2022 Toyota RAV4 Test Drive: Does The TRD Off-Road Deserve Its Name?

Test Drive / 1 Comment

We didn't just drive the RAV4 TRD Off-Road a few hundred yards up a dirt path and call it a day.

Back when the RAV4 was released, four-wheel drive wasn't standard, but it was an option and a big deal. Toyota had identified that people wanted the benefits of an SUV, such as a higher driving position with better visibility, more cargo space, and four-wheel drive. RAV4 stands for "Recreational Active Vehicle with 4-wheel drive" and was the first generation and the earliest crossover we would recognize today. What's often forgotten is that the first RAV4 was a decent little off-roader when equipped with 4WD. It was no Jeep Wrangler or Land Rover Defender, but it was small, light, had a little ground clearance, and the drivetrain was capable enough to handle some rough stuff and slippery surfaces.

Skip forward the best part of 30 years, and crossovers like the RAV4 serve multiple jobs as the family car, commuter, and grocery getter. The idea of taking a RAV4 off-road is mainly in the past, but it seems Toyota Racing Development (TRD) remembers and has created an off-road trim. So, when a RAV4 TRD Off-Road popped up, we wanted to see if it deserves its name or if it was just another soft-roader. In other words, how would it handle going more than a mile into the desert to find spectacular camping spots away from the crowds?

CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright

What's Upgraded On The TRD Off-Road?

The most obvious addition to the RAV4 for the TRD Off-Road trim is a set of 18-inch six-spoke matte-black TRD-specific alloy wheels wrapped in all-terrain tires. The wheels are a little showy, but the Falken Wildpeak A/T Trail 01A tires are promising as a compromise between on-road comfort and off-road grip. The suspension features a set of red TRD tuned shocks but shares the same 8.6-inch ride height as the XLE Premium, Adventure, and Limited trims. It's a good thing, then, that TRD added a skid plate and underbody protection. On the center console, you can select Mud & Sand, Rock & Dirt, Snow modes, Hill Start Assist, and Hill Descent Control.

That's not a lot of off-road performance upgrades, but we were optimistic with memories of venturing off the beaten track in the original RAV4 and knowing how good TRD is at its all-wheel-drive modes. Even with no change in power in the non-hybrid four-cylinder's 203 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque going through the eight-speed automatic.

CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
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Dipping A Toe In Slowly

We are fans of the RAV4 as an all-around family car and could even convince ourselves the plug-in hybrid RAV4 Prime is worth the premium Toyota asks. When we took off in the TRD Off-Road version, it wasn't a case of if the change in suspension and tires would alter the car's road manners but by how much. A standard RAV4 isn't special to drive, but it is well-mannered and direct. With the new shocks and tune, it does wallow a bit on the road due to the softer suspension, but the straight-line ride is nice, particularly on one of California's washboard freeways on the way out to the Johnson Valley area of SoCal. As a trade-off, the comfier ride but with a little wallow in the corners is one most will be happy to live with day-to-day, especially given the extra ability when it matters.

CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright

Dirt Tracking

One of our favorite initial shakedown tracks is a 10-mile loop of wide dirt around a local ranch that is reasonably well kept. The road is wide, and the sight lines long, so you can pick up speed and see how an off-roader behaves when pushed around and how the suspension deals with a smoother dirt track. The RAV4 has several off-road modes, but we saw no need for any on the local dry dirt and clay. The AWD system kept everything in check nicely and without bogging down when a wheel dipped into the loose stuff at the side. The suspension smoothed out the bumps so well that, if we had closed our eyes, it would be hard to tell if we were on a road that hadn't been maintained in a while or a dirt track. Our conclusion here is that it makes for a safe and comfortable soft-roader when the adventure is at the end of the trail, not the trail itself.

CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright

Over The Mountains

We had our eye on Camp Rock Road in California for putting the RAV4 TRD Off-Road to the real test, as we had driven half of it and knew it wouldn't be challenging for our support vehicle for the trip - a Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro. The trail is considered an easy route based on hard-packed dirt and clays, with the most challenging parts being long steep hills, thick gravel-loaded surfaces, and sharp summits. It's around a 30-mile route that starts on a wide, straight, sandy road that the RAV4 TRD Off-Road had no trouble keeping to on an even keel at 40-50 mph with just minor adjustments in the steering. The Dynamic Torque-Vectoring All-Wheel Drive system paired with the off-road biased tires is nicely tuned for loose roads like that.

A right turn on the trail brings things up a notch as the path changes to become stony and soft, and you have ruts to deal with. Mud & Sand mode helped through that with no worries, but entering the ruts was when we started to worry about the meager 8.6 inches of ground clearance available.

CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Michael Van Runkle

Ground Clearance & Angles

The RAV4 TRD Off-Road has the same ground clearance and approach and departure angles of the milder Adventure trim. This is where the TRD department has missed a trick. Just another inch of ride height, and we wouldn't have been too concerned about scraping the front bumper or requiring the services of the skid plate. More importantly, a revision to the front bumper for just a little more approach angle would have saved us a couple of times from having to drive the RAV4 TRD Off-Road like a slammed JDM car exiting a parking lot via a small slope in the curb. In our rearview mirror, our friend in the 4Runner TRD Pro was laughing at the absurdity of such small depressions in a trail causing an off-road packaged vehicle trouble.

CarBuzz / Michael Van Runkle
CarBuzz / Michael Van Runkle
CarBuzz / Michael Van Runkle

Scrabbling Up & Down Hills

We had only driven half of the trail before, so there was a groan from both of us in the car as we realized the length and steepness of a hill in our way and how much loose dirt and rock there was mounding up the center of the ruts we hoped we could avoid dropping into. In the 4Runner, we wouldn't have broken stride. We paused, worked out a plan, then attacked. We were pleasantly surprised at the result. The Dynamic Torque-Vectoring All-Wheel Drive system in Rock & Dirt mode did not let us down, and with the engine in its power band and a low gear held, it sent power to the right wheels at the right time and powered up steep hills with little effort.

Another hill presented itself soon after, and there we did come to a halt in deeper dirt when avoiding grounding out in the ruts. A little adjustment and a restart, and the power built slowly until the power came on tap, and off we went again. The descent was where more off-road inclined tires would have helped but weren't essential. We tried out Hill Descent Control and found it did a fantastic job of keeping the RAV4 in check on the way down.

CarBuzz / Michael Van Runkle
CarBuzz / Michael Van Runkle
CarBuzz / Michael Van Runkle
CarBuzz / Michael Van Runkle

The Dry Lake Bed

We won't lie to you; there was no reason to go and play on the dry lake bed we passed other than for fun and photo opportunities. It's a large, flat, well-packed clay area with a nice thick layer of dust on the top. With Mud & Sand mode on and the traction control disengaged, we discovered that if you're aggressive enough, you can get the RAV4 into a bit of a four-wheel drift. Comically, that was something no amount of playing with settings could get the 4Runner TRD Pro to copy - even with just rear-wheel-drive engaged to try and get the rear-end moving.

CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright

The Final Stage: Twists

The final stage of our trail adventure was a tight twisty, rutted-out downhill length of the trail, and it was not fun. We managed to make the entire 30-mile run without scraping the front bumper, but we did scrape the underbody. Again, just an inch of extra lift would have saved the cringe and not left our 4Runner driver enjoying the scenery while we concentrated on not damaging the RAV4 TRD Off-Road on an easy trail. Finally, we eased out onto a long, well-kept, packed-dirt track and relaxed. We pulled up as we reached concrete and did a little happy dance for getting a RAV4 safely over 30 miles of trail.

Then we noticed the front passenger side tire was soft. And we deflated as we watched it deflate. That one might have been on us for not airing down to a softer pressure, but it's not the end of the world beyond having to tell Toyota the tire would likely need replacing. We popped the trunk, lifted the cargo floor, and found a temporary compact spare. We should have checked before we left because being out on a trail and having to use a narrow temporary compact spare with 60 pounds of pressure could easily lead to getting stuck.

CarBuzz
CarBuzz

Conclusion: A Missed Trick

While we got the RAV4 Off-Road down our 30-mile trail, it was more stressful than needed, and the stress was based purely on the ground clearance. The AWD system is more than competent; it's terrific. The tires held their own, scrabbling up hills we weren't convinced it could handle until we tried. The comfort in the suspension was excellent. The problem for even an easy trail for the RAV4 Off-Road is ruts. All it needs is one section to get deeper on a familiar trail, and there's a danger of getting beached. There's also the fact nobody likes grinding the underside of a vehicle, even if it's protected. We had to concentrate and straddle ruts to avoid getting beached, and that's not ideal.

CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright

An inch of extra ride height and a full-size spare would make the RAV4 something you could take further than maintained dirt roads to campgrounds or trails. If an extra inch disturbs the dynamics for on-road driving, then modified bumpers to improve approach and departure angles would also make a huge difference. Yes, it would be expensive, but the Off-Road trim doesn't need things like the fancy wheels that'll get scratched, and the bragging rights for Toyota to have a supremely competent Off-Road trim would be worth it. Many automakers pay lip service to the idea of adventurous family crossovers, so Toyota has the opportunity to make a statement rather than make something that could be accused of being a TRD parts-bin trim.

CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Michael Van Runkle

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