Review: 2011 Toyota RAV4 V6 Limited FWD

By Roger Boylan

The last RAV4 I was in was the original cute ute, a ‘97 with a stick shift, a bare-naked spare tire stuck to its backside and 120 horses under the hood. It was solid enough for its small size, but pretty noisy on the highway, with mediocre interior comfort and, as I recall, fuel economy that was OK, no more. But it had Energizer Bunny-like endurance, and aging models can be had cheap, which is why I still see them gathering bird poo under wilting trees in our local student ghetto, where beerstained sofas and old cars go to die.

Over in the posher precincts is where you must seek today’s RAV4, although you might not recognize it when you find it. It’s about as different from its humble ancestor as it could be, short of having evolved into a Lamborghini, or a bus–of both of which it could be said to have elements, being much faster, especially in the V6 version, than its predecessor, and offering a more spacious interior than the old RAV, while remaining manageably compact externally.

It’s manageable financially, too, starting at $22K for a Base model 4-cylinder and hitting the ceiling at around $31K for a well-equipped V6-powered Limited model, like my test vehicle, a cherry-red iteration that came equipped with a raft of goodies, including automatic headlights, a hard cover for the spare tire out back, roof rails, heated mirrors, keyless ignition and entry, dual-zone automatic climate control, stereo plus 6-disc CD changer and XM Sirius satellite radio, hill-start assist and hill-descent control, and much, much more.

 My tester also came with three rows of seats and the theoretical capability of accommodating 7 people. Despite knowing how risible a spectacle I would be making of myself, I took up the challenge and tried to climb into the third row, but soon gave up, red-faced and puffing, to the laughter of multitudes. I ended up stowing the third row and reclaiming the cargo space for my groceries, bags of mulch, and garden plants. Sure, the RAV accommodates 7, if two of them are midgets or the children thereof.  I’d prefer to see it as a very comfortable ride for 4, and a tolerable one for 5.

Now for the good stuff, which is the rest of it. It’s a handsome vehicle that, like most Toyotas, is content to just be, not to show off, an esthetic accomplishment despite itself, like a Zen koan. The RAV’s profile is elegant and aerodynamic, with a 0.33 drag coefficient, useful in boosting fuel economy and muffling wind noise. The Limited, riding on spiffy-looking 17-in. six-spoke alloys, has a muscular stance that looks good and contributes to stability. Up front the wide grille is divided by a body-colored crossbar flaunting a great big chrome Toyota T badge, the closest the RAV gets to flamboyance.

Beneath the front bumper are recessed foglamps and a faux skid plate, for that rugged look. In the rear, the Limited offers a hard-shell cover for the outboard spare tire; this perches elegantly enough on the rear door. This door swings open to the right rather than the left, the RAV being from Japan, where they drive on the left, like that other tea-drinking island monarchy. Some reviewers I’ve read have complained about this, but I had no problem with it; to me, there’s something more intuitive about swinging open a door than raising a liftgate. But that’s probably just me.

All versions of the RAV-Base, Limited, and Sport–are available with either front- or all-wheel-drive and either a 179-hp 4-banger or the strapping V6, with its 269 snortin’ ponies and 246 lb-ft of torque. I’d unhesitatingly plump for the latter, which my test vehicle had, along with front wheel drive. Now, I generally prefer SUVs to have traction at all four ends, but in view of the breed’s standard shop-hopping and kid-schlepping missions, it’s hardly necessary, especially when you have electronic stability control and traction control in the event of mudslides and water-main bursts at the mall. Still, in the front-wheel-drive version, you want to exercise caution when taking off from a traffic light, or torque steer—the tendency of the steering wheel to twitch violently to one side—might set in.

But it’s a risk worth taking, and easily mastered: just hold on tight, which you should be doing anyway. That way you’ll be able to enjoy this V6, a magnificent engine. I’ve admired it in its other incarnations in the Venza, Camry SE, Highlander, and elsewhere in the Toyota clan, but it seems to me that it does its most yeomanlike work under the hood of the RAV. Oh, you shoulda seen that guy’s face, the one with the big snortin’ honkin’ Ram, when my little Japanese puddle-jumper kicked up a cloud of dust in his face…but we mustn’t be childish. Still, I won’t deny it, a 0-60 time of 6.6 seconds (per my vintage Swiss chronometer), when repeated, will bring a smile to the most jaded features. Hell, that’s as fast or faster than my Jaguar S-Type. Just as nice is the fuel economy. The 4-cylinder version gets 22 city, 28 highway, and 24 combined, and even the full-bore V6 is hardly a guzzler: 19 city, 27 highway, 22 combined. These ratings drop by only 1 mpg on the highway, if you go for 4-wheel-drive—and we’re talking regular dino-juice here.

What, you may well ask, is not to like? Precious little, is the response. The RAV is a great pleasure to drive. It tracks strong and true, with nary a rattle or squeak, even over rutted terrain. The electrically assisted steering is surprisingly on-target, not to say precise, with no numb zone. Road noise gets up there when you’re hightailing it along the kinds of crumbly backroads we specialize in here in the Texas Hill Country, but on smoother asphalt you float along as if on a cloud, or in your great-uncle’s Buick. The RAV feels extremely well-built, perhaps more so than even your average Toyota product. One reason for this may be that fact that it shares its platform with no other vehicle. Everything has been tuned and customized to its own exact specifications and needs, not adapted from another vehicle’s. This means it drives and handles superbly for an SUV, and almost as well as some sports sedans.

Inside, there’s a lot of plastic, but this isn’t a Lexus, so plastic is to be expected. Overall, the look isn’t that bad, although the headliner is a bit subpar, and the A-pillars would look better sheathed in fabric. But the dash is well laid out, the controls are logically placed and easy to use, and the gauges, housed under a deep binnacle, are clear and easy to read. The shifter shifts smoothly and logically, as does the five-speed tranny it controls; I never felt it was hunting for a gear, or stuck in the wrong one—except once, when, while playing with the manual-shift feature, I inadvertently left it in third and found myself wondering why the hitherto docile RAV was beginning to snarl at me like a rabid wolverine. 

The seats (fabric in my tester) are very comfortable, and there’s plenty of room in the second row for a couple of family-sized adults. Flip a lever, and the seats fold down, yielding 73 cubic feet of cargo capacity, big enough for a fridge or two. Head room is ample throughout, and visibility fore and aft is excellent, the aft part enhanced by the backup camera my tester came with. There were big, plentiful cupholders front and back, and cunningly-arranged storage cubbies throughout the cabin, showing that the “utility” part of “sport-utility” had been as assiduously addressed as the “sport” part.

Safety, too, was clearly on the minds of the RAV’s creators, as you would expect. My Limited model boasted antilock disc brakes, stability control, traction control, whiplash-combating front headrests, and airbags of every sort, including the full-length side-curtain ones that I hope I never have to see. (But it’s nice to know they’re there.) In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tests, the RAV4 earned the rating “Good” in both the frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests; this is the restrained IIHS way of saying “Fantastic! Way to go!!”

 It all makes for peace of mind. The RAV4 V6 Limited is a supreme example of discreet automotive art, meticulously engineered to deliver on all levels, with the added bonus of actually being fun to drive.

Author: Roger Boylan

Aside from being the only Autosavant writer with a Wikipedia page, Roger Boylan is an American writer who was raised in Ireland, France, and Switzerland and attended the University of Ulster and the University of Edinburgh. His novel “Killoyle” was published in 1997 by Dalkey Archive Press and has been reprinted four times. In 2003, a sequel, “The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad,” was published by Grove Press, New York. Roger’s latest novel, “The Adorations,” in which a Swiss professor named Gustave, Adolf Hitler, Hitler’s mistress, the Archangel Michael, and a journalistic sexpot meet at the intersection of history and fantasy, has been published as an e-book and is now available on Amazon.com and other online bookstores. Boylan's light-hearted memoir, "Run Like Blazes," has also been published as a Kindle e-book and is also now available on Amazon.com.

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