There’s something to be said for being the right size at the right time. The all-new fourth-generation Toyota RAV4 enters a market that’s practically tailor-made for it. The compact SUV/crossover market is booming, thanks to high fuel prices and customers who are still craving the all-weather security and versatility of an SUV. More folks seem to be looking for a “right-sized” vehicle rather than the biggest land yacht possible, and the RAV4 practically embodies this philosophy.
“Just-right” means that Toyota’s even going without a V6 engine in the new RAV4. Why? This little crossover doesn’t need it, soldiering perfectly along with a tried and true 2.5 liter four-cylinder that’s powered everything from Camrys to minivans to pickup trucks. Coupled with all-new styling and an improved suspension, the new RAV4 is philosophically more of the same, but it’s changed just enough to keep with the times.
From the outside, things have gotten pleasingly interesting. Toyota’s goal was to make the RAV4 less bland-looking, and this has been achieved. It’s a little spiky around the edges, but doesn’t fall into the faux-offroader look that many crossovers go for. This is arguably the most expressive RAV4 since the cute first-generation version. The RAV4′s new face has broad flat “cheeks” like the Yaris, giving it a Toyota family look, and the slab-sided look is echoed at the rear. The A-pillar has been revised for improved aerodynamics, and there are barely-noticeable vortex generators on the mirrors channeling the airflow exactly where Toyota wants it, and to help reduce wind noise on the freeway. The grille is more open, with just a flash of chrome.
A big change from previous RAV4′s has occurred at the rear, where the side-hinged door with an external spare tire mounted on it has given way to a more conventional tailgate. The compact spare has migrated into a recess under the rear cargo floor. The change domesticates the RAV4 somewhat–the tailgate’s easier to open in a parking lot, after all–but it loses a few uniqueness points.
The RAV4 gains some distinctiveness back with its new interior, which features a strong horizontal section and multi-toned design that Toyota calls “color-blocking.” Everything’s where you’d expect it to be, but it’s a refreshing break from the flow-through center stack and console that have become ubiquitous on most vehicles. The new dash design is handsome, and gives the RAV4 a more upscale look inside. The RAV4 looks different in a way that works well, though, and there’s comfortable seating for four. It’s comfortable on the freeway, thanks in part to a windshield with acoustic lamination to cut wind noise. The rear seats recline, and rear-seat passengers also get a dash-mounted vent that directs air to the back to quickly equalize the temperature front to rear. A reverse camera is standard and displays on the six-inch touchscreen that also provides radio info and houses the available navigation system. Of course it wouldn’t be much of a crossover if it couldn’t carry stuff; the RAV4 provides 38.4 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats up, and that goes up to an impressive 73.4 cubic feet with the rear seats folded flat. There’s also underfloor storage, with a slot designed for storing the tonneau cover.
A JBL Audio sound system and Toyota’s new Entune voice-controlled infotainment system is also available. Entune’s already reached “2.0″ status, and now offers apps including Bing, iHeartRadio, Movietickets.com and OpenTable.com. A blind-spot monitoring system is a new option; it detects traffic next to the car as well as providing cross-traffic alerts when backing out of a parking space.
Tech toys aside, the RAV4′s nuts and bolts are pretty good, too. The 2.5 is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, which enables the front-wheel drive RAV4 to get up to 31mpg on the freeway. The dual overhead cam, variable valve timing-equipped engine produces 176 horsepower. The RAV4 is lighter on its feet than before. The 2.5 is well suited to this car, especially with its new six-speed automatic transmission that is lighter than the previous four-speed and includes a “flex start” torque convertor that gets the car moving at a lower RPM, saving fuel in the city. The new transmission is also a big help in making the previous V6 redundant, as it allows the engine to stay in its powerband and helps to eliminate the wound-up feeling that plagued previous four-cylinder RAV4s on the freeway. All-wheel drive is available, but the RAV4 isn’t an off-roader by any stretch. It’ll tackle a dirt road here and there, but don’t go getting any Rubicon Trail pretensions.
With a tight suspension and precise electronic power steering, the new RAV4 drives small. It’s nimble and confident, and doesn’t suffer from the sense of bloat that often marks the beginning of the end for compact vehicles. Head-toss is nonexistent, and the steering is tight and responsive. Many crossovers have grown into the dynamic mold of sportier vehicles like the Ford Escape, and the RAV4 is no exception. In corners, the all-wheel drive RAV4 will push power to the rear, to reduce understeer, and it never feels like it’s scrambling for grip. There’s even a “Sport” mode on the transmission that provides more linear throttle response and about twenty percent less power steering boost for a more enthusiast-friendly ride. Vehicle stability control and anti-lock brakes are standard, of course. Front-wheel drive RAV4s also get a brake-based limited-slip differential that allows the front wheels to slip just enough to dig out of heavy snow or other conditions, rather than leaving the little crossover stuck like a traditional traction control system tends to.
Toyota’s small trucks have always had a good feel and personality, and the new RAV4 carries on that tradition. The “just-right” philosophy extends to the pricing as well. Toyota’s simplified the RAV4 model range to three trim levels. There’s no longer a stripped-down base level, because of low demand. 2013 RAV4 pricing starts at $23,300 for the LE model. The XLE comes in at $24,290, and the luxurious Limited is $27,010. (Destination charge of $845 not included.) All-wheel drive adds about $1400 to the bottom line.