powertrain delivers is perfectly fine; unladen, the RAV4 has no trouble getting up to highway speed. Really, I have no complaints about this SUV’s get-up-and-go, rather, I’m not a huge fan of its refinement. The engine is gruff sounding when on the boil and sometimes you feel uncouth vibrations.

But hey, at least the RAV4 is efficient. TRD Off-Road models come with torque-vectoring all-wheel drive, a feature that should make them reasonably capable little mountain goats. Despite the added weight and friction of four-corner traction, this SUV is rated at 25 mpg city, 32 mpg highway and 28 mpg combined. In mixed (though mostly highway) driving, I’m averaging about 31.5 mpg, which is, frankly, stellar for a vehicle this tall fitted with such aggressive tires. 

The infotainment system is one of the RAV4’s biggest weaknesses. 

Craig Cole/Roadshow

At interstate speeds a bit of wind noise makes its presence known, but this is hardly objectionable. The RAV4’s ride is mostly supple and the brake pedal feels good beneath your tootsies. This vehicle’s steering is crisp and quick, but a tad too light for my taste and the wheel’s rim is almost dainty its cross-section is so small.

Helping keep the RAV4 shiny side up, Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 is standard fare on every 2021 model. This suite of driver aids includes lane-departure warning, automatic high beams, road-sign recognition and more. The headline features, though, are adaptive cruise control and lane centering. Together, these two amenities make long highway drives a breeze, keeping the vehicle from wandering and effortlessly matching the speed of surrounding traffic.

Keeping pace with rival SUVs, an entry-level, front-drive 2021 Toyota RAV4 starts at 27 grand and change including $1,175 in destination fees. As it sits, the loaded TRD Off-Road model seen here checks out for $42,622. That figure includes a number of options like the Off-Road Weather Package ($1,015), the Premium Audio options group ($1,620), the TRD Off-Road tech pack ($1,950), door sill guards ($140), mud flaps ($129) and, yes, those silly running boards ($549).

Well, what do you think of the 2021 Toyota RAV4?

Craig Cole/Roadshow

With added capability and commendable refinement, the RAV4 TRD Off-Road is a likable SUV. I still prefer the CX-5, which feels much more premium and I think the CR-V is probably a bit more sensible, but as always, the ever-popular RAV4 remains an excellent choice.

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