2020 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid XSE AWD: Another Toyota with a newfound sense of fun?

Price: $38,074 as tested. For $375, heated steering wheel and rain-sensing wipers, and $269 for floor mats. More below.

Conventional wisdom: Consumer Reports liked the fuel economy and standard safety features but not the engine noise, ride, or fit and finish.

Marketer’s pitch: “Powered to perform.”

Reality: For a hybrid RAV4, it’s more fun than you’d expect.

What’s new: The RAV4 was last smacked with an ugly ... er, was redesigned for 2019. New for 2020 comes a TRD Off-Road package, which lets you have your fuel economy and climb big rocks, too. (Well, little rocks, maybe. Or maybe it can handle the streets of Little Rock, Arkansas.)

But XSE remain the letters to watch from Toyota. They’re like that movie where the character has a near-death experience and proceeds to spend the next 90 minutes hang gliding and bungee jumping and falling in love with the wrong person, while all the other characters gaze on and reevaluate their own lives. Or else get all annoyed. (Oh, wait, that’s in real life.)

Up to speed: One of the more surprising aspects of the RAV4 Hybrid is the pep. Even while not using Sport mode, the little SUV zipped right onto highways and away from stoplights.

The net horsepower for the hybrid is 219, from a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and an electric motor. The vehicle records a 0-to-60 time of 7.1 seconds, according to Motor Trend, so it’s more about feel than actual head-snapping data.

Still, plenty of power is available for passing as well, where it counts.

On the curves: Here’s where the XSE trim really pays off, as it has in other Toyotas.

This version of the RAV4 didn’t feel like a Toyota on winding roads, and I didn’t have to slow down much to round bends. It’s not the most fun I’ve ever had in a small SUV, but the XSE’s larger wheels and lower-profile tires at least inflict a Kia Soul level of sharpness and clear handling, without the bounciness that the RAV4 and the Soul once shared.

Consider that I once suggested Toyota needs to add a RAV3 to combat the growing SUV’s bulkiness, and that shows how far the RAV has risen.

Shiftless: Like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown, Toyota still likes to offer the illusion of gear choices and then pull back at the last minute. The RAV4 appears to have a shiftable automatic, but the gear selected then becomes the top gear and the car just shifts by itself anyway. Useful for descending hills and not killing the brakes, but that’s about it.

The interior of the 2020 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid is pretty straightforward but not unpleasant.
Toyota
The interior of the 2020 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid is pretty straightforward but not unpleasant.

Driver’s Seat: The RAV4 offers a delightful home base, at least at this trim level. The cloth seat felt comfortable and supportive, although I confess I’m not putting the kinds of mileage on vehicles that I once was.

Toyota has also taken a page out of its big-trucks book for the RAV4, offering heater dials and shifter controls for Big Man Paws.

Friends and stuff: Backseat room is a little more snug than I’d have expected. Headroom is delightful, while leg and foot room are more challenging.

A movable rear seat would be a nice addition, as it could add to passenger space and still leave plenty of cargo area as well. Cargo volume is a super-generous 37.6 cubic feet behind the rear seat and 69.8 behind the front.

Keeping warm and cool: The heater temperature controls are of the manly, big-paws variety as noted, while the pinkie-size buttons for the rest of it can be a challenge.

Play some tunes: The premium JBL auto system ($1,620) adds an 8-inch touchscreen, 11 speakers, and some decent sound for a Toyota. Not great, about a B, but far better than my experience in a recent Prius, which sounded like the old Sturgis family Sienna.

Fuel economy: I averaged about 35 mpg in a rather limited course of driving, but the vehicle had been getting that same mileage before I received it as well. Feed the RAV4 whatever.

Where it’s built: Woodstock, Ontario.

How it’s built: The RAV4 gets a shocking(-ly low for Toyota) 3 out of 5 predicted reliability rating, which matches last year’s redesign. Before that, the model had consistently garnered top marks for many years.

In the end: I guess if you want your RAV to handle like a Volkswagen, then it has to fall apart like a Volkswagen. Still, the RAV4 seems worth a look, if you can get past that Transformer exterior.