By Chris Haak
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.
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