2018 Honda CR-V vs. 2019 Toyota RAV4 Can the improved Toyota unseat our recently departed SUV of the Year?
Another year, another Toyota versus Honda faceoff. Last year, Honda’s redesigned Accord midsized sedan took on the sportiest Camry ever and won. In fact, it wasn’t much of a contest. The Toyota was much improved over its predecessor, but the Honda was clearly the superior car.
A year later, Toyota is back with a new contender in a different category. Evolving consumer tastes mean compact crossovers are now more important than family sedans. In 2017, the Camry’s 15-year reign as America’s best-selling vehicle (that isn’t a pickup) was ended by Toyota’s own outgoing RAV4. Across the industry, you can see the same trend. Sedan sales are shrinking while crossovers are booming. Honda, too, sold more CR-VS in 2017 than it sold Accords or Civics for the first time.
Considering how much was at stake, Toyota took a big risk when it redesigned its best-seller for 2019. It abandoned the anonymous but inoffensive styling of the previous RAV4 in favor of a chunkier, more rugged look. The soft-road-focused Adventure version even gets a Tacoma-inspired grille and 19-inch wheels.
The RAV4 is also now built on the midsize version of Toyota’s TNGA (Toyota New Global Architecture) platform, meaning that mechanically it relates more closely to the new Camry than the old Corolla. That means a longer wheelbase, a wider track, and a bit more ground clearance even though the RAV4 is actually now shorter overall. Toyota says it’s also lighter and significantly stiffer than the outgoing model. At the New York auto show unveiling, executives and designers were noticeably proud of their accomplishment.
Now to the defending champion. There’s a reason we named the CR-V our 2018 SUV of the Year: Honda absolutely knocked it out of the park with the redesign. Smooth ride, precise steering, supremely functional packaging, gaping second-row space, advanced safety tech, powertrains with crisp acceleration and great fuel economy, and perhaps most important, a fantastic value. Knocking this king off its throne would be a challenge for any newcomer.
But looking at the new RAV4, Toyota was clearly gunning for the win. I don’t think anyone came into this comparison expecting to make an easy decision.
Take styling, for example. Neither the CR-V nor the RAV4 is conventionally attractive. The CR-V’S looks push the limits of the term “polarizing,” but overall, its design is the more cohesive of the two. The RAV4, on the other hand, will probably alienate fewer potential buyers even if some design elements are better executed than others. The squared-off wheel arches, for example, work well on the RAV4 Adventure but look a little out of place on other trims.
Then again, this also isn’t a segment where buyers tend to prioritize looks. If it were, the Mazda CX-5 would sell a lot better than it does. But that’s a topic for another day.
Open the RAV4’S door, and you’re met with a cabin that’s perhaps an even bigger stylistic leap forward than the exterior. The large infotainment screen sits high on the dash with physical knobs and buttons on both sides, making it easy to read and operate. And depending on the trim, Toyota gives you different colored accent panels and contrast stitching.
The seats are comfortable and supportive, and materials mostly feel high quality. There are some hard plastics here and there, but it’s all a massive upgrade compared to the look and feel of other budgetconscious Toyota cabins over the past several years. Rear passengers won’t suffer, as there’s plenty of space for two adults or three children. Plus, materials in the back seem just as nice as they do up front.
Perhaps because we’re more familiar with the CR-V, its cabin doesn’t look as fresh as the RAV4’S. Honda also took fewer chances with the design, opting for a straightforward layout. But whereas the Toyota’s interior might look more intriguing, I was quickly reminded why the CR-V won last year’s SUV of the Year award.
In addition to the overall premium feel of our Touring model’s cabin, the CR-V’S functionality is truly impressive. There’s so much storage for front passengers that most people will struggle to find use for it all. And although there’s nothing wrong with what the RAV4 offers, if you are a bit of a hoarder, you’ll want the CR-V. It’s just that much better. For those who want the tale of the tape, Toyota did not provide cargo volume numbers, but my tape-measure calculations show the RAV4 to have less room for your stuff.
There also are little executions that make a difference. For instance, the Honda’s doors swing open much wider than the Toyota’s. That might not sound like a big deal, but parents will appreciate how much easier the CR-V makes dealing with kids and child seats. The CR-V also deserves its own award for clever packaging and functionality.
That said, I did have a few miscellaneous quibbles with each. In the CR-V, the shift lever wiggles just enough to be annoying. And in the RAV4, the plastic used for the key and the gas cap feels surprisingly chintzy. Neither is a dealbreaker, but both companies can (and should) do better.
In that same vein, we found that the RAV4’S doors shut with a decidedly downmarket, tinny sound. Almost like it’s missing a piece of insulation or sound deadening. Typically, I’d chalk it up to the alleged preproduction status of our tester, but the Camry’s doors make the same hollow sound. Maybe buyers won’t care, but once you notice it, it’s impossible to miss.
A quick editor’s note: The 2019 Toyota RAV4S used in our comparison test were labeled “pre-production,” though the Limited version was described as “production spec.” We also drove updated pre-production units at a November media event that had slight improvements in powertrain calibration.
Here’s the thing about Honda engines: You never notice them. You push the start button, the 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder fires up, and that’s about it. No one who drives a CR-V will ever think about the way the silky, seamless engine sounds. That’s far from the case with the RAV4. Even commuters with no interest in cars will notice the Toyota 2.5-liter I-4 sounds coarse, unrefined, and obnoxiously loud.
At least the RAV4 makes plenty of power. The CR-V’S turbo-four cranks out 190 horsepower and 179 lb-ft of torque, but the RAV4 has an advantage. Its engine is good for 203 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. That was enough to launch our frontdrive RAV4 Limited from 0 to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds, 0.4 second quicker than the all-wheeldrive CR-V. (We previously clocked a string of 7.5s in several 2017 AWD CR-VS in cooler weather, but we’re confident the RAV4 would be quicker as well under better conditions.) Noted technical director Frank Markus: “The
Knocking the king off its throne would be a challenge for any newcomer.
The 2019 Toyota RAV4’S infotainment screen is prominently located and features crisp, clear graphics.
The 2018 CR-V’S cabin might not look as stylish as the RAV4’S, but the Honda’s storage areas are far superior.
Associate online editor Collin Woodard breaks out the measuring tape. By our calculations, the CR-V beats the RAV4 in this game of inches.