Saturday, 18 July 2020

New car redux: RAV4 Cruiser hybrid AWD

This post has over 3400 words so, if pressed for time, bookmark and read later.

The old Titan silver Aurion AT-X weighs 1525kg (3362 pounds, or one ton, 97.3 stone) and the new, Saturn blue RAV4 weighs 1620kg (3571.5 pounds, or one ton, 112.1 stone), so my guess about the new car – how heavy it is – was correct just based on driving experience.

But it’s also more tightly sprung, riding without drama over speed bumps and road surface irregularities. It feels neat and comfy – one person who sat in the passenger seat said it’s “huggy” – but it also feels wider than the Aurion. In fact the latter is 1.82m (five foot 11-and-two-thirds inches) wide, and the RAV4 is 1.85m (six foot and four-fifths of an inch), so the difference isn’t really significant. Once I got used to the car – after a week or ten days’ driving – I was able to park the beast (which I nicknamed “Ensign”) in a restricted space.

To compensate for a slightly larger size, a RAV4 has more sensors around the exterior of the chassis. If you come too close to an object in front, the car will make a beep sound and will display video on what’s on the street. For reversing there’s automatic video on the central screen mounted on the dashboard (what I call in my report the centre console) that shows you – from a height, looking down – how much space you have behind you as you move. In addition, like an Aurion, a 2020 RAV4 makes beeps while reversing that, as you come closer to the object behind you, get more rapid until, if you are too close to go any further without touching or bumping, form an uninterrupted tone.

The height of my RAV4 Cruiser is 1.75m (five foot nine inches) with roof racks on and an Aurion (with no roof racks) is typically 1.47m (four foot ten inches) high. That sounds too like a difference too large to be possible and without the roof racks the RAV4 is 10cm (four inches) lower than this figure implies – around 1.65m tall – making it, however, still (in stockinged feet), significantly taller (about 20cm or eight inches) than the Aurion (a standard Australian six-cylinder sedan that was based on the Camry).

And for the first few days you feel higher up: separate from the traffic around you. On the one hand this is comforting; that extra distance between you and the action on the ground makes you naturally to feel safer. On the other hand you worry that the gap will make you complacent or reckless. These feelings soon go away.

In the showroom I got the salesman to bring the driver’s seat back as far as it could go, but once I started driving I brought the seat forward a bit toward the steering wheel and lowered it slightly. I also made the seat back sit at a slightly more relaxed angle compared to the vertical. It only took a few trips to get the settings right for my body and driving style. If there’s one problem with the car it’s the placement of the interior door handle, which is situated a bit too far forward, making you have to reach for it. It’s significantly different from in the Aurion, and the placement of the arm rests is also different.

The aircon system turns on easily with a big button under the centre console, but you need to select a separate, smaller front demist button if you want to get air onto the inside of the windscreen. I tried to do this soon after buying the car while driving on a road outside Sydney, but initially failed – with my knowledge of the Aurion operating like a preset – to get the hang of the controls; while driving that first time on an open road I didn’t have attention bandwidth available to work the system out. I really wanted a blast of air to demist the windscreen so in the absence of knowledge just alternated between periods of blasting air and periods where the aircon was off. On another day on the same road I managed to understand the fact that you just hit the “windscreen air” button, and use the “Off” button to stop the blast.

These are minor details compared to the improvements the RAV4 combines, including touch-locking, the fact that you don’t need a remote control to unlock the car, pushbutton starting, and the ease of driving. The automatic shift is incredibly intuitive and easy to use, and you glide off from a start when leaving your parking spot.


The driver-assist technology that comes with the RAV4 is so striking it's like I went to sleep in one century and woke up in another. For example, the car talks to you all the time – providing voice notifications for school zones, red-light and speed cameras – and displays the current street's signed speed limit on the instrument panel. The speed display is white with red writing to indicate the speed limit but it turns red with white writing when you are over the limit. If the car doesn’t know what the speed limit is, it displays a circle with two horizontal bars, indicating empty values.

This feature works ok most of the time but when there are two speeds (depending on what kind of vehicle you’re in; it can be 40km per hour for trucks at the same time as it’s 70km per hour for cars and motorcycles) it doesn’t work. This feature is not a replacement for alertness, but it’s very useful if you’re busy with something else – for example finding your way with the satnav, or tuning the radio – and so is an effective adjunct that’s very useful in areas you don’t know well.

It’s interesting that the carmakers didn’t attach a voice notification feature to it; doing so would have added another layer of information to an already crowded field – you get notice of school zones and speed cameras at least every two minutes, when driving in the city suburbs – and would have made it too hard for the driver to concentrate on the important things already being beamed to him or her. Making visual-only the concurrence of signs – on the instrument panel and on the roadside – allowed the carmakers to reduce the importance of this information to a layer below that reserved for school zones.

In New South Wales school zones operate to slow down traffic to 40km per hour at specific times (a morning slot and an afternoon slot, when kids are going to school or going home) so a school zone will, depending on the time of day, sometimes form an alert for the driver of a 2020 RAV4 in two, distinct ways. Regardless of the time of day the instrument panel shows the limit 40km/hr school zones and there’s also the voice alert that is audible (even if the radio is on).

I’ll talk about maps later on, but the car’s warning system for critical traffic details like school zones is indicative of something that will also determine how useful the satnav system is. This is that you cannot 100 percent rely on the car to tell you about the reality that surrounds you. Just as you might feel that a street sign is more accurate than what the onboard computer is telling you about which road to take, the warning system is only useful if you are also watching carefully what is going on around you. Notification of the fact that you are driving into a school zone is also useful and can, under certain circumstances – for example when driving on unfamiliar streets – help you to be safe and legal. But you cannot replace awareness of your surroundings with information received from the car’s computer.

The car tells you when someone comes too close to the front or the rear. When this happens you automatically see on the centre console a camera view of in front or behind. This vision replaces whatever had previously been displayed on the screen. The display also launches a notice to be aware of your surroundings, and this feature can be especially useful for people with small children who might be in the habit of playing in the driveway at home.


The mechanics of a 2020 RAV4 are elegant, and though they take a bit of getting used to – about a week – once you know what you’re doing you’ll wonder what all the fiddling around with keys and remote controls was about.

To start the car, get in and sit down in the driver’s seat. Then put your foot on the brake pedal, and resolutely press and briefly hold the “start” button to the left near the steering column. This button is tucked away down in an inaccessible region of the dashboard where you won’t accidentally bump it, and the car won’t start without your foot on the brake. On starting there’s no sound but, to acknowledge your action, the instrument panel (which is entirely digital) lights up and the centre console shows the maker’s logo followed by a cautionary message you can dismiss after a few seconds. The home screen thereupon displays, by default, a map.

The instrument panel is a busy zone with a series of digital displays (including menus for safety features) you can toggle through with a button on the steering wheel but that, at most times, are invisible. The salesman set up the features in the showroom and I’ve not used any of these menus since. This area also displays navigation detail on occasion.

From the standpoint of performance, a RAV4 Cruiser is responsive enough for city traffic. I don’t feel underpowered, even though the engine is smaller than what I had before. The engine of the Aurion AT-X is is 3.5 litres (213.6 cubic inches) and the RAV4 Cruiser’s is 2.5 litres (152.5 cubic inches), but for a driver the two cars don’t feel all that different. The RAV4 is as smooth and effective as the old car was, even uphill on busy roads, but on the motorway uphill it strains a bit harder than the Aurion did, though possibly you notice such engine noise more because, at other times, the car is totally silent.

If, while driving, you’re curious about the powertrain there’s an information screen you can easily pull up on the centre console – press three buttons, one physical and two virtual – that shows you, in real time, how energy flows, red being used to illustrate power transmitted by the petrol engine when it’s running, with two shades of green for electricity. A blue green shows the feed of electricity due to running the engine, which starts up automatically when needed. Electricity also feeds the battery due to the braking effect or from braking using the brake pedal. On the display the battery is light blue in colour, with separate sections filled to show how much charge the battery currently holds. Then there’s a light yellow-green that shows the charge flowing from the battery to the motors on the wheels. The diagram is elegant and easy to understand, having channels like corridors in a building that are drawn with lines that light up – like the old-fashioned displays governments made to show how energy in an industrial process flowed – to serve as indicators of power usage.

The first photo below shows the petrol engine charging the battery and powering the front wheels. You can see the two motors in the car, illustrated by cylinders; one on the front wheels and one on the back wheels. In this image you can also see the engine charging the battery. You get this image when you are accelerating and when electric power alone is not enough for that purpose.

The second photo (below) shows the battery powering the motor on the front wheels. At other times it powers both motors. At low speeds, only the battery is needed, but if you want to accelerate, the petrol engine usually kicks in.

For example, as shown in the third photo (below). This photo shows the engine feeding the battery and powering the front wheels. (This gets confusing, I know …)

The fourth photo (below) shows the effect of braking, where the four wheels charge the battery. The same effect occurs when you coast to a stop, which is when the natural breaking ability of the engine kicks in to slow the car down gradually.

I can’t really comment with any authority on fuel efficiency because I’m terrible at maths, but on Sunday when the odometer was at 356km (it had read 6km when I picked it up from the dealers’) I put in petrol for the first time. It was unleaded priced at just over $25 (at $1.25 per litre). By my reckoning it comes out at 17.45km per litre, which is pretty good compared to the Aurion.


The satnav is easier to use. Upon starting the car, if you tap on the map that comes up on the centre console by default, you touch the little “pinpoint” icon then use the screens that appear to punch in a suburb, street, and street number. Alternatively, you can use a different button to select a suburb (in case you don’t have a specific street address to set as a destination). Once you have punched in your destination, the computer usually asks you to confirm it and then, as you drive off, a map with a thick blue line – to indicate your route – appears on the centre console. The computer’s voice starts narrating your route.

To test the system, on one day, while house hunting, I punched in an address about 20km (12.4 miles) from my home in an area I don’t know well and then, when halfway there, deliberately took a wrong turn. The car’s computer knew where I was and quickly recalibrated itself to accommodate the new state of affairs. It then offered me a new route, but I guessed that, if I took it, I’d have to stand waiting to turn right (in Australia we drive on the left) across traffic flowing on a busy street, so kept ignoring the satnav until I came to a place I thought there would be traffic lights. Then I followed the satnav, turned left, and then right. 

The satnav was by turns efficient and accurate, and inaccurate and (on one occasion) plain wrong. Most often it accurately tells you what’s coming up about half a kilometre ahead (for US readers, that’s about 500 yards) so you can prepare yourself for what’s coming, but I did have trouble with the route when coming to an area I don’t know at all. The satnav told me to turn right when it should have told me to turn left, and I had to drive down a busy street, turn right into a side street, do a three-point turn, and come back and approach the target street again afresh. In fact, for this trip (from Rockdale to Gordon) the device should have told me to go over the Harbour Bridge rather than up Roberts Road. The following photo shows the car on a Rockdale street.

Possibly, for this trip, it decided to allow me to avoid tolls. More dramas ensued while returning to my place in Pyrmont because the system wouldn’t accept that I wanted to go in the Lane Cove Tunnel and then over the Harbour Bridge, and kept asking me to turn, first left and then right. On the expressway it even asked me to attempt a U-turn! 

The way the satnav deals with roundabouts (which are uncommon in the US but commonplace in Australia) is sometimes different from Google’s satnav program (and sometimes the same), but it’s not hard to understand. In fact, the RAV4’s satnav is, in this respect, an improvement.

The computer on occasion tells you about traffic, but the warnings I got on two different days were not founded in reality; there were, in fact, no traffic jams to deal with. On one occasion, furthermore, it told me there’d be a traffic jam 300m ahead at the precise moment actually I met traffic and got caught up in it.

Like the speed limit indicator, the satnav can best be used as an adjunct to other information, not as a replacement for knowledge or research. I’ll probably, in many cases, do what I have always done before a trip: capture screenshots from Google Maps and print them out on paper to carry with me in the car as reference. In other cases I’ll rely on the satnav. I’ll just have to learn what works and what doesn’t. So far I’ve had mixed results with the system but it’s a comfort just to have it available to use if necessary and you can see its utility. 


Getting other people’s message notifications while driving is something I’m not so sure I understand the utility of, however. On seeing a message you risk making a call to that number – I did this a couple of times not understanding that I’d received a message rather than a phone call – and hence taking your eyes off the road. If, while driving, you decide to hear a message you risk taking your attention off the road. On one occasion when I got a message while driving, the centre console told me that it wouldn’t display it because I was moving, but then I touched a few other buttons and the car read the message out to me as I moved through traffic. 

All of this activity takes your eyes off the road which, even if it’s just for a couple of seconds, can be disastrous safety-wise. The audio system is, also, a bit too detailed to be used while driving at speed in traffic, but it’s easy for a passenger to use.

To make phone calls you can use a finger to operate the controls on the centre console, or you can (to be more conservative) use the smartphone call button on the steering wheel. Press it and say “Call Joe Blogs” and the car will make a call to your friend. 

To link the car with your iPhone you have to turn on Bluetooth in the phone, then select the phone from the list displayed on the centre console. The car sends a code to your phone – it displays there straight away – and asks you if what you see in your hand matches what is displayed on the car’s screen. If so, you tap “Pair” on your phone and the two devices connect. The pairing applies regardless of how many times you leave the car and reenter it, but you can only pair with one phone at a time. 

If you want to display on the centre console messages that people send to your phone you must turn on notifications in your iPhone at “Settings > Bluetooth”. Just tap on the “i” in the little circle and turn on “Show Notifications”.

Wi-Fi setup is a little different and, for my phone, requires a cable; there’s a USB socket in the car’s phone charging bay under the aircon controls. On your iPhone go to “Settings > General > CarPlay” and find your car in the list. If you want to be able to control your phone through the car by voice you must have Siri running. 

I had to set up Siri, as I’d never used it before. To do this, go to “Settings > Siri & Search” and use the controls there. If this is the first time you’ve used Siri, you’ll have to train your phone to recognise your voice, a process that takes about a minute even if (like me) you’ve no idea what you’re doing.

You probably want to use the shortest USB cable available, as a long cable might get in the way of the gear stick. This device has a button on the far side that you press to shift the stick. When you want to drive off, press the button with your fingers and drag the stick back to “D”. When you want to park, press the button and shift the stick forward to “P”. Once this is done, the car will automatically engage the handbrake. If it goes on, a red light appears on the handbrake button and a beep sounds in the cabin to notify you of the new state.

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