Toyota appears to have a plumbing problem in at least a portion of its most popular vehicle, the 2019 Toyota RAV4.
And like the banging pipes in an old house, tracking down the source of what's causing so much consternation for owners is proving problematic.
A number of RAV4 Hybrid owners have complained — in YouTube videos, with NHTSA's safercar.gov site and elsewhere online — that they're unable to put more than about 11 gallons of gasoline in the 14.5-gallon tanks. Not occasionally but always.
The result: The crossover, which boasts a fuel economy rating of 41 city/38 highway/40 mpg combined, doesn't get anywhere close to its 580 miles of expected range.
Retired Los Angeles Times automotive editor John O'Dell is among those who have experienced the issue. He purchased a 2019 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid XSE in early August near his home in Southern California. While he's been happy with the hybrid crossover's fuel economy and amenities, "I've never ever been able to put anywhere near 14 gallons of gas in it, even when the [warning] light is on."
So what's the cause? In a statement to Automotive News, Toyota confirmed it is "investigating a fuel tank shape issue on certain RAV4 Hybrid vehicles. In these cases, variations in fuel tank shape may prevent a full refill by up to several gallons. This condition may impact the vehicle's total available driving distance. As a best practice, customers should refuel before or when the low fuel light illuminates, to prevent running out of fuel."
A spokesman for Toyota Motor North America declined to say how many RAV4 Hybrids are believed to be affected, nor would he provide other details of the ongoing investigation.
When it redesigned the RAV4 Hybrid for the 2019 model year, Toyota changed the design of its fuel tank from a longitudinal 14.8-gallon tank roughly shaped like a Native American papoose to a latitudinal, saddle-shaped design with a 14.5-gallon capacity, according to parts diagrams.
In online complaints, consumers don't necessarily express dissatisfaction with the RAV4 Hybrid's performance or fuel economy, just a frustration with the inability to fully fill it with fuel.
Some consumers report that their gas gauge will register as full after what should be a partial fill-up, while others say their gauges don't show a full tank.
The PBS show "MotorWeek" has a 2019 RAV4 Hybrid as a long-term test vehicle. The show's host, John Davis, said he and other staffers have experienced the fueling issue.
"On highway trips, when the gas gauge reads between 1/8-1/4, it will take about 9-9.5 gallons max in a fill-up. At that point the gas gauge reads nearly full, but just barely," Davis said in an email, adding that he had assumed the crossover just had a conservatively biased fuel gauge that would show less fuel than what may actually be in the tank.
Through November, Toyota has sold 82,398 RAV4 Hybrids in the U.S. — more than 20 percent of the total 406,789 RAV4s sold during that same period. In fact, the RAV4 Hybrid is far and away the brand's top-selling hybrid vehicle in the U.S. through November, with its sales up 84 percent year over year.
Toyota dealers contacted by Automotive News said they were aware of the issue but don't have other details to pass on to customers as to a cause or remedy.
While he wasn't in a position to speak for all owners, O'Dell said he "doesn't find it horribly annoying. I'm still getting 34 or 35 mpg (he lives in a mountainous region of Orange County), so 10 gallons still gives me 350 miles or so of range. But it would be nice to get what it was advertised for, which is over 500 miles of range."