Monday, November 4, 2013

Toyota RAV4 - First and Latest Compact SUV

The Toyota RAV4 seems to be in the perfect spot in the market. It's small enough to be agile, fun, and go anywhere, but large enough for a family of 5 and their gear. Over time, small crossovers have become more like tall cars, taking on much of the duties of midsize station wagons from years past.

The original compact crossover SUV showing up in 1995, it debuted its fourth iteration for 2013, heavily redone, but still hitting the mark.

Like all brands, Toyota wants to spread its current design scheme around, and this new RAV4 gets the narrow upper grille with large mouth behind it, sculpted flanks, and high, chiseled taillamps in back. There's a roof spoiler that extends the roof line jauntily, and presumably moves the air over the car more efficiently. 

There is one engine in today's RAV4 a 2.5-liter inline four putting out 176 horsepower and 172 lb.-ft. of torque. In the past, you could pick up the base RAV4 with a do-it-yourself shifter, but those days are gone. All models, from LE to XLE to Limited, get a six-speed automatic. As you'd expect, it was painless, and helped deliver an OK but hardly spectacular 23.1 miles per gallon. The EPA gives the car a 25 overall, with 22 City and 29 Highway. Smog is rated at 5, with Greenhouse gas at 6, per the EPA.

Choose front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. The AWD system is light and doesn't impact the weight as much as some systems. My AWD tester came in at 3585 lb., only 120 lbs. heavier than the FWD model.

SUVs came from pickup trucks, which were in themselves kind of rugged but spartan years ago. Of course, trucks are quite luxurious now, and SUVs, whether large or not so large, are much more comfortable today than you might have even imagined years ago. My XLE had a surprisingly carlike dash, for example, with a softly padded lower section, French stitching, handsome instruments with Clear Blue lighting, and other amenities. It contains a six-inch color touch screen, which is a little small, but still usable. I found the map graphics to be a little toy-like and hard to view in traffic, but the audio was fine, as was the Bluetooth phone connection.

Like so many Toyotas today, the RAV4 comes with a three-way setting for ECO, Sport and Normal. Eco is slower to react, but burns less fuel. Sport mode tightens up the steering and suspension. Normal is fine for everything.

This is a strong little car but is not designed, with all-wheel drive, for driving the Rubicon with the Jeep Wranglers. Luckily, no-one plans to do that with these cars. The all-wheel drive is a safety feature in rain, gravel or snow, none of which imposed themselves on yours truly in the early autumn of Northern California.

There isn't a stripped RAV4 anymore, but it's worth picking up the Limited model. My Barcelona Red Metallic tester was the popular midrange XLE, which shares the dual-zone climate control and power moonroof with the Limited, but the Limited has the extra goodies. Outside, there are 18-inch alloys instead of 17-inchers. There's a power liftgate (the sideways opening door is gone in this generation). You get seat heaters, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and premium audio in the Limited.

Pricing starts with the FWD LE model, at $24,145. Step up to the Limited and you're looking at $29,255. Neatly splitting the difference is the XLE, at $26,535 with all-wheel drive. My tester came to $27,565 thanks to the fancy audio system.

I've already seen lots of new RAV4s out on the road. It's an easy choice for a buyer to make, despite the wealth of competition these days. With its updated styling, increased power and real comfort inside, it will likely stay that way.

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