Toyota's RAV4 has never pretended to be anything more than it is. The "Recreational Active Vehicle Four-wheel-drive" isn't a rugged sport utility. Off-roading purists turned up their noses when the RAV4 was introduced to the U.S. in 1996, but it became very popular for a different reason.
It was a Corolla that dared to look like an SUV. It had four-wheel drive. It had the high seating position and boxy look of a Jeep or Land Rover. It had a rough-and-ready spare tire mounted on the tailgate.
But the RAV4 was never intended for the back country. It was born into the dawn of the modern crossover age.
The 2013 RAV4 arriving in showrooms now, takes yet another step toward the gentle side, toward road-going sophistication, comfort, safety and drivability.
Gone is the exposed spare tire on the swinging tailgate, replaced by a more modern lift gate that gives easier access and practical protection when opened in the rain, snow or sun. A doughnut spare tire is under the flat cargo floor, like in all the other compact crossovers that crowd the marketplace.
The RAV4 was among the first to civilize the bravado of off-roading technology. The vehicle reflects Toyota's long-held U.S. reputation for building cars on the bland, non-threatening side, while making them dependable, economical and long lasting. You know, sensible.
From its introduction, the RAV4 was received as a woman's car. But Toyota says the gender of buyers is now split about 50/50 as men have embraced the car-like adaptation of all-weather all-wheel drive and all that practical cargo space.
It was no surprise that motoring journalists gathered to drive the fourth-generation RAV4 on the canyon roads north of Phoenix were asked to please NOT take the RAV4 off-road.
On the road, the new RAV 4 makes its occupants feel very much at home.
The interior is upgraded with fewer hard plastic surfaces and more faux cow. Real leather isn't an option but French stitching in leather-like soft-touch materials in the XLE and top-level Limited models look real. The base LE model gets a different soft-touch material with tacky molded stitching, just like the fake stitches in the rubber football I had as a kid.
But the base model also comes with some desirable standard equipment, like privacy glass, a 6.1-inch touch screen to display the backup camera and operate the six-speaker audio system and Bluetooth hands-free cell phone and portable music streaming device link. There are three big knobs at the base of the center stack that provide traditional control of audio, heat and air conditioning.
The seats are more comfortable and cabin quieter than the previous RAV4, although tire noise remains noticeable. The RAV4 feels bigger inside than the two most popular vehicles in this category, the Ford Escape and Honda CR-V. It feels smaller than the similarly priced Chevrolet Equinox, Hyundai Santa Fe Sport and Nissan Rogue. Rear leg room is good and the rear seats comfortably recline or fold flat to create a large cargo area. The new model no longer offers a cramped third row of seats.
Better handling, smoother ride
Handling is improved with better calibration for the electronic power steering. New dampers provide a smoother ride, but there still is considerable body lean in the turns.
The RAV4 comes with one engine, the same old 176-horsepower, 2.5-liter four cylinders as before, but with a more efficient six-speed transmission. This, combined with a narrower and lower body with slipperier aerodynamics, has resulted in fuel efficiency gains, giving the RAV4 an EPA rating of up to 24 mpg city and 31 highway. A dashboard "Eco" button noticeably reduces throttle response and causes the transmission to up-shift as quickly as possible to maximize fuel economy.
Mazda's lower-powered CX-5 leads the compact crossover class with up to 26 mpg city and 35 highway. Ford's Escape also earned higher EPA ratings than the RAV4. Even Chevrolet's larger Equinox earned a higher highway EPA rating while delivering more horsepower. Honda's CR-V gets about the same fuel economy. And all of them can be purchased for about the same price as the Toyota.
V-6 no longer available
A 270-horsepower V-6 is no longer offered because product planners believe young couples, small families and empty nesters value fuel economy over power.
If you want a crossover with more power, Toyota has the larger and more expensive Highlander. Then again, you might consider one of the RAV4's many competitors, which offer a larger variety of power plants, some including V-6 engines at prices similar to the higher RAV4 trim lines. Front-wheel drive is standard. All-wheel drive that defaults to front-wheel drive and can be locked into a 50/50 power split between the front and rear wheels for slippery surfaces is a $1,400 option.
Toyota stretches the truth to claim the RAV4 invented the crossover craze by combining car-like comfort and SUV practicality with the confidence of all-weather, all-wheel drive. You'd have to ignore the compact 1984 Jeep Cherokee with its lightweight car-like unibody paired with what would become the rugged Wrangler's off-road underpinnings. And how about the 1980 American Motors Corp. Eagle, a station wagon perched in an ungainly way on top of a towering four-wheel-drive system?
There is no doubt the RAV4 was at the leading edge of the modern crossover era that spawned so many popular competitors. Although the 2013 RAV4 is more contemporary, it is less distinguished from its competitors. The RAV4's redesign didn't go nearly as far in meeting Toyota President Akio Toyoda's call for more dynamic vehicles as did last year's dramatically redesigned Avalon full-size sedan.
Interior: Upgraded materials and content to compete with the competition
Exterior: Updated so it looks more like other crossovers
Performance: More efficient and modern but fewer options
Pros: It’s a Toyota with a reputation for dependable service
Cons: Others in this class are as good, if not better
Grading Scale: Grading Scale: HHHHExcellent HHHGood HHFair HPoor
2013 Toyota RAV4 / David Dewhurst
The 2013 Toyota RAV4 rear seats comfortably recline or fold flat to create ...
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