$5 for 3 months. Save 83%.
$5 for 3 months. Save 83%.

Payne: Hybrid Toyota RAV4 will git 'er done

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
The 2019 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid is solid in the snow with AWD, and a chassis and independent suspension more refined from the previous gen.

Michigan winters concentrate the mind on transportation fundamentals.

Mother Nature cursed the first public day of the Detroit auto show this year with six inches of snow, and I waded through it in my 2019 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid tester — along with thousands of other job-bound Detroiters — to get downtown from Oakland County.

Snow has a way of de-romanticizing everything on the road.

I passed a muck-covered white Jaguar F-Pace that looked like a Victoria’s Secret angel splashed by a mud puddle. I churned past a Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk crawling along the Lodge’s left-hand lane at 20 mph, its white-knuckled driver oblivious to the steed’s enormous four-wheel drive capabilities. I rolled by a black Mercedes C-class, its sculpted body lines obliterated by salt wash.

My snow-covered RAV4 didn’t look much different than these design icons. But the Toyota is hardly a wallflower.

Spurred by its colorful CEO, Akio Toyoda, the brand has gone on a creative design binge that is sometimes wonderful, sometimes wacky. File the new Supra sports car (just unveiled at the Detroit auto show) as wonderful with is racy, LeMans prototype styling. For wacky, shield your eyes from the new Camry which looks like it was dressed by Marvel Comics with its racy lines and Ant-Man mask.

The RAV4 is changed dramatically since the last-generation car, which I liked very much. The new RAV4 is much more masculine, trading the previous generation’s round fenders and sleek roofline for a more muscular look. Fenders are squared off, the stance more upright, the rear lights chunky — finished off by a grille that comes straight from the best-selling Tacoma pickup.

In a female-friendly family segment, I’m not sure the pickup look is the way to go, but the RAV4’s truck-like capabilities were certainly appropriate for my snowy Saturday commute.

Sitting high off the ground, I toggled Trail mode in my Hybrid Limited model and plunged into the elements.

The 2019 RAV4 offers three different all-wheel drive systems — two for gas-engine models and one that is unique to the Hybrid. The Hybrid's system uses the gas engine to drive the front wheels, and an electric motor to drive the rear. A Trail mode features brake-torque vectoring that can throw more power to the wheel that has the most traction (think limited slip-differential on a sports car). I can’t quibble with the engineering, but I couldn’t tell the difference in Trail or Normal mode.

I effortlessly drove the 3,800-pound beast around snowy  corners. The Toyota’s nanny systems intervened. But unlike the last generation which would nearly stall the car by cutting fuel, the systems of the new truck ultimately gave up as I applied more throttle for more fun fish-tailing.

Once on the Lodge, however, I was all business, and the Toyota negotiated the clotted byway with cheery confidence. It showed off good traction, predictable handling ... and, um, none of its ballyhooed standard features.

The RAV4 may be a bargain with standard radar- and camera-based adaptive cruise-control and lane-keep assist — but the car was as blind as a bat in the snowy conditions.

I toggled adaptive cruise-control. Nothing.

I applied the lane-keep assist. Nothing.

The only safety-assist system that worked on the Toyota was blind-spot assist, which was useful for checking for wayward cars (on snowy roads, folks just make up lanes). 

Autonomous cars may be testing in sunny San Francisco and La La Land, but the real test is here in the Midwest where inclement weather plays havoc with the car’s eyeballs. My car’s RAV4’s assist system were AWOL, reducing the Toyota to basic transport.

Which is what Toyotas do very well.

Folks who have to get to work on time — or get the kids to school on time, or get to the airport on time — need reliable transportation no matter the weather. And they have for years now consistently turned to good ol’ Toyota appliances.

For the sixth straight year, the RAV4 scored a 5 (out of 5) reliability rating in Consumer Reports testing.

Which means when Detroit’s a 15-degree snow globe, the RAV4 will start, drive, fit the family and get you to your destination on time without breaking the budget.

About that last thought. “Hybrid” and “budget” don’t usually share the same sentence, yet Toyota’s hybrid is a better vehicle than the standard, 2.5-liter model in every way. For just $800 more, the hybrid is quicker zero-60 and returns a whopping 11 mpg better fuel economy (39 mpg vs. 28). Which means the fuel-savings will earn back back the difference in three years. On paper, anyway.

In 400 miles of wintry travel under my lead foot, my RAV4 returned just 30.1 mpg. Michigan winters have a thing or two to teach La La Land on real-world hybrid mpg, too.

But while monitoring roads, blind-spots and left-lane lollygaggers loping along at 20 mph, it’s comforting to have a car with intuitive ergonomics. It is here that RAV4 has made its biggest step over the previous gen.

The interior is not only more handsome with a digital instrument cluster and raised tablet touchscreen, but the console is much improved.

The annoying, notchy shifter has been replaced by a smoother model. Under the raised touchscreen is a big cubby for throwing French fries and wallets. And phones, which remain essential for navigation in the RAV4 since its own navi system is subpar and Android Auto for my phone isn’t offered (happily, for you iPhoners, Apple CarPlay is available).

The terrain modes are efficiently packaged next to the shifter. Only Toyota’s habit for stuffing too many buttons on the left-of-steering-wheel dash panel is distracting. Searching for the heated steering wheel button somewhere around my left knee is not where I want my eyes to be when I have a snoot-full of snow coming at me.

Add it all up and the $37,000 RAV4 is a worthy vehicle — if still shy of the Mazda CX-5 for best all-around all-star in class. The 2019 RAV4 will likely retain its top-dog sales status — and the hybrid model should replace the iconic-but-fading Prius as the brand’s best-selling green vehicle.

As I churned past an awesome, $70,000 Ford Raptor on the Lodge, I smiled. For half the price, the RAV4 would deliver me to my destination just as safely but more efficiently.

That, in a nutshell, is what Toyota delivers. Fundamentals.

2019 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan

Price: $28,795 base, including $1,095 destination fee ($36,795 Limited model as tested) 

Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder mated to electric motor and nickel-metal hydride battery

Power: 219 horsepower (total hybrid system output)

Transmission: Electronic continuously variable transmission (e-CVT) 

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.6 seconds (Motor Trend); towing capacity, 1,750 pounds (mfr.)

Weight: 3,800 pounds (Limited as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA: 41 city/38 highway/39 combined 

Report card

Highs: Hybrid affordability, Toyota reliability; much-improved interior ergonomics

Lows: Butch design not for everyone; no-thrills driving experience

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.