WOODSTOCK, ONT. At the media preview for Toyota’s fourth-generation RAV4 compact SUV, the rear door got by far the most enthusiastic response. Gone is the clunky, African-safari-style side-swinging gate with spare tire attached that was a nuisance in tight parking spots.
Instead, finally, is a lift-gate that, on the upscale Limited model, opens and gently closes with the click of a button, and features an adjustable top height. The spare, now a ‘temporary’, is stowed under the cargo area. Technically, this isn?t the most important difference between the 2013 RAV4 and the previous version of the vehicle that trails only the Corolla in Toyota’s Canadian sales. But it’s likely to vie for popularity with price cuts in the neighbourhood of $1,000 to $1,500, and that’s what matters as Toyota aims to move the RAV4 from third place to first in the crowded and extremely competitive compact SUV segment.
From a Green Wheels perspective, other improvements on a long list of changes are more meaningful. For one, the V6 engine is no more. In the interest of fuel economy, the only option, for now (a hybrid might be in the works) is the 2.5-litre four-cylinder, DOHC carried over from 2012, which puts out 176 horsepower and 172 foot-pounds of torque at a relatively high 4,100 rpm. A six-speed automatic transmission replaces the four. And the emotional and bold exterior remake includes tweaks, such as vortex generators on the outside mirrors and taillights, which slightly improve the RAV4’s aerodynamics and stability.
The result is an official combined urban/highway fuel-consumption rating (according to Transport Canada’s rosy-eyed scheme) of 7.7 litres per 100-kilometres in front-wheel drive and 8.1 with the optional all-wheel drive. Both represent an improvement of about half a litre over the previous generation. But the front-wheel figure still lags Mazda’s CX-5, at just under seven litres per 100, and other competitors from GM, Ford, Subaru and Mitsubishi. Along with better fuel economy, the new transmission provides a zero-to-100 time of 8.9 seconds (for what it?s worth, 1.3 seconds quicker than last year).
That acceleration is much smoother: You can hear the shifts, if you’re paying attention to the agreeable engine notes, but barely feel them. The RAV4 is being built for North America at Toyota’s state-of-the-art Woodstock assembly plant, where a vehicle rolls off the line every 60 seconds. (Process changes cut that time from an original 82 seconds, and further improvements could shave additional time, says Brian Krinock, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada Inc.)
This new version offers more creature comforts as well as the safety of what Toyota calls a ‘class leading’ eight airbags, a high-strength steel cabin, and the company’s complete “Star Safety System” of stability and traction controls, anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist and smart stop technology. Aids such as lane departure alert and blind spot monitor are available only at the upper price end.
Toyota has a thing about ‘three’. The all-wheel-drive option offers three modes: Automatic delivers power to the front wheels except when it detects slippage, when as much as half can go to the rear. Lock distributes power 50/50 up to 40 kilometres per hour, and Sport shifts 10 to 50 per cent of the power as needed to improve cornering. All three models (LE, XLE and Limited) provide three driving options: Normal, eco and sport.
The RAV4 is spacious, especially when it comes to cargo area. At 1,087 litres behind the second seat, and 2,078 with that seat folded down, it beats anything else in the segment.
The preview test began on strips of pavement equipped with waves and bumps, which demonstrated the suspension quality. I’d left my Tim’s behind, but it felt as if most of a full serving would have stayed in the cup. A high-speed track showed the impact of those mode buttons: Even when cruising, punching the Sport button gave a noticeable boost while Eco, even though Toyota says it mainly cuts back air conditioning and other comfort settings, felt as if a small parachute had been deployed.
The main drive, along easy rural highways between Woodstock and Cambridge and a small stretch of the 401, didn’t allow the RAV4 much scope to strut its stuff, but it was enough to reveal it’s well-made and finished, stable, quiet except when floored, and outfitted with very comfortable front seats and plenty of room in back. Acceleration is just okay (it is, after all, a non-turbo four) and I’d prefer a bit more oomph for lane changes on the 401.
Toyota says it’s selling the “fun” of the RAV4, with the marketing slogan: “Let’s Play,” and it’s aiming to attract young, active couples, with or without kids. Gen 4, now on sale, doesn’t top the driving excitement league, but for quality, agility, comfort and the ability to carry five people and a lot of stuff to the next happy event, it looks tough to beat.
ENGINE: 2.5L Four, DOHC, intelligent variable valve timing
POWER/TORQUE: 176 hp; 172 lb.-ft.
FUEL CONSUMPTION L/100 km: 8.7 city; 6.4 hwy. (FWD)
COMPETITION: Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, Honda CRV, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, Mazda X-5, Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester, Suzuki Grand Vitara
WHAT’S BEST: Cargo space, comfortable seats and driving position, solid and agile.
WHAT’S WORST: Lacklustre power for highway maneuvres.
Travel for freelance writer Peter Gorrie was provided by the manufacturer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org