Best of the non-hybrids
THE GOOD
  • Off-road capability with decent on-road manners
  • Highest tow rating of any RAV4
  • Great looks that preview its character
THE BAD
  • Gas-only engine feels less energetic than hybrid
  • Thirstiest model of RAV4 line-up
  • Cost of TRD Off Road package

There aren’t a lot of reasons to opt out of hybrid drive these days – especially when shopping the Toyota lineup, where hybrid-powered models are usually similar in price to their gas-only counterparts.

There is the occasional argument for passing on gas–electric power, though. The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Trail TRD Off Road is one such compelling reason. The Trail grade is the only one in the RAV4 line-up that’s not available as a hybrid, and tacking on the TRD Off Road package turns this compact SUV into a comfortable daily driver that’s also ready to get dirty.

Styling: 8/10

They don’t tend to make enthusiasts weak-kneed, but as smaller SUVs go the Toyota RAV4 isn’t a bad-looking vehicle at all. And this Trail TRD Off Road version is the best-looking of the bunch, if you ask me. The two-tone paint job on this test unit, finished in Lunar Rock and white, suits its character perfectly, and the 18-inch black TRD wheels and unique roof rails wrap it up in a tidy, tough-looking bow. Add in the smattering of red finishes inside and suddenly the RAV4 looks like it means business.

Safety: 8/10

Toyota’s most robust suite of advanced safety technologies, which is standard on every RAV4, is impressive: lane-departure warning with lane-keep assist, forward collision warning with pedestrian and cyclist detection, automatic high-beams, and adaptive cruise control are all included. Blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert and rain-sensing wipers are also included. And while the RAV4 itself received a Top Safety Pick rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the headlights on this Trail trim get an unimpressive score of “Marginal.”

Features: 7/10

Although there are good reasons to choose this configuration if you’re going to make use of the off-roading features, it does require giving up some amenities included with the Limited grade, which ends up costing a little less than the Trail with the TRD Off Road package. For instance, this version doesn’t include a surround-view monitor, kick-activated tailgate, driver’s seat memory function, digital rear-view mirror, or heated rear seats. However, it does include a wireless phone charger, heated and ventilated front seats, and a heated steering wheel. The TRD Off Road package also adds an 11-speaker audio system, plus LED fog lights, and a TRD-exclusive skid plate, wheels, and off-road tuned suspension at an extra cost of more than $4,000.

User Friendliness: 7/10

On the whole, the ergonomics and usability inside the RAV4 are good. The location of the gear selector and recessed cupholders contribute to giving the driver easy access to the entire centre console. My key criticisms are around the infotainment system, which is the larger eight-inch touchscreen in the Trail grade (lesser trims get a slightly smaller seven-inch unit). If you have shorter arms as I do, you may find the buttons on the far side of the screen difficult to reach. Unfortunately, this includes the tuning dial, which leaves me leaning heavily on radio presets to scan through my favourite stations while I’m driving rather than flipping through stations one at a time. If you typically only listen to a handful of stations anyway, this may not matter as much to you – and there’s also skip buttons located on the steering wheel.

Practicality: 8/10

As small two-row SUVs go, the RAV4 strikes a great balance between size, manoeuvrability, and interior space. Both rows have a good amount of head- and legroom, and the 1,059 L of cargo space behind the second row and 1,977 L behind the first row are near the top of the segment.

Comfort: 8/10

Most front-seat occupants should have no complaints in the RAV4 Trail. The faux leather-like material feels nice and is durable, and the combination of the heat and ventilation functions and the nicely upright seating position make these pleasant places to sit. [Headroom up front is a little lacklustre for tall occupants with the sunroof that’s fitted to most trims. – Ed.] Second-row occupants may not be quite as pleased, with no ability to adjust the seatback angle and no seat heating in the Trail trim. Despite having an off-road oriented suspension, the ride doesn’t come across as overly rough or bouncy on paved roads.

Power: 7/10

Losing the hybrid powertrain stings a little under the hood. Without the low-speed kick of the electric motor found in electrified RAV4 models, the 203 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque from the 2.5L four-cylinder engine is a touch unsatisfying on its own. However, it’s possible that if you’ve never driven the RAV4 Hybrid before and don’t care to, you won’t be fazed by what’s found here. Plus, this Trail grade can tow as much as 1,588 kg (3,500 lb), the most of any version of the RAV4, and includes trailer sway control. Those who expect to use that functionality may prefer the more traditional output from this engine and its eight-speed automatic transmission.

Driving Feel: 8/10

Toyota says the TRD suspension that’s exclusive to this trim’s upgrade package takes learnings directly from Toyota’s rally racing experience and is tuned to provide body control and isolation of small bumps on both trails and city streets. Based on my experience in largely city driving, I can report that it does a very good job of balancing its off-road capability with composed on-road handling character. On top of the normal, sport, and eco drive modes, the Trail grade also includes mud and sand, rock, and snow modes for greater control on challenging surfaces, plus hill descent control is equipped as well. The all-wheel drive system can send as much as 50 per cent of the available torque to the rear wheels, and as much as 100 per cent of that to either of the rear wheels individually for improved control in low-traction situations.

Fuel Economy: 7/10

An unsurprising consequence of a gas-only powertrain and a less aerodynamic design is that the RAV4 Trail TRD Offroad is, by just a tick, the thirstiest of the RAV4 models. The damage doesn’t look too startling on paper: Natural Resources Canada rates it at 9.5 litres per 100 km in city driving, 7.4 on the highway, and 8.5 combined. However, over a week of testing that was dominated by city driving, my returned average was higher at 10.5 L/100 km, which is high for this segment.

Value: 7/10

For those who want the look of a more traditional SUV but truly are going to make use of all the capabilities of the RAV4 Trail’s more outdoorsy character and increased tow rating, as well as the TRD Off Road’s additional features and capabilities, there’s probably a decent amount of value here. But at an as-tested price of more than $45,000 with fees, you’ll want to be pretty sure you really would make the most of it – or that looking like you might is worth the extra money.

The Verdict

If you’re primarily looking for a compact SUV that can handle more than most off the beaten path, and you don’t mind spending more to get it, then the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Trail TRD Off Road is worth a trip to your local dealer. It is a little on the niche side, though, and most families will be better served by opting for a hybrid RAV4 – but that doesn’t make the RAV4 Trail TRD Off Road any less cool for what it is.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 2.5L   Model Tested 2021 Toyota RAV4 Trail
Engine Cylinders I4   Base Price $39,390
Peak Horsepower 203 hp @ 6,600 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 184 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm   Destination Fee $1,860
Fuel Economy 9.5 / 7.4 / 8.5 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $45,410
Cargo Space 1,059 / 1,977 L seats down  
Optional Equipment
$4,060 – TRD Off Road Package, $3,520; Lunar Rock w/White Roof Paint, $540