In an era when the crossover reigns supreme, the RAV4 is a golden goose for Toyota. It’s the best-selling SUV in America so far in 2016, as ubiquitous on our roads as the Camry was a decade ago. It’s family-friendly without being a minivan, tall and rugged enough to feel like a truck when you want it to, but civilized enough (thanks to sharing its platform with the Corolla and Prius) to feel at home racking up mileage on the highway and in the suburbs. We’ve driven several RAV4 models, and found them to be pleasant, if uninspiring little people movers.
But the RAV4 range is a pretty broad one, ranging from the $24,350 LE to the $31,610 Limited (with the hybrid Limited starting at $33,610, and the AWD model starting at $33,810), a model that can easily reach the high-$30K range with just a few options. And once you get to that point, the RAV4 begins to see a little competition from within: The Lexus NX 200t starts at $34,610. Debuting in 2014, the NX is one of Lexus’s newer nameplates. It slots just below the venerable RX, and in this crossover-crazy time serves as an attractive entry point for people looking to become Lexus owners.
We love when an entry/mid-market brand’s top offerings enter the same space as its luxury models; it shows just how close a brand can come to building a legitimate luxury car. On the other hand, it creates a bit of a stress test for a luxury model. Is the entry-level luxury model worth the price, or is it nothing more than a tarted-up car for the everyman with a fancy badge? We’ll see who wins the battle of the Toyota crossovers in this week’s Buy This, Not That.
Tale of the tape
Now in its fourth generation, the RAV4 received a facelift for 2016 that makes it look more like its platform-mate the Corolla. And that isn’t a bad thing — with sharper sheet metal and an updated interior, it looks much leaner than the bulbous 2013-’15 models, and gives it an edge against its arch-rival, the Honda CR-V.
In Limited trim, the RAV4 is powered by a buzzy if capable 2.5-liter inline-four, which puts out 176 horsepower, 172 pound-feet of torque, and is routed through a six-speed automatic gearbox. If you could care less about lively driving, this should be fine for you. Bumping up to the hybrid gets you 194 horses, but really, there really hasn’t been a fun-to-drive RAV4 since the open-topped original model. This is a family crossover, and Toyota has made one that appeals to the widest base possible. Fuel economy is a respectable 22 city, 29 highway, there’s room for five, and it has a Top Safety Pick+ rating from the IIHS.
Inside, the Limited has a nicely-appointed interior with leather and soft-touch materials abound. Virtually every Toyota safety and convenience item is available, from dual-zone climate control, heated seats, and a massive moonroof, to a premium JBL stereo, and a suite of electronic driving aides. But all these features add up — Toyota’s Advanced Safety Package (which includes the nicer stereo and navigation) is a $1,435 option. Choose a few other options, and you’re looking at a $38,000 RAV4 before taxes and fees.
For that money, you could have a Lexus NX. The 200t starts deep in RAV4 Limited territory, but offers a lot more right out of the gate. The front-wheel drive model starts at $34,965, and with its 2.0-liter turbocharged four is legitimately quick. It cranks out a respectable 235 horsepower, which is enough to take the NX from zero to 60 in 7.2 seconds — 1.1 seconds quicker than the Toyota, and enough to make driving fun when you want it to be. Like its lowlier sibling, the NX seats five, returns 22 miles per gallon on the highway and 28 in the city, and shares its Top Safety Pick+ rating.
Outside, you aren’t as likely to lose the Lexus in a parking lot either. With its big hourglass grille and angular sheet metal, it wears Lexus’s styling well — other than the same wheelbase, you wouldn’t know that it shares its bones with the RAV4 by looking at it. And it’s decidedly a Lexus inside as well. With a beefy steering wheel, aluminum accents, and lots of leather, the NX feels like a luxury model even at its lowest trim. For our money, we’d go for the F Sport model, which has more aggressive sheet metal and a sportier interior. It starts at $37,065 before taxes and fees — right about where the RAV4 maxes out.
Nobody builds cars for the everyman like Toyota. Its models are rarely the most coveted in any segment, but their combination of safety, practicality, and reliability have made them the go-to brand for the masses for decades. And the RAV4 is at least good at everything it does. But it won’t be fun to drive, you’ll probably lose it in the parking lot every time you go for groceries, and your kids will probably be as embarrassed to be seen in it as you were in your mom’s minivan. If you’re willing to spend money on a well-optioned RAV4, you might has well go for the NX 200t.
When Toyota launched Lexus back in 1989, it went out of its way to make sure its models felt upscale, and decidedly unlike its mass-market models. That mindset carries over with the NX, where the company has made sure that its RAV4 bones stay buried well below the surface. While the RAV4 has some strong competition in the compact crossover segment (despite leading the sales pack), the NX is one of the best offerings in the luxury segment, holding its own against Mercedes, BMW, and Audi. That alone makes it seem like a bargain. To us, world-class luxury on a RAV4 budget is just too good to pass up.