2009 Toyota RAV4 Sport 4×4 V6 Review

By Chris Haak

02.10.2009

Knowing that Toyota cut its teeth as an automaker by first mastering small vehicles, and only recently venturing into behemoth territory with the likes of the Sequoia and Tundra, I was eager to see what Toyota could do with its smallest US-sold crossover, having sampled the Sequoia last year.  I was particularly excited to learn that my test vehicle would have the available 269-horsepower 3.5 liter V6, which I’d heard can move the RAV4 quite briskly around town.  Even better was that the weather forecast called for snow during the time I had the RAV4 in my garage.  I wasn’t sure how well it’d do in the snow, but I was pretty confident its abilities would exceed those of my RWD Cadillac CTS.

Like many Toyotas, the RAV4 Sport isn’t what I’d call an attractive vehicle, but at least it lacks the bloated puffiness of some of Toyota’s larger models such as the Sequoia and Highlander.  It’s a fairly clean, conservative shape.  Without a trained eye, it’s very difficult to distinguish between the current RAV4 and the previous generation from the front end.  On its profile, the RAV4’s most interesting feature is its upswept beltline into the D-pillar.  Before driving the RAV4, I assumed that this would create a significant blind spot, but in reality, it wasn’t an issue for me.  The Sport model I tested featured 18″ aluminum wheels, shod with run-flat tires that really filled the wheelwells nicely.  I’m not a big fan of run-flat tires because of the ride/handling compromises the stiff sidewalls require, not to mention the idea that if you’re on a long journey, you cannot continue the journey with a spare tire – you have to replace or repair the tire beyond the 50-mile limit.  The advantage of the run-flats on the RAV4 is that the ungainly externally-mounted spare tire cover seen on most of the RAV4s on the road is absent when there’s no need for a spare tire.  The rear door is one huge, side-hinged piece.  I found it to be somewhat odd; I believe that a top-hinged strut-supported rear opening would be a preferable design, because the side-hinged door is REALLY big and heavy, and even worse when the RAV4 is parked facing downhill.

Upon opening the perfectly-fitting doors (they opened and closed with a solid thunk, though I’d slot them somewhere between a Corolla and Camry in terms of their heft), I found a cabin finished in charcoal grey cloth and plastic with a power moonroof overhead.  The headliner was fuzzy cardboard – definitely not up to the quality level of the headliner in the Camry, for instance – and disappointingly cheap feeling for a $30,000 vehicle.  It is the same material used in the $18,000 Corolla and $16,000 Scion xD.  The dashboard was made of low-gloss hard plastic; however, at least knocking on it didn’t make it sound hollow and cheap; I would have preferred soft-touch materials, but realistically, knowing that the larger and more expensive Highlander and Sequoia have hard plastic dashboards, the RAV4’s interior materials met my expectations (excepting the headliner).  The Germanic weave on the cloth seats was certainly grippy, but was a little rough for my taste.  I’m not looking for velour or anything out of the 1980s, but seat fabric that I didn’t expect to wear holes in the seat of my pants over time would have been nice.  One disappointment about the seat fabric was that it was showing several stray threads and pills in the rear seat, in spite of my test vehicle having less than 10,000 miles on the odometer.

The audio system controls were very easy to use, with a large knob on the head unit plus redundant controls on the leather-wrapped steering wheel.  I wasn’t enamored by the sound quality.  I was also disappointed that the RAV4 didn’t have a Bluetooth interface, but it’s unusual to see that in a vehicle without a navigation system like my test vehicle.  HVAC functions are controlled by large black plastic knobs that are shared with several Scion models as well as the Corolla.  They certainly did their job well enough, but looked and felt somewhat downmarket and unrefined with the hard clicks and resistance to turning that they exhibited in, again, a $30,000 vehicle.

As a 6’4″ tall driver, I had no trouble finding a comfortable driving position.  Sitting “behind myself,” I was able to sit in the back seat when the front seat was adjusted to my usual driving position.  The rear seat is split 60/40 and rests on adjustable tracks that allow each part of the seat to move forward for more cargo room behind it, or rearward for more passenger room.  I wouldn’t call the seat spacious, but it’s similar to the roominess other competitors in its class also have.

The RAV4 Sport V6’s 269-horsepower 3.5 liter V6 and five-speed automatic are almost overkill.  I’m certainly not in any position to call any vehicle with less than 400 horsepower ‘underpowered,’ however, so let’s say that the engine just feels much happier in a RAV4 than it does in an AWD Sienna.  Alpha males will have no trouble getting the jump on the car next to you at a green light, and the RAV4 is small enough that it’s easy to jump into holes in city traffic when necessary.  The transmission was eager to kick down to a lower gear, and while I’d prefer six ratios, five forward speeds still seemed to have it in the right gear most of the time.

Steering feel was typical Toyota numb, partially thanks to its electric power steering.  It actually felt a little more natural than the EPS does in a Corolla.  The relatively large (for the size of the vehicle) tires helped a bit with both steering feel and braking performance, though I didn’t try any panic stops.

I had the fortune of testing the RAV4 during snowy weather, so I could put it through its all wheel drive paces.  It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t Subaru Impreza good, either – possibly attributable to the difference in tires.  The most annoying aspect of the RAV4 in the snow was that the stability control still beeped to warn you that you were misbehaving/putting yourself at risk if it had to activate.  I remember the Corolla S doing this to me once last summer on dry pavement, but in a low-speed left turn in the RAV4 on a snow-covered road, the stability control beeped at me, which I found to be disconcerting.  Wouldn’t a simple idiot light indicating activation be sufficient?

My RAV4 Sport V6 4×4’s base price was $27,245 including destination.  The V6, all wheel drive (with an electrically locking differential), stability control, 18″ wheels, tinted glass, five passenger cloth seating, cabin filtration, and a full-size spare are included in that price.  Options fitted to my tester included AM/FM/XM/6-disc CD changer ($310), roof rails and crossbars ($220), integrated backup camera ($475), V6 4WD Sport Grade Appearance Package (run-flat tires, unique badges, etc.) ($577), power tilt/slide moonroof ($900), towing prep package (3,500 lb. capacity from an upgraded radiator, fan coupling, and alternator) ($160), carpet floor mats ($199), and cargo net ($49).  The final MSRP was $30,165 including destination.  Frankly, that seemed like a lot of money for a vehicle in this price class; for example, the Suzuki Grand Vitara that we tested last week was about $25,000.  However, according to TrueDelta, when standardizing equipment levels, the RAV4 is about $2,200 more expensive than the Grand Vitara.  For that price difference, I’d probably take the Toyota and its better resale value and engine with 39 more horsepower.  Ironically, Suzuki’s larger GM-based XL7 is also about $2,200 cheaper than the RAV4 when equalizing standard equipment.

The EPA rates the RAV4 at 19 mpg in the city and 26 mpg in the highway.  Not bad for a pretty quickly-accelerating SUV that can be had (through the miracles of modern packaging) with seating for seven.  My observed fuel economy over a week of mixed driving – including some inclement weather – was about 20 mpg.

Conceptually, I like the idea of a powerful engine in a compact crossover.  (Really, the weight of a vehicle has much more effect on its fuel economy than does its engine choice, anyway, so why not reward drivers with adequate – or more than adequate – power?)  It was comfortable and spacious enough for a family of four, and in spite of the hard plastic throughout the interior, it actually still felt somewhat substantial and emanated a quality feeling – something not every Toyota model does (ahem, Corolla).  GM’s 2010 Chevrolet Equinox will prove to be a worthy (and in my opinion, better-looking) competitor, but isn’t available with three rows of seats, or Toyota’s excellent residual values.  Honda’s CR-V is theoretically a direct competitor, but is smaller and not available with a V6 or seven-passenger seating.  My wife would probably buy a RAV4 if I turned her loose with the checkbook and had no input into the car shopping process (probably a four cylinder version, too), but since she doesn’t do that, I’d certainly consider it, but not rule out the competition either.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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18 Comments

  1. The RAV4 has got to be one of the only Toyotas that I have a soft spot for right now. For the 2009 model, I especially welcome the rear spare being removed, since the car looked dorky with that attached to the back.

    One of the biggest gripes I have now though is, like you said, the side-hinged rear door that is hinged on the wrong side. The driver has to walk onto the side of traffic to open the rear door. The other gripe is the truck-like grille that doesn’t really match up with the rest of the vehicle. I don’t understand why Toyota couldn’t have put the more premium-looking European/Japanese grille on the car instead.

    The third row doesn’t seem usable though, maybe for Stuart Little. If I were shopping for a small SUV, I would probably pick the Tiguan.

  2. Test drove both the Tiguan and the base 4wd rav4. The rav4 wins by a large margin.

    At first, on paper, the Tiguan seems much better due to its German engineering, 4motion feature, and a Turbo.

    However, when I test drove it, there was nearly a second of turbo lag which doesn’t really help in weaving through any traffic situation. And, the stability feel of driving a Tiguan over a rav4 is much less – it only has a 4motion featurette vs DAC, TCS, etc in the rav4.

    Further, a Tiguan is much more expensive than any compact SUVs while having less features. So I’m wondering if it’s just the badge.

    Finally, residual values make it a poor competition for the rav4.

  3. I have the V6 Sport and think it’s fine, the Tiguan turbo 4 is better than the Rav4 w/4 Cly. One made the comment about turbo lag weaving through traffic, the only lag you’ll find is from idle, with the turbo spooled up the VW is GREAT! Funny when people make off the cuff comments that are total BULL $. Anyway, I do have the V6 Sport Rav4 because the VW 4 couldn’t match it, had VW offer a 6 or TDI Diesel I’d be in the Tiguan now.

  4. At 18000 miles, started to notice preferential cloth seat wear on drivers seat. This kind of wear looks premature, and several other vehicles I have owned have not shown wear like this. Anyone else see this kind of defect and if so, what is Toyota’s fix through their dealerships for this level of poor workmanship?

  5. I HATE those run flat tires! One failed before 100 miles and Toyota will not replace the tire or all the tires with standard tires. I will be suing Toyota and Bridgestone if I can get a high power law firm on board.
    I have been cheated and I am mad! Also my RAV4 has only 414 miles and is disabled by an electrical problem they so far have been able to solve. They are furnishing me with a rental car at their cost. I paid $29,000.00 for a useless vehicle. Totoya sucks!

  6. The word not is missing in a sentenance above. I goofed!

  7. The electrical problem on my RAV4 was caused by U-Haul. U-Haul installed the trailer light module. They connected the ground wire from the module to the hot wire on the backup light circuit. I took Toyota nearly two weeks to find the wiring error. Now the RAV4 is a fine vehicle. I still have no faith in the run-flat tires.

  8. Maybe you should have researched a $29000 car before you buy one and not get run-flat tires, they suck. Also, why wouldn’t you plug the trailor in yourself, it is not Toyotas fault that you are stupid!

  9. It’s understandable to have a certain level of frustration from a new vehicle that isn’t working properly. I give the guy a lot of credit for coming back here and setting the record straight as far as the vehicle’s problems (or non-problems).

  10. One of my run flat tires failed before I got 100 miles on the vehicle!

  11. Tralier light wiring should come from the factory with the “Prep” package. U-Haul installed my light package and connected the module ground to the backup light hot wire messing up the electrical system. It took Toyota about two weeks to find the error. Toyyota is more at fault than U-Haul in my opinion. You should not have to tap into wires on a new vehicle, to do so is insanity!

  12. I’ve had my 2009 RAV4 (with Sports Appearance Package) for about 18 months. I’ve been driving for 30 years and (while it’s only the second SUV I’ve owned) it’s my best vehicle ever. Its gas mileage is decent and its passing power and 0-60 mph acceleration is outstanding! The run-flat tires, at first, were a great convenience. At $300 a piece, after one failed due to a puncture, I won’t be choosing run-flat tires in my next vehicle. That bitch aside, my RAV4 rocks.

  13. Brian, I just checked on Tire Rack, and they have the original equipment tires (run-flats) for $199 each. Still a lot of money, but a 33% discount over the price you quoted. I’m shopping for run-flats for my wife’s 2008 Sienna this evening…fortunately, they are only 17 inchers, and are $162 each. Still too much, but better than $300!

  14. I have a 2009 Rav 4 It has two annoying problems.
    1) If the road is ice covered and you are trying to get on to a cross road from a T intersection, don’t try to gas into the main road with the steering wheel turned.
    Why? The traction control system will not allow full power to the wheels. You may have done this in another car but the way the RAV brakes to gain stability won’t get you onto the intersection while turning at the same time. You may lose precious time figuring this out and get T-boned.
    2) Another problem is the brake system. If you are in an emergency situation and press hard on the brakes the pedal will fade below the level of the gas pedal. You guessed it; you can easily hit the gas pedal at the same time as you are trying to stop.
    It does have a lot of power, even with the 4 cylinder engine, and it gets better mileage than my 05 Matrix.

  15. I now have had:
    – Subaru WRX
    – Subaru Outback 2.5XT Limited
    – 2010 Rav4 V6 Limited
    – 2008 Rav4 V6 Sport (as of this week)

    So you can figure out what is important to me, speed, AWD and handling.

    I can say that for handling the Outback 2.5XT and the WRX were better hands down. This is primairly due to the tighter suspension, and better drive system. The critical improvement is that AWD is symetrical and doesn’t have torque steer.

    The Rav4 V6s have this one critical flaw,the torque steer is very heavy as the power is not evenly distributed to the wheels and with that much power it actually pulls the car pretty hard.

    The Rav4s on the other hand are now clearly my choice. They are much more car for the money overall.
    1) Really good gas milleage.
    2) You can buy them at below blue book value.
    3) Handle relatively well.
    4) I survived a massive accident when a 2.5ft tree fell on my when driving at 25mph.
    5) More reliable, the subaru’s had a lot of problems…. always in the shop for some small thing or other.

    Honestly the car is very nice, intelligently laid out. The interior is not Bentley but its very nice and logical.

    The upgraded stereo is actually very decent. Did not want me to yank it out and replace with aftermarket.

    The seats are not too comfortable, they have a weird feel to them.

    I honestly belive its the best small SUV for the money when you weigh in:
    – efficiency
    – power
    – room
    – safety
    – luxury (radio, seats, etc.)

    thanks,

    Luke

  16. I was never a fan of Toyotas. However, I have to say I love my 2008 Rav4 Sport V6. I bought this vehicle recently for $16500 (CDN) and it has 67,000kms. The only thing I added was a spare tire cover to match the vehicle colour. I got out of a leased 2011 Subaru Forester X to buy the Rav4. I have also driven my parent’s 2007 CRV. Here are my thoughts:
    – Rav4 has more space than all three vehicles and the spare tire on the door leaves for a nice storage area underneath the cargo area.
    – Rav4 is the most fun to drive with it’s V6. Yes I ddin’t have the Forester XT, but the Rav4 has 5 speeds and takes regular gas while the Forester is an antiquated 4 speed that sips premium. The CRV is just a grocery kart.
    – In terms of fuel economy the Rav4 V6 sips only 1 litre / 100km more than the base Forester and CRV – a trade I’d make any day for the fun factor in the v6.
    – As for looks, I think my Rav4 looks great – more sporty than the CRV for sure and the Forester as well. I think the spare tire (when mated to a vehicle color cover) adds to the sporty look and I actually prefer the swing door to the lift-gate.
    – In terms of AWD or 4WD I can tell you the Honda system is a piece of crap (perhaps the new SHAWD is better). I owned a Pilot as well with 4WD and like my parent’s CRV the back end always fish tails and is very unstable. I had snow tires on my Forester and also put some on my Rav4 and I can tell you it is extremely stable – I have yet to slip from a stopped position and this is impressive given that the V6 engine pulls away with more torque.

    Is the RAV4 perfect – no. However, it is the best of the bunch. Don’t even get me started with GM vehicles. They are fine while under warranty but watch out after that.

  17. 2015 and lovin’ my 2009 RAV4 Sport! New red badges and factory step-sides added. Very satisfied 🙂

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