Our Epic Road Trip: Almost 5,000 Miles With the Toyota RAV4

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I need to say something right off the bat: we’re a Honda family. We’re the happy owners of a 2008 CR-V and a 2013 Civic. We love them both (especially the CR-V) and have been incredibly pleased with how they’ve handled and held up over the years.

So it was a mix of trepidation and excitement that accompanied our recent summer road trip: an epic journey from suburban DC to the northern tip of Newfoundland. Why? We were taking a Toyota. A 2018 Toyota RAV4, to be precise.

However, when Toyota offered to let me test out their vehicle on our trip—with almost no strings attached—it was the proverbial offer too good to refuse. And trust me, we did more than just kick the tires. We put the car through the ringer. Three weeks, two countries, nine U.S. states, three Canadian provinces, three time zones, and an astonishing number of miles.

Just how many?

Will that suffice?

Toyota markets the RAV4 as “built for the weekend escape” and “equipped for adventure.” Though that’s undoubtedly true, I’m here to say that it’s built for much more than that. Whether you’re headed to the mountains for the weekend or taking an extended road trip, you need a vehicle that’s up to the task. So let’s take a closer look and see if the RAV4 is built for your escapes—be they weekend excursions or epic cross-country treks.

During our road trip, we not only put serious miles on the car but also took it over nearly every kind of terrain. Yes, there was a lot of highway driving, but we also took the RAV4 down dirt roads, off-road, and over water (though that last one was aboard a ferry).

We even unexpectedly ended up on a narrow snowmobile path that wound its way through a wildlife preserve nestled in the middle of Nowhere, Nova Scotia. That was an unplanned detour where Google Maps thought it knew better than us (and we blindly followed), but the car performed like a champ. We made it through deep sand and over rocks and boulders without so much as a complaint. I can’t say as much about the three white-knuckling passengers along for the ride.

In the end, there wasn’t a type of terrain or weather (we got it all, except for snow) that made me wish we had a different car. The RAV4 took everything we could throw at it.

We just kept driving north.
We made it to the northern tips of both Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.

Comfort, Cup Holders, and Doodads

It might seem strange to begin our look at the RAV4 with a look at its accessories and relatively minor features. But let’s be real. When you’re staring down several thousand miles and a few weeks spent in the car, you kind of want it to be comfortable. Honestly, the same is true even if you’re just heading out for a few days on a weekend adventure. It’s the little things, you know?

With that in mind, the RAV4 served us extraordinarily well as a home base for our three weeks on the road.

Dual-zone climate control, a 6.1-inch touchscreen display, ECO and Sport driving modes, heated driver and front passenger seats, remote keyless entry, push-button ignition, EIGHT cup holders, and much more.

Straight talk: it was hard to go back to our older Hondas where I actually have to push a button on my key fob to unlock the doors and then actually insert and turn a key to start the car. First-world problems, I know. But again, it’s the little things.

The car also comes with a GPS navigation system built into the touchscreen display, but I’ll be honest: I avoided it. I tried to use it; I really did. But in the age of elegant, intuitive, user-friendly navigation software (cough-cough, Google Maps, cough), I simply can’t fathom why I’m still expected to use a GPS that functions—and looks—like a 2002 Tom Tom device.

It gets bonus points for working in Canada (whereas my phone did not, unless I wanted to pay through the nose for international service), but the UX leaves so much to be desired that I still used Google Maps on my phone in airplane mode with pre-saved maps.

Still, though, that’s a minor gripe and certainly not a strike against the car as a whole.

Toyota was also kind enough to loan us a car with a SiriusXM subscription. This article certainly isn’t a review of that service, but if you’re a subscriber, you know its value—especially when traveling long distance. And yes, it ALSO worked while in Canada.

So Many Miles (and So Much Gas)

One of the primary concerns when planning any road trip is how much you’re going to spend on gas. The farther you go, the more miles you add on, the more gas you need, the more you spend. It’s not rocket science.

Toyota estimates the RAV4 gets 23/30 city/highway miles per gallon. The good news is that, according to my time with the car, these are slight underestimates. Our highway driving FAR outweighed our city driving on this trip, but we still had our fair share of slow, stop-and-go driving, particularly in the national parks and around New York, Boston, and Halifax.

We averaged (combined “city” and highway) around 26-28 mpg over our 4,500 miles. And considering how heavy the car was (it was packed to the brim), I was pleasantly surprised by its performance.

Meat Cove, northern tip of Nova Scotia
Tablelands, Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland

Road Trippin’ Peace of Mind

Within the last 10 years or so, a bevy of safety features have become standard on most cars. And that’s certainly a spectacular thing for all of us. I mean, the RAV4 comes with EIGHT separate airbags, standard. Nevertheless, there were a few standout features that made the 4,500+ miles we spent in the car that much sweeter.

The Blind Spot Monitor was a lifesaver—literally. When the car senses another vehicle in your blind spot, a light illuminates on that side mirror. If you’ve ever packed a car to the gills (so that, maybe, you can’t even use your rearview mirror), you know that the blind spots become even more pronounced and you rely on the side mirrors. I came to depend on that little light as an indicator of traffic around me. It’s probably the safety feature I used (and appreciated) the most.

Along with the blind spot monitor is the rear cross traffic alert. This little lifesaver chimes an audible alert if you’re in reverse (e.g., backing out of a tight parking space) and another car is approaching from the right or left. Sure, there’s a back-up camera monitor built right into the dashboard, but the alert is able to sense other cars before they even show up on the camera. Which happened a LOT in parking lots.

Other safety features of note are a back-up camera with projected path lines and a birds-eye view camera, which mimics a 360-degree overhead view of the car while in reverse. It’s actually pretty cool.

Acadia National Park, Maine
Kejimkujik National Park, Nova Scotia

Reliability of Toyota Safety Sense

Toyota Safety Sense is a package of safety features that comes standard on many Toyota models. Lane Departure Alert (LDA) is probably the most prominent part of this bundle. And it works really well. In-car sensors mounted near the rearview mirror detect white and yellow lane markers in front of the car, along with the car’s position in the lane. At speeds greater than ~32mph, you’ll get a dashboard alert and an audible alarm if the car thinks you’re drifting out of your lane. Along with those alerts, the car will also nudge the steering wheel in the opposite direction in an attempt to course correct and keep you in the lane. This was a little unnerving at first when I wasn’t expecting it, but on long drives, it came in handy more than once. If you’re intentionally switching lanes and use your turn signal, LDA deactivates, so you won’t hear an alert every time you switch lanes on purpose.

When using cruise control (something I rarely do, though I recognize that a lot of people rely on this feature—especially on long, multi-hour road trips), another perk of the safety package is dynamic radar cruise control. The car uses a built-in radar and camera to monitor vehicles in front of you and adjust your speed in order to maintain a consistent, safe distance.

Between the blind spot monitor, the rear cross traffic alert, and the lane departure alert, the first few days in the car felt like an endless stream of bings, dings, and alarms. The RAV4 seems intent on talking to you and letting you know that it’s got your back. It’s a little overwhelming at first, but once you’re used to the (literal) bells and whistles and what they mean, they fade into the background. And the RAV4 really does have your back.

Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland

Room for Your Stuff

For an SUV, the RAV4 doesn’t have an abundance of trunk space. It’s about on par with our Honda CR-V, so we’re familiar with the “creative packing” routine. But if you don’t have four (or five) people, the rear seats fold down (with a 60-40 split) to provide up to 73.4 cubic feet of load space. If it’s just you, or if it’s you and your significant other, or if you’re a family of three, you’ll be able to capitalize on the space and pack in more stuff.

And more room for your stuff is always good.

We had to make a few tough choices and left behind a few “nice to have” items, but we were able to pack enough to outfit our three-week journey for four, including clothes, food, hiking and camping supplies, tent, sleeping bags, and more.

Toyota Entune: It’s the What Now?

Entune is Toyota’s mobile app that connects with your car’s multimedia features and turns the vehicle into a low-grade “smart car.” You can use the app to connect to your Pandora, Facebook, iHeartRadio, OpenTable, and Yelp accounts, which you can then access through the touchscreen display or via voice-activated Bluetooth. The app also identifies nearby gas stations and can act as a limited navigation tool.

Unfortunately, I failed to see the practical utility of this app. If you have a smartphone, you already have everything the Entune app can do. If you use Pandora, odds are you have the Pandora app installed on your phone. And once your phone pairs with the car, you can access your music through the native app. Ditto for any other app you might want to use while driving. Maybe I missed the point, but it’s an unnecessary app that’s loaded down with redundancies.

However, it is possible to connect (through the car’s built-in Entune software) to both Amazon Alexa and Apple CarPlay, if those are your jam. You can simply tell Alexa or Siri what you want to listen to or know, and she’ll help you out while your hands stay firmly on the wheel and your eyes set on the road. The future is here.

Hybrid Option

I can’t speak to it at all, but Toyota also offers a hybrid version of the RAV4. It costs a bit more (MSRP ~$29k versus $24-26k, depending on the trim of the standard version), but it gets better gas mileage, obviously.

Toyota claims the hybrid models get 34/30 city/highway miles. Take into account my experience noted above, and it’s probably a safe bet that those numbers are slightly lower than what you’d actually be getting.

Acadia National Park, Maine

Conclusions

So, all told, how did this Honda guy like the Toyota? I liked it quite a lot, if I’m being honest. Is it the perfect vehicle for a road trip? Not quite. I’d prefer it had a bit more space in the trunk and came with some more personal touches (e.g., individual lights and climate control for the 2nd row of seats), but any list I’d make in that regard would be relatively minor quibbles.

The RAV4 is a very solid choice for any road trip, and I’d absolutely recommend it. Would I choose it over my trusty ol’ CR-V (which has been to Key West and countless other places in its 130,000+ mile life)? That’s a tough question. The two vehicles are very similar in so many respects. If I were to compare the RAV4 to a 2018 or 2019 Honda CR-V, I’m sure I’d see a lot of the same safety features my 2008 car lacks.

But, at the end of the day, the RAV4 is a blast to drive, it fit our family of four perfectly, and it didn’t give us an ounce of trouble across 4,500 miles and three weeks of solid driving. If you’re in the market for a new SUV or are looking for a solid adventure vehicle that won’t break the bank, the RAV4 should absolutely be on your shortlist.

Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Nova Scotia

(Thanks to Toyota for their generosity in providing a loaner vehicle I could truly test out. All opinions remain my own.)

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