The 2020 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road looks the part, but is it all window dressing?

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Photo by Matt Tierney

The TRD Off-Road edition of the RAV4, Toyota’s most popular crossover, might at first seem like a tough-looking biker jacket on a Pomeranian. One could argue it’s a meatless burger, a vehicle seemingly aimed at the one demographic out there completely uninterested in any of the asphalt-flaunting qualities it claims to possess. The RAV4 TRD Off-Road is a fascinating example of the power of branding in the modern automotive space, and its mere existence challenges the dogma of off-road traditionalists.

2020 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road SUV full rear right side
Matt Tierney

The Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road represents the top trim for the compact crossover. It’s priced at $35,280 to start, which is a slight increase over the more luxury-oriented limited trim. (Our test vehicle totaled $41,418 including destination fees.) Let’s be clear about one thing—no one at Toyota expects the newest member of the RAV4 family to be out there crawling rocks and fording streams on a regular basis. In all likelihood, too, hardcore 4×4 fans (many of whom know and love the vaunted TRD Pro nameplate) will never perceive the family-oriented crossover as anything other than a tarted-up grocery getter, especially compared to the widely revered 4Runner.

That being said, the strength of the TRD Off-Road brand is such that painting it over more mainstream vehicles, like the RAV4, puts Toyota in the enviable position of luring in buyers who wants to look the part without suffering the rough-and-tumble ride quality or thirsty fuel mileage of the brand’s full-frame options. This is Toyota’s M Sport, its S-Line. TRD Off-Road has grown wings and flown from pickup truck haunches to take root in the fertile soil of its crossover sales base, much in the same way that the road-going TRD badge has elevated even the most pedestrian of Avalons and Camrys.

2020 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road SUV rear badge passenger side
Matt Tierney

The time has come for the Japanese giant to spend more than a little of that adventure-seeking cred to pack softer butts in equally-plush seats. It’s only logical that it starts with beefing up its cash-cow crossover with a set of aggressive-looking rims and Falken Wildpeak rubber to complement the new RAV4’s somewhat sterner visage. And there are plenty of TRD badge call-outs in case you missed the design memo.

As with the standard RAV4, revamped for the 2019 model year, there is plenty of space at all four positions inside the crossover’s cabin, and cargo room is quite competitive when compared against leading lights like the Subaru Forester. And throughout the interior, you’ll never forget that you’re driving a TRD model; there is a mountain peak logo etched into the rear mat, monogrammed headrests, and red-hued plastic inserts underneath the center stack.

2020 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road SUV engine
Matt Tierney

The RAV4’s naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine feels more than a little wheezy when spurred, huffing out its 203 horsepower with more noise than we’d care to notice under even moderate throttle input. Then there’s the eight-speed automatic transmission that holds on to revs a bit longer than it should. The powertrain is acceptable for commuting duty, but not quite as refined as what you’d find in a similarly-priced Mazda CX-5 or Honda CR-V. 

Don’t think that all of the above means that the 2020 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road is a poseur through and through. A funny thing happened in the SUV world while traditional 4x4s fell by the wayside amidst a flood of car-based crossovers: technology caught up. Solid axles and mechanical lockers may no longer be common on option sheets, but in their place is a host of software solutions and electronically-managed traction assists that represent a passable imitation for most customers.

2020 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road SUV driving mode
Matt Tierney

What began with manufacturers like Subaru whipping up features such as X-Mode back in 2014, followed by the city-first Range Rover Evoque’s Terrain Response 2 system, can now be found in the RAV4 TRD Off-Road. A trio of drive modes reconfigures the vehicle’s all-wheel drive system, traction control, and stability control to best deal with what lies ahead. Mud and Sand, Snow, and Rock and Dirt modes join the Normal setting. These features really do make a difference. You can’t twist a dial on the center console and transform the RAV4 into a Ram Rebel, but you can definitely squish through some mud with a minimum of wheel spin, or scramble through a deeper patch of dirt than you would have in a front-wheel drive people mover. 

Pair this electronic helping hand with Jeep Grand Cherokee-levels of ground clearance (8.6 inches, a modest 0.2 inches taller than the standard RAV4), and a suspension that’s been rally-tested not so much for stage racing but, rather, durability, and you’re unlikely to wreck yourself unless you dramatically misjudge the conditions. Toyota continues to evolve its infotainment across the lineup, and the RAV4 is no exception. The TRD Off-Road offers the top-spec stereo, navigation, and communications options available from the crossover, and it’s a reasonably intuitive system that lags only in the quality of its graphics as compared to the competition.

2020 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road SUV infotainment screen
Matt Tierney

 

It’s hard to be cynical about this particular exercise in sport-utility branding. While the TRD Off-Road may represent the most expensive RAV4 trim, it’s not by a wide margin. The Off-Road package is less of a cash grab than it could have been, and the RAV4 in general is still near the tops of the segment when it comes to sheer usefulness, reasonable economy at the fuel pump, car-like manners on the road.

The original RAV4 was born in an era where little utes with big aspirations—think Suzuki Samurai and Isuzu Amigo—were introducing Americans to the idea of an import SUV that offered a more approachable experience than intimidating full-size trucks. Although no longer cute, Toyota’s crossover remains an approachable daily driver; the TRD Off-Road brings back some of that can-do personality without any significant drawbacks.

Pros: Buff looks, better-than-average off-road capability for its segment, reasonable pricing, TRD Off-Road bragging rights

Cons: Noisy drivetrain, no real-deal rock crawling chops, perhaps aimed at a customer that doesn’t exist.

Sum-up: The easiest TRD Off-Road badge to live with on a daily basis.

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