There’s a Reason Why the Toyota RAV4 Outsells Every Other Car in America

a black car parked on a rocky surface
America's Most Popular Vehicle That Isn't a TruckHearst Owned

During 2023, Toyota sold 434,943 RAV4s in the United States. That’s the most of any new vehicle that isn’t a full-size pickup truck. Depending on how loosely the term “SUV” is defined, it’s the best-selling SUV in this country, too. And it’s the best-selling Toyota with the Camry sedan coming in behind it at 290,649 units and the Tacoma mid-size pickup at 234,768. The RAV4 isn’t the quickest, best-handling, shortest-stopping, most luxurious or most fuel-efficient thing on the market. And subjectively speaking, it ain’t the prettiest either. It isn’t state-of-the-art in any way. Except the one way that matters.

It is a state-of-the-art consumer product. Absolutely practical, built with reassuring quality, carrying the sterling Toyota brand, inoffensive and affordable. Well, at least affordable enough so that maybe a half-million Americans will sign up to finance theirs in 2024.

three rav4s parked on a road by a hill
Toyota builds 15 different RAV4 variations for America. There is, almost literally, a RAV4 for everyone. So if there isn’t a RAV4 for you, change yourself.Hearst Owned

Toyota lists 15 different variations of the 2024 RAV4. That’s a range starting with the front-drive, conventionally propelled LE model starting at $30,025 including the $1350 destination charge, through the $41,380 Hybrid Limited with all-wheel drive, and all the way up to the plug-in hybrid, all-wheel-drive Prime XSE at $48,910. The example driven here is totally mainstream: the $39,645 TRD Off-Road.

toyota rav4 trd off road
A familiar tail on America’s roads. And it will remain a common sight for decades to come.John Pearley Huffman - Hearst Owned

Do the math. The TRD Off-Road is $9620 more expensive than the cheapest RAV4 model and $9265 cheaper than the most expensive. This is the precise middle of the RAV4 range.


It's also so familiar. This is the 30th year of RAV4 production and sixth year for this fifth generation model. (It's called the XA50 inside Toyota.) Toyota assembles them in seven different plants around the world: two in Japan, two in China, and one each in Canada, the United States, and Russia. Most sold here in North America come from the Canadian and American plants with the Prime plug-ins coming from Japan.

Using the working principle that it’s better to buy simpler vehicles and lease the complex ones, one huge advantage the RAV4 TRD Off-Road has is that it’s so basic. No turbos, no hybrid system, no self-driving functions. There's just a straightforward interface between driver and controls.

the engine of a car
Under this ordinary engine cover lives an ordinary 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine.MICHAEL SIMARI|CAR AND DRIVER - Hearst Owned

The transversely mounted engine is a 2.5-liter naturally-aspirated four with two cams, 16 valves and variable timing. It’s rated at a just-adequate 203-horsepower and 184-pound feet of peak torque at 5000 rpm. It feeds an eight-speed automatic transmission with first gear practically a granny-like 5.25:1, sixth a direct 1:1, and seventh and eighth progressively steeper overdrives.

In daily use it operates with anonymity. There’s a bit of combustion trill but almost no exhaust note, the transmission shifts with passion-less ease, and giving it some spur results in modest acceleration.

The “Dynamic Torque Control” all-wheel drive system uses a transfer case integrated into the transmission with an electronically engaged coupler that sends up to half the power to the rear wheels when needed. During less than heroic driving, the RAV4 is operating as a front-drive machine.

Now that some vehicles come with center screens the size of middle school cafeteria trays, the RAV4’s innards are reassuringly 2020. There’s a big enough screen atop the dash center stack, and there’s a clear enough display in front of the driver. No super-zippy tech overkill, no radar-range indecipherable graphics, just real knobs and real buttons where real knobs and real buttons make sense. Link up a smartphone and Apple CarPlay or Android Auto take over the center screen efficiently and, frankly, better than Toyota’s native suite of apps.

the interior of a car
Red accents are the most obvious elements of the TRD Off Road package’s interior tweaks.MICHAEL SIMARI|CAR AND DRIVER - Hearst Owned

Some observers may dismiss the RAV4 interior as dated. Pffffft. Civilization, as measured by vehicular interior design, peaked in 2019 and RAV4’s cabin is in the sweet spot.

What it is, is reassuring. Trade in a 2018 RAV4 for a 2024 model, and there isn’t anything startlingly different about it. And it’s a dead nuts certainty that when Toyota gets around to introducing a sixth generation RAV4, it too will be familiar stuff. Toyota ain’t doing anything risky.

The TRD Off-Road portion of the vehicular equation brings with it modest enhancements. There’s an additional half-inch of ground clearance to a total of 8.6-inches, the shock absorbers are painted red, and the “Army Green” test vehicle wore 18-inch TRD wheels inside 225/60R18 Falken Wildpeak A/T Trail tires. But, come on, this isn’t a true off-roader. More like, a won’t-strand-you-in-a-bit-of-mud-machine.

a tire on a car
TRD wheels have become a big selling point for Toyota. The Falken Wildpeak tires can handle a little mud, but not a lot of mud.John Pearley Huffman - Hearst Owned

That’s readily apparent in those tires. The Wildpeak A/T Trail is styled like an off-road tire along its sidewall and shoulders, but the tread face itself is a touring tire. That means it’s quiet on road, has a low rolling resistance for good fuel economy, and should last in civilian use (the treadwear rating is a solid 360). But it’s not truly for rock crawling or mud bogging.

Considered as a suburban family appliance, the RAV4 TRD Off-Road is nearly optimal. Honda’s CR-V is slightly roomier and Mazda’s CX-50 has more responsive steering and better handling, but the RAV4 is fine. Dive into a corner at a blistering pace and the nose will push, but why the hell would anyone go at a blistering pace in a RAV4? This is a quiet, mannered cruiser at 10 over the speed limit with nice initial damping when hitting a divot and an easy rebound post-bump. What the steering isn’t telling, no one needs to know.

a car parked in a rocky area
The RAV4’s styling directly references that of Toyota’s pickups. But there’s no truck in it. The TRD Off Road package is an overlanding ¾ step.John Pearley Huffman - Hearst Owned

In testing the RAV4 TRD Off-Road loped to 60 mph in 8.3-seconds and completed the quarter-mile in 16.5-seconds at 87 mph. Nothing startling. If drag racing is the purchasing criteria, the RAV4 Hybrid is the better choice. Last year a 2023 RAV4 Hybrid Woodland Edition sprinted to 60 mph in 5.4-seconds and ran the quarter in 14.0-seconds flat at 100 mph.

The Hybrid also has significantly better EPA mileage ratings, coming in at 38 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway. The RAV4 TRD is rated at 27 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway. From a strictly performance perspective, the Hybrid is the way to go. Particularly considering how well-proven Toyota’s hybrid system now is. The Hybrid is the premium buy. But, that in mind, the Hybrid models have sticker prices about $3000 greater than the conventional RAV4s and they’re in greater demand. So, the Toyota stores aren’t likely willing to discount.

As fiery as R&T’s passion is for exotics and sports cars and all sorts of things impossible to use as a daily driver, the heart of the market is here with the RAV4. It’s a straightforward crowd pleaser and a simple thing. It’s affordable and practical, comes with a massive reputation for reliability, and is likely to hold its value well.

Those aren’t the virtues that are often celebrated here. But they’re virtues that matter.

You Might Also Like