Payne: Stress-free, thrill-free Toyota RAV4
The best-selling book on Amazon for much of the year has been “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos,” by Jordan Peterson. The title is self-explanatory. It’s a 12-step guide to stress-free living.
Chapter titles include: “Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best from you” and “Rule 8: Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie” and “Rule 12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.”
Psychologist Peterson might have added Rule 13: Buy a Toyota.
Toyota has kept auto buyers off the shrink couch for decades. The brand has been synonymous with chaos-free reliability as it scooped up award after dependability award.
It’s no wonder, then, that the Toyota RAV4 in my driveway is the best-selling non-pickup in the United States. A staggering 407,594 were sold last year.
As Americans have crossed over to crossovers, compact SUVs have become the equivalent of the midsize family sedan. True to its brand, RAV4 has a trophy case full of reliability awards including a 9.3 (out of 10) reliability rating from Kelley Blue Book, IHS Automotive longest-lasting vehicle plaudits, and so on.
The RAV4 is the nanny of autos. It’s always there to pick you up after school, always there to carry your stuff, always nag-nag-nagging you when you want to have fun.
OK, so I am not your typical automotive appliance buyer. I’m a little rebellious when it comes to driving.
Give me a hot hatch or a sports car. Or the all-wheel drive hatchback Audi TT S sports car that I recently raved about, because I can take it to the track in the summer and do four-wheel drifting on snowy county roads in winter. I tried that last maneuver and the RAV4 looked at me with arms crossed, shaking its head.
I tried anyway. I turned off the traction control and ... well, I eventually turned off the traction control after looking everywhere in the cabin for the button. It’s a tiiiiiny little button northeast of the radio screen next to three other tiny buttons indicating whether all passengers are belted in.
Who puts it there? An SUV determined to get Insurance Institute for Highway Safety top safety ratings, I guess.
But one push of the button didn’t do it. Unlike every other car I’ve ever driven, the “traction-control off” light on the dash changed little in the car’s performance. Under throttle through some Oakland County twisties the power was suddenly cut back as if the nanny systems were still engaged.
Indeed, the nannies are so intrusive in the RAV4 that the car nearly stalls in a straight line — much less under g-loads — if the electronics detect tire slip. On Detroit’s snowbound roads, this often made for tortoise-like stoplight getaways as RAV4 refused to allocate power to the wheels while two lanes of traffic streamed by on either side of me.
To turn off traction control altogether, the “traction-control” button must be held down for five seconds.
Mrs. Payne would approve. She has no taste for my all-wheel-drive drifting shenanigans. And she is no doubt joined by the 100 percent of the appliance buyers who have made RAV4 their top sales pick. If you want to drift a best-seller, then buy the Nissan Rogue — No. 2 in sales to RAV4 by a mere 3,000 units — which sports a nimbler chassis than the Toyota and requires one push of its (easily located) traction-control button.
Conservatism is the RAV4’s default mode.
The Toyota doesn’t offer the electronic gee-gaws that other competitors do like self-park assist (Ford Escape); or automatic high-beams (Mazda CX5); or fold-flat front seat (Chevy Equinox); or kick-open rear hatch (Ford and Honda CR-V); or Apple CarPlay and Android Auto app connectivity like just about everybody.
Perhaps most glaring was a lack of heated seats in my $32,714 model. Nearby in my driveway were a $27,000 VW Passat (leather seats) and all-wheel drive Subaru Impreza wagon (cloth seats like the RAV4) which were both equipped to warm up a cold tush on a cold day. Heated seats are one of my wife’s No. 1 priorities.
The interior is roomy with workable ergonomics, though the old-fashioned gated shifter seems oh-so 15 years ago.
The staid interior contradicts first impressions, as I find the RAV4 one of the more interesting mainstream utes to look at — especially the new-for-2018 Adventure model that I drove. When you’ve got 400,000-plus units flooding American roads every year, it’s nice to have a little variety and the Adventure delivers.
It features a flat-black hood a la Camaro 1LE, more aggressive wheel-well cladding and blacked-out headlights that make the RAV4’s signature, thin, wraparound grille look even more like the X-Men’s Cyclops.
The Adventure model is supposed to appeal to Toyota appliance buyers with a little Jeep ruggedness in their blood (hey, now my off-road antics don’t seem so crazy after all, hon!). The inside is festooned with thick, rubber mats with an “Adventure” logo on them. The chassis gets big 18-inch blacked-out wheels, more ride-height, and engine radiator and transmission upgrades to more than double RAV4’s towing capacity to 3,500 pounds.
Nice, though in keeping with Toyota’s conservative nature, it’s still well off a Jeep Cherokee V-6’s 4,500-pound rating.
When I wasn’t begging for less nanny and more power on slushy roads, the RAV4’s ride was surprisingly quiet given its non-turbo, 176-horse four-banger engine. A similar mill in a Mazda CX-5, for example, can get shouty — credit the Toyota’s very smooth, six-speed tranny which also helps return a respectable 25 mpg.
Last week in New York, Toyota unveiled an all-new fifth-generation RAV4 with a remake that will address many of the shortcomings mentioned above, from standard features to clunky shift-gate to more horsepower (though its awkward new face made me nostalgic for Cyclops). Based on the same wider, lower, stiffer platform that rejuvenated the Camry sedan in 2017, the new RAV4 goes on sale next winter.
In the meantime, I have to sit back and applaud a five-year-old car that continues to soar to new sales heights. Who needs a redesign when you’re an antidote for chaos?
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.
2018 Toyota RAV4
Front-engine, front and all-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV
$25,505 base ($32,714 RAV4 Adventure as tested)
176 horsepower, 172 pound-feet of torque
0-60 mph, 8.5 seconds (Car and Driver); towing: 3,500 pounds
3,605 pounds as tested
EPA fuel economy: 22 city/28 highway/25 combined (AWD Adventure as tested)
Highs: Rugged Adventure trim; quiet interior
Lows: Nagging nanny safety systems; missing features
Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★