Redesigned compact SUV feels well-planted on road and is more refined inside
You might think an automaker has it made when a segment it already dominates becomes popular. In reality, that's when things get tough, because everyone else is improving their vehicles.
The compact SUV market is now white-hot with Canadians, and the competition's getting fierce for the top three sellers: Ford's Escape, Honda's CR-V and Toyota's RAV4.
Toyota responded by completely redesigning the RAV4 for 2013. What initially started out as a funky but tinny little runabout has now matured into a serious segment contender, especially with its handsome and functional interior.
The RAV4 used to come with a choice of four- or six-cylinder engine, but the V6 has been discontinued. The lone engine is a 2.5-L that makes 176 horsepower and 172 lb.-ft. of torque, mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.
My tester was the base LE trim line, in front-wheel drive, which starts at $23,870. Base isn't quite the right word, since it feels far more upscale, and includes such features as air conditioning, Bluetooth audio streaming with steering-wheel-mounted controls, keyless entry, heated mirrors, and a windshield wiper de-icer.
Mine was further optioned with a $1,500 upgrade package, which added a touch-screen stereo with backup camera, heated front seats, tonneau cover, silver roof rails, and privacy glass.
You can order the LE and mid-range XLE in front- or all-wheel-drive, while the top-line Limited trim is all-wheel only.
The all-wheel system isn't for off-roaders, however. It operates in front-wheel-drive most of the time, automatically sending power to the rear wheels if it detects slippage.
Most drivers won't miss the V6 engine, since the four-cylinder is a good performer. Throttle response is linear, and the transmission shifts smoothly. There's a fuel-saving Eco button, which doesn't cut into the performance too much, and I kept it in that mode most of the time.
There's a Sport button as well, but I hardly used it. The RAV4 already has light steering, with very little feel to it, so instead of making the vehicle seem sportier, it mostly just made the engine rev higher.
On the plus side, though, that light touch to the wheel makes it simple to spin around in tight spots such as parking lots, and, despite the RAV4's height, it's well-planted on the highway and doesn't feel tippy around turns.
If the RAV4 has any major fault, it's that it's very noisy. You get a load of road noise coming into the cabin, and the engine drones at certain speeds.
The ride is firm, but while you do hear every bump, it's still relatively comfortable. I've heard some people complain that it's harsh, but I also noticed that most of the complaints are levelled at the Limited trim, which has larger 18-inch wheels and correspondingly lower-profile tires. The LE's 17-inch tires seem to do a better job of handling rougher pavement without transmitting the bumps.
I'm not entirely sold on the exterior styling, with its toothy front fascia (it reminds me of a bulldog with an underbite), while its squared-off back end and taillights are at odds with its curvier profile.
But the new interior is delightful, both in looks and in function. The dash sweeps from door to door, including a vinyl-wrapped ledge that incorporates a handy open cubby in front of the passenger.
The stereo and climate controls are big, easy to reach, and easy to use. I like the setup so much that I'll forgive that some of the other buttons, for the heated seats, driving modes, wiper de-icer and the USB port, are clustered under the ledge and a little harder to reach.
I like the driving position, which is high enough that visibility is good all the way around, with a tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel for that final adjustment.
The seats are comfortable for shorter outings but, on a long drive, they're not as supportive as they could be. The rear seats have a lot of legroom, but this is a compact SUV, so while there are three seating positions across, you don't really want to be the monkey in the middle.
The rear seats are easy to fold, and they go completely flat for extra cargo space. There's a small hidden cubby bin in the cargo floor right behind them.
What I really like is that Toyota has finally gone to a top-hinged liftgate, which the old models couldn't use because their spare tire was mounted on the outside. (The tire's now under the cargo floor.) The old gate always opened the wrong way for curbside loading.
Always a popular model in Toyota's stable, the RAV4's improvements make it even better, especially with its good-looking interior. All that's missing is the sound of silence, so if you're not a fan of noise, test-drive it thoroughly to be sure it's the right vehicle for you.
The vehicle tested by freelance writer Jil McIntosh was provided by the manufacturer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
2014 Toyota RAV4
$23,870 to $35,345, $25,370 as tested
176 hp/172 lb.-ft.
Fuel consumption L/100 km:
8.7 city, 6.4 hwy., 9.2 as tested
Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, GMC Terrain, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Jeep Cherokee, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-5, Mitsubishi RVR, Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester, Volkswagen Tiguan
It's built in Ontario.
The Toronto Star for Wheels.ca