2020 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road Review

A rougher RAV4 trades manners for attitude.

How do you increase the reach of America’s best-selling non-pickup? If you’re Toyota, you add a whiff of off-roading ability, embodied here in the RAV4 TRD Off-Road, new for 2020.

Don’t let the mountain-scaling, river-fording fantasy take hold too quickly now. This isn’t the compact crossover equivalent of the hardcore Tacoma TRD Pro. No, the Off-Road is a milder offering in the Toyota Racing Development portfolio. It butches up the RAV4’s looks, gives it a few choice suspension tweaks, and dusts the interior with a handful of unique features.

That’s all well and good: the entire crossover movement is based on the perceived additional go-anywhere abilities over the sedan segment, after all. In this new trim however, the RAV4 picks up some of the uncouth manners of SUVs of old, sacrificing what makes it a satisfying family car.

It Certainly Looks Rugged

The good news is that, visually, the RAV4 takes to the TRD treatment like your aunt to Minions memes on Facebook. More aggressive fender flares add 0.4 inches to its width, sitting above matte black, six-spoke 18-inch TRD wheels. Those rugged-looking rims come wrapped in Falken all-terrain tires, though our tester rides on Bridgestone Blizzaks, since it’s January.

Our particular RAV4 also comes in the TRD Off-Road’s hero color combo, Magnetic Grey with the roof in contrasting Ice Edge. It’s unique to the trim, and paired with new front and rear bumpers plus blacked-out badges, it gives the RAV4 some welcome aggression. This ute ain’t cute anymore.

The interior sticks to the blacked-out theme, with added splashes of red in the contrast stitching, TRD logos in the front seat headrests, and lining the center console. It’s a little gloomy in here, though the standard moonroof does let some welcome light in. The layered dash design looks and feels good, finding the right balance between functionality and style.

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If I were to pick nits, it’d be that the 8.0-inch touch screen is a bit of a reach for the driver. Also, the wireless charger placement makes it a hassle to plug your phone in for CarPlay or Android Auto, or even access it. Though a design that discourages touching your phone is actually a good thing, really.

The back seat is plenty big enough for two adults, or three in a pinch. For the number-crunchers out there, the RAV4 does lose out to the Honda CR-V, its main competitor, mostly in terms of front head- and rear legroom. We’re talking around two inches for both, though the Toyota also boasts more shoulder room in both rows. Both vehicles will easily swallow an entire week’s worth of groceries for a whole family. Drop the seats—a one-handed affair—and you’ll have 69.8 cubic feet of room to play with in the RAV4. That’s behind the CR-V’s 75.8, but again, neither feels particularly lacking.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Honda CR-V vs 2020 Toyota RAV4

Rugged Under the Hood Too

The RAV4’s old-school SUV aspirations make themselves known soon after thumbing the engine start button. The Off-Road runs the same 2.5-liter inline-four as the rest of the non-hybrid lineup, and it might be the weakest part of the package. Not in terms of power: its 203 hp and 184 lb-ft figures are fine, placing the RAV4 in the middle of the compact crossover class.

No, it’s the four-pot’s singing voice, or lack thereof, that lets it down. Agricultural in note and volume, it yells into the mic with all the subtlety of a Metallica karaoke rendition. There is a near-constant buzz from ahead of the driver, and while it isn’t enough to curtail in-cabin chats, it chips away at the RAV4’s sense of composure.

A standard-fit eight-speed auto is largely a good match. Left to its own devices it will keep revs low on the highway, and it never hunts for the right ratio at on-ramps. I found it had a tendency to hang onto gears around town though, keeping revs (and fuel consumption) high. Like many other modern Toyotas, the RAV4 features multiple driving modes: Eco, Normal and Sport.

Eco does as you’d expect, softening throttle response in the name of saving gas. Just like the Lexus ES 300h I had earlier in the month, this resulted in a heavier foot to wake the car up for acceleration. Sport mode naturally makes the throttle mapping more aggressive, which makes it harder to modulate. Stick with Normal: throttle travel is long, with the response nice and linear.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Lexus ES 300h Review

Add it all together and the Off-Road boasts EPA-estimated fuel ratings of 25 mpg city, 32 mpg highway and 27 mpg combined; the latter two figures being 1 mpg lower than other gas-powered AWD models. Our week of testing got it pretty close, averaging a hair over 26 mpg.

Smooth Ride in All Weather

Like the Adventure trim, the TRD comes with a more robust all-wheel drive system, complete with torque vectoring and the ability to stop power going to the rear axle if unneeded. That adds a rotary dial in the center console for Multi-Terrain Select. Each available mode (Mud & Snow, Rock & Dirt, Snow and Normal) tailors the traction control, braking system, and throttle response for the task at hand.

I wasn’t able to take the RAV4 through any hardcore trails, but did discover some suitably mucky and slushy roads outside of Toronto. Swapping between the modes had an immediate effect on the RAV’s attitude. On a rutted dirt road with six inches of snow, slush and ice, the Snow MTS setting kept the rear of the trucklet on lockdown. Switching back to Normal got the back end sliding more: in an empty park parking lot that can be fun, but the security Snow mode adds on the road is important.

The tall sidewalls of the Off-Road and its uniquely-tuned suspension afford it a pleasant ride. You hear bumps more than you feel them. The steering is good too, light and direct enough to fade into the background without ever drawing undue attention, like the right font in a novel.

All the Toys

The Off-Road sits near the top of the RAV4 lineup, starting at $36,300 (including $1,120 in destination). That includes most of the available bells and whistles, like the 8.0-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Alexa integration, power moonroof and a six-speaker audio system. Our tester also comes with a few choice upgrades, including a heated steering wheel, heated/vented front seats, auto wipers and an 11-speaker JBL audio system with dynamic navigation (all part of a $2,635 package).

Toyota’s Entune system looks dull here in 2020, with dated graphics its most serious demerit. To its credit, it has quick responses, is easy to read, and smartphone pairing means you’ll use another interface you’re more familiar with anyway.

Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 is standard across the RAV4 range, packing in adaptive cruise control, auto headlights, lane trace assist, lane departure assist, pre-collision with pedestrian detection, blind-spot monitoring and road sign assist. Front and rear parking assists with automatic braking, as well as a full birds-eye-view camera, are optional.

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The Verdict: 2020 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road

If you can look past—or even prefer—the uncouth engine, the RAV4 TRD Off-Road is a fine vehicle. It isn’t a mountain goat, but even still it almost certainly is more accomplished off the pavement than most owners will ever need.

Yet the RAV4 left me feeling cold. It adds harshness to a package that, in the hybrid form I drove last year, is such an accomplished method of family transport. Not only that, but the battery-assisted posts fuel mileage figures even subcompact cars struggle to achieve. Those savings add up.

SEE ALSO: 2019 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Review

If it were my money, I’d spec up a RAV4 XSE Hybrid with the added tech packages and pocket the roughly $1,500 difference. If you want more off-roading chops in your compact crossover, look towards the Jeep Cherokee or even the Subaru Forester. The TRD Off-Road might add some of that same rough-and-tumble character to the RAV4, but it does it to the detriment of the package.