You need a vehicle that can tackle all the family business, yet be good on gas, fit easily in parking spots, and not cost too much. Increasingly, if you have those kinds of priorities, a compact crossover ends up figuring in as the best choice. And among those, the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 are two of the more popular entries on the market.
Which is the better pick of the two? Because it’s not even close right now, we’re going to give this one away: The Honda CR-V beats out the Toyota RAV4 on multiple levels. But read on, because there are some important reasons that could sway you to consider the RAV4.
The Honda CR-V received a pretty substantial mid-cycle update for 2015, with interior trims most notably becoming less grim and utilitarian. On the outside there are minor styling tweaks, and some new wheels, but overall this is a model for which the form definitely follows the function—which is to fit a lot of people and gear, while being low enough to still handle well, high enough to allow a little more ground clearance than a car, and yet aerodynamic enough to achieve good fuel efficiency on the highway. As for the RAV4, it’s carried over for a couple of model years and while it tends to look neat and tidy on the outside—albeit somewhat lacking in charm—inside it leaves quite a bit to be desired as the cabin trims and surfaces feel cut-rate in upper trims (the base LE has more charm). Looking ahead, the 2016 RAV4 is getting some upgrades that should restore some of this model’s luster.
Driving enjoyment isn’t a strong point for either of these models. The V-6 that used to be available on the Toyota RAV4 is now a distant memory, and that leaves you (for now) only with a 176-horsepower four-cylinder engine; it works reasonably well with the six-speed automatic transmission, but it’s not at all sporty. Handling is easy and carlike, and the RAV4 definitely moves to favor a softer, more compliant ride this time around. The CR-V is much the same, although we tend to slightly prefer the way it tracks and maneuvers. With a new direct-injected 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), the CR-V’s been updated for better fuel economy (up to 29 mpg combined with front-wheel drive), but it’s not really all that much quicker or more satisfying to drive.
Both models allow a choice between front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive; in both cases, the AWD system has the perfect level of finesse and will allow just enough wheelspin to get you up snowy driveways or through muddy trails.
The RAV4 has more interior space if you go by official numbers, yet somehow it adds up to a more usable layout and airier cabin feel in the CR-V. The Honda’s seat-folding arrangement is excellent, and a spring-loaded mechanism makes one-arm seat folding easily done. Additionally, it feels like the Honda has more bins and cubbies in all the right places. As for ride quality and general cabin refinement, we think the RAV4 might be a step ahead; Toyota made some significant gains here with the RAV4’s last redesign, although you still do hear the engine more than you should.
For safety, the CR-V is a solid point ahead in our ratings, although neither of these models is to be avoided. The RAV4 was retested this past year, with its federal safety rating boosted to five stars overall; meanwhile it earns all ‘good’ ratings from the IIHS. There’s no front crash prevention technology on offer, but a blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic monitoring is available with a Tech package. As for the CR-V, it also earns top scores—and the Top Safety Pick+ designation—from the IIHS, as well as a ‘superior’ rating in front crash prevention if you get the optional Collision Mitigation Braking System. But its federal safety scores only add up to four stars overall.
The Toyota RAV4 offers a little more value for the money than the CR-V, going down the feature lists, but otherwise it’s a tossup. The Toyota offers a premium JBL sound system, yet on the other hand Honda’s top interface feels a half step ahead of the top Entune touch screen system in the RAV4.
Keep in mind that the way in which these two models match up against each other will change significantly next year (for the 2016 model year) with the introduction of the RAV4 Hybrid. That model will offer a version of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, with a total of 194 hp, and fuel economy ratings of over 30 mpg Combined.
Neither of these two models have an abundance of character, either in their styling, or from behind the wheel. But in pretty nearly every way, the CR-V manages to do it all with slightly more aptitude. It all adds up to a significant win for the Honda CR-V.