On The Road Review: The Tale of Two Compact SUVs, Part 2

Toyota USA now sells no fewer than seven SUVs in the American market, 12 models all told if you count the company’s Scion and Lexus brands, too. The best selling of them all last year was the compact class RAV4.

Toyota USA now sells no fewer than seven SUVs in the American market, 12 models all told if you count the company’s Scion and Lexus brands, too. The best selling of them all last year was the compact class RAV4.

Yet, like its rival General Motors, Toyota is fast finding out that a shrinking world marketplace is wrecking havoc for even vaunted automakers like itself. Rapidly declining auto sales everywhere are increasing the flow of red ink, raising unforeseen costs, and generating negative earnings reports even for Toyota. Analysts predict that Toyota, the brand that the media has slobbered over as a paragon of propriety, is poised to post a $5-billion loss in the next month.

Toyota makes more hybrid-powered cars than any other automaker plus a vast assortment of small cars. Now, with hefty rebates and incentives, not even these vehicles are generating much consumer interest as credit issues and a lack of consumer confidence erode overall auto sales.

As evidence mounts that all large automakers will be hurt by the current market circumstances, Toyota rolls out a slightly revised compact class RAV4 for 2009 that features a more potent base engine that retains its former EPA mileage ratings. My sample vehicle is the popular midlevel Sport model with optional AWD.

Seven inches longer overall, plus 2 more inches between the wheels, the RAV4 is larger than last week’s Tiguan. In fact, the small Toyota is one of the larger compact class SUVs with dimensions that exceed the best-selling Honda CRV as well as the enlarged Subaru Forester.

This space is most evident in the second row seating area and the expansive cargo hold. Both areas offer class-leading measurements. Maximum cargo room stretches out to over 73 cubic feet with the split/folding rear seatbacks producing an almost flat load floor. Upright, this seating area offers a level floor for feet, expansive head room and ample hip space for two adults. If needed, the RAV4 also offers an optional third-row seating area for smaller passengers, a feature not found on most rivals.

For over 10 years, the RAV4 and its Asian rival — the CRV — have dominated the compact class SUV segment with only Ford’s popular Escape offering any significant sales challenge.

With the rapid descent of midsize SUV sales, this class has taken on a whole new importance to both consumers and automakers. Drivers still want the versatile space and functionality of these wagons, while automakers need the profits that they generate — a higher return on investment than typical small cars.

This has led to the proliferation of competitors like the VW Tiguan. With a ready-made template to follow, these new rivals bring new parameters to tried and true formulas.

For the latest RAV4, its success can be attributed to several key points; roomy interior, good feature content, composed road manners and Toyota’s reliability and resale reputation.

The Tiguan makes an impact by offering sportier, more responsive road manners than the RAV4 and the rest of the segment, plus a powerful yet efficient 200-hp turbocharged engine.

Toyota, however, counters with a larger, more powerful base engine for 2009. A 2.5-liter 179-hp four replaces the older 2.4-liter 166-hp engine. Still mated to a four-speed automatic, the latest RAV4 produces strong acceleration down low as well as a good midrange punch. Fuel economy remains unchanged — 22/28-mpg for front-drive models, 21/27-mpg for AWD.

The caveat is that the Toyota also offers the strongest engine in the compact segment, a 269-hp 3.5-liter V-6 similar to the one used in the larger Highlander and new Versa. This motor, coupled to a five-speed automatic, makes the RAV4 one of Toyota’s fastest models sold in the USA.

In direct comparison with the new Tiguan, I am left with these impressions.

The RAV4 has more usable space inside, room that is easily accessed. Four adults on board don’t tax the Toyota and leaves ample room for cargo and incidentals.

Both of these compact wagons have responsive road manners and good steering feel for the driver. I would give the VW the nod for quicker handling and a more stable ride, although the Toyota’s elongated wheelbase handles certain road imperfections better than the sportier VW. Both of these crossovers also employ excellent all-wheel-drive systems that make winter travel less stressful. Apply full power exiting a slippery intersection and the drivetrains orient power to all four wheels seamlessly. You can feel the front wheels pulling and the rear’s pushing in a fashion that gives you supreme confidence. This is why you spend the extra money for AWD. Combined with electronic stability and traction assist controls, plus limited slip differentials, both cars were able to handle deep snow despite their decidedly summer-biased tires.

From the helm, the VW uses better materials and presents the driver with a premium-feel cockpit. The Tiguan’s heated cloth seats are excellent and make a statement not evident in the RAV4. The Toyota’s interior layout, however, is by no means bad, but the upscale look and feel of the Tiguan is tangible over the RAV4’s presentation. Lighting, control feel, navigation system, and definitely the radio’s performance, are all better in the VW.

Fuel economy between the two is very close, close enough to make driving styles the deciding factor. I averaged 24-26-mpg in both vehicles in cold, snowy conditions, about what is predicted. Each could do better, but I liked to exercise the VW’s responsive turbo-motor and the RAV4’s gutsy new four is more eager than the former version. Both of these wagons have higher EPA ratings than the Honda CRV too, plus more horsepower on tap, so that would be an easy choice for me. Remember, though, the trip-computer/mileage gauges in both of these cars, like most cars, are 10-15 percent optimistic over real-world fuel economy.

The Tiguan enters this fray with higher retail prices but more standard features than the RAV4. Tarted up with panoramic sunroof, nav system, back-up camera, etc. the VW has a higher price than a comparable RAV4, but it also feels more upscale in several subtle ways.

Yet, loaded with accessories similar to the VW, the price differential closes to about $1,800. The RAV4 comes with Toyota’s reputation for reliability, but the Tiguan counters with VW’s new three-year free maintenance plan and a longer overall warranty.

If you need maximum space in a minimum package, the Toyota is the winner. If you want superior road handling and crisp performance in a compact wagon, the VW edges past the larger RAV4.

In the end, both of these compact class crossover wagons are winners and the majority of buyers will find that they capably replace the midsize vehicles that we used to buy.

Next week: Ford Escape Hybrid vs. Jetta TDI, Part 1

Just the Facts: Toyota RAV4

The RAV4 comes in three trim levels with front or all wheel drive and two available engines. Base 2WD models start at $21,500, Sport trim adds $1,700, while top Limited trim begins at $26,410. Add approximately $1,800 for the V-6 engine, $1,400 for AWD and $745 for destination fees.

Larger 2.5-liter base engine now makes 179-hp, 13-hp more than last year. EPA estimates remain 22/28-mpg for FWD and 21/27 for AWD with standard four-speed automatic. Optional 3.5-liter 269-hp V-6 is EPA rated at 19/27 for front-drive models, 19/26 for AWD with a five-speed automatic.

RAV4 measures 181.1 inches long or 7 inches longer than the Tiguan, 4 inches longer than the Honda CRV and 2 inches longer than the Subaru Forester. Wheelbase is 104.7 inches while peak cargo space is 73.1 cubic feet, both of which are larger than these rivals. Base weight is 3,494 pounds and the RAV4 can tow up to 3,500 pounds with the V-6 engine.

Tested Sport 4WD listed for $26,598 and included: six-disc CD stereo with XM radio, mirror-mounted back-up camera screen, roof rails, manually locking 4WD (turns off after 28 mph), 18-inch wheels, fog lamps, dual gloveboxes, Optitron gauges and tilt/telescoping steering wheel with audio controls.

Nicole Ouellette

Nicole Ouellette

When Nicole isn't giving advice she's completely unqualified to give, she runs an Internet marketing company in Bar Harbor, where she lives with her husband Derrick and their short dog Gidget. She loves young adult novels, cooking and talking French to anyone who'll talk back. [email protected]