On The Road Review: Toyota RAV4

Toyota USA has had one heck of a year — with several months remaining. After weathering a safety and quality crisis that was not entirely justified, struggling to recover from a devastating earthquake in Japan, and just as production is able to ramp up to meet a rebounding retail market, round two of the economic malaise strikes. Most companies would be unable to recover from such a triple whammy.

Toyota will recover and move forward. Its history, and its internal pride, will not let the company fail. Good for them, better for us.

Key to Toyota’s ongoing success here has obviously been the automaker’s ability to make cars and trucks that the buying public is happy to purchase. While some of the luster has fallen off Toyota’s rose of late, that doesn’t mean that the Asian automaker forgot how to design, build and sell quality cars.

One of the oft-forgotten stalwarts of Toyota’s American lineup has been the RAV4, the compact crossover wagon loosely based on the front-drive Corolla platform. For years, I have admired — and often recommended — the RAV4. It is not all that attractive, but neither is it ugly. It’s just too bland, yet the Toyota packs a great combination of a roomy interior (optional three rows of seating), the strongest engine in the compact class (a 269-hp V-6 is optional), as well as a balanced chassis that offers poise and grace in front- or all-wheel-drive trim. Seemingly, the RAV4 has it all.

Usually a dominant seller year in and year out, the current economy has wreaked havoc with RAV4 sales. The latest sales charts show that the RAV4 has slipped into fourth place in the compact segment as newer, more modern rivals have debuted with greater fanfare. Except for the inexplicable success of the Ford Escape, now in its 11th year of production for what is essentially the same vehicle and is now the best selling compact crossover so far this year, the RAV4’s impact in a class that it used to be more of a leader in has suffered.

This could change later this year as a new RAV4 will debut, including a planned EV — electric version. Until then, the current model is working hard to increase sales. The shortage of needed parts has made sales growth all but impossible, hurting Toyota’s chances at repeating as the top-selling car company in America. As American buyers have clearly demonstrated that crossover wagons — of all sizes — are still a very desirable vehicle, expect the RAV4 to make greater inroads as the season gets colder.

For anyone who has recently been car shopping, buyers gravitate toward crossovers for three main reasons: easier entry and exit versus a car, greater forward visibility in traffic, plus more cargo space that is also flexible. Add improved road manners and enhanced ride dynamics and the RAV4 delivers on all points.

The higher ‘hip-point’ that crossovers afford all drivers is a subtle, yet reassuring benefit. Older drivers needn’t grasp doors or overhead handles to make a graceful exit while drivers of various physiques can handily slide right in and out. When added to a roomy rear seat, a spacious cargo hold and a large front cabin, these conveniences are among the virtues that make the RAV4 such an attractive choice.

In base trim, with the standard 179-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive, the RAV4 provides the ride and handling acumen of a compact car: graceful everyday, adroit when hustled and never a handful near the limit. The turning radius in parking lots is reasonably tight, less than 35 feet, while the ride balance is composed on all surfaces. Steering feel — never a strong suit for too many Toyotas — is nicely weighted here and provides better than average feedback.

In tested Sport trim with AWD and the hustle of the optional 269-hp 3.5-liter V-6 engine from the Camry, the RAV4 becomes the swiftest compact crossover by a wide margin. Toe the RAV4’s throttle and mid-range and top-end punch is commendably fast, eclipsing most rivals by significant margins. Fuel economy remained respectable despite the urge to sample this fountain of youth. I averaged 25 mpg in the Sport sampled, with most of the miles traveled at or above the usual highway pace.

Despite a fondness for how the RAV4 Sport feels going down the road, how quickly it responded to driver input, plus the aggressive reactions of the optional motor, there are some issues that should be addressed in the next edition.

First, I am not a fan of seat bottoms that rise and tilt forward at the same time. Automakers — separate this function into two distinct actions to increase adjustability. Surely, it can’t cost that much more to add another control knob or power button to allow the seatpan to rise or tilt separately from its seatback angle control.

Secondly, the RAV4’s NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) levels need to improve. At highway speeds, the cabin’s serenity is interrupted by too much tire noise from the 18-inch tires on the Sport model, while too much road noise also leaks into the cabin. Below 60 mph the RAV4 is much quieter. If you never take the highway — anywhere — you won’t complain.

Lastly, the RAV4’s instrument panel and material combinations seems dated and low-brow when compared to the new Chevy Equinox or VW Tiguan. The switchgear is very functional and the safety offerings are appropriate, too, but the tactile look and feel of the RAV4 is slightly behind rivals that don’t have the resources that Toyota commands. Some of this assembly is cost-cutting, but the next RAV4 will need to make more of an upscale statement if Toyota wants to return to a dominating position in this segment.

It would also be good to see Toyota either move the swing-out rear door to a left-side hinge application, or, engineer a conventional overhead hatchback design. As is, the right-hinged door is not as convenient to use in the city — a sharp contrast to the nicely shaped cargo area that rests behind the door.

Despite these shortcomings, the RAV4 is still a recommended selection. Above average road manners, the stout acceleration of the V-6-engine combined with decent fuel economy, plus the general spacing inside give the Toyota a slight edge. In total, the overall performance of this compact wagon make it hard to deny the virtues of this particular model — no matter what you think of its styling.

Look at the other compact crossovers when shopping, but don’t leave the RAV4 off of your list — especially as deals become more prevalent in this spinning economy.

Just the Facts: Toyota RAV4

RAV4 is a five- or seven-passenger compact class crossover wagon available with front- or part-time all-wheel drive aided by a new locking rear differential. There are three trim levels: base FWD starts at $22,025 with a 179-hp four cylinder engine while AWD is a $1,400 option. Next up is Sport, which starts at $25,125 with the base engine, or, $27,055 with the optional 269-hp V-6 motor. Limited editions reflect higher prices that depend on option packages selected. EPA mileage estimates are 21/27 for the former and 19/26 for the latter.

RAV4 starts out at 3,360 pounds, making it one of the lighter crossover wagons. Wheelbase is 104.7 inches under a body that stretches to 181.9 inches. Ground clearance is 7.5 inches, while tow ratings range from 1,500 t0 3,500 pounds depending upon engine selected. Peak cargo capacity is near the top of the class: 73 cubic feet.

For more arts & entertainment news, pick up a copy of The Ellsworth American.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.