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Car reviews - Toyota - RAV4 - Cruiser 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Extra performance, more responsive handling, quieter cabin, proper all-wheel drive system, extra equipment, price
Room for improvement
Lack of manual shift mode in auto, overly light steering, extra fuel consumption

Toyota logo20 Aug 2004

By TIM BRITTEN

THE market might be getting tougher every day but for Toyota’s RAV4, the vehicle that started the whole soft-road movement, things are still going swimmingly.

Although what was once a two-horse race between the RAV4 and Honda’s CR-V has, with the arrival of Nissan’s X-Trail, become a three-horse race, Toyota’s sales rates have hardly faltered.

It dropped slightly behind the impressive new Nissan in 2003 but was nevertheless only just below its previous year total - and this year, so far, it is managing to hold number one spot.

The Honda CR-V is wilting under the onslaught of Toyota and Nissan, even though it led the market in 2002.

And now the RAV4 has had its first freshen-up since the new-look, second-series model was launched in 2000.

The new visuals might not strike fear into Nissan’s marketing and sales teams, but what’s under the skin well could.

Where the previous model soldiered along quite capably with a willing 2.0-litre engine, the latest version ups capacity by a significant jump and closes in on the X-Trail’s punchy 2.5-litre.

The RAV4 engine is the same as used in the four-cylinder Camry and employs long-stroke design to help wring the best possible torque out of its 2.4 litres. Yet the figures are still slightly down on the X-Trail, with 120kW compared to 132kW, and 224Nm of torque compared to 245Nm.

In fact, looking at the power figure for the previous engine, the gains seem minimal, from 110kW to 120kW. The extra twist (torque) is what counts though, and here the improvement is more noticeable, jumping from the previous model’s 192Nm to a much more useful 224Nm. This brings a torque-weight ratio much closer to the X-Trail – although it’s still not quite there.

But the gains are very noticeable nevertheless, particularly the extra torque which is always very welcome.

One thing Toyota doesn’t appear to talk about is fuel consumption which, on our test, seems to be up slightly on the 2.0-litre version.

The engine doesn’t lack in technology though, with twin camshafts, four-valve cylinder heads and variable valve timing. New to the RAV4 engine are all-alloy construction, electronic throttle, twin contra-rotating balance shafts and a plastic inlet manifold.

It drives through a set of revised manual transmission ratios that take advantage of the extra torque. The final drive in the essentially unchanged automatic version goes from 3.29:1 to a lazy 3.08:1.

The RAV4 benefits from improvements to the steering system too, with a new rack ratio and various tweaks and fiddles that end up, according to Toyota, giving better road feel while cruising, and lighter wheel rim loads at parking speeds.

The all-independent suspension (MacPherson struts at the front and double wishbones at the rear) has been given a once-over too, recalibrated at the front to improve ride and handling qualities via new multiple laminated valves of a type also seen in various other Toyotas, including the Celica and Prius II.

These shockers are able to absorb sharp bumps on the road while still providing the stiffness needed to help maintain a level stance when cornering.

The body has been toughened up and designed to better absorb unwanted side impacts via new roof side member shapes and energy-absorbing pads in the floor beneath the dash.

Five-door RAV4s use new energy absorbing material in the roof rails to protect against head-impact injury, while an optional safety pack in the top-of-the-range Cruiser adds side airbags, full-length curtain airbags, electronic stability control and traction control.

Visually, there are a few clues to the latest RAV. There’s a new bumper and grille, and new lights front and rear. The base CV version has body-coloured door handles and exterior mirrors, and a hard spare wheel cover, while the upmarket Cruiser gets new alloy wheels as well as a pair of those infuriating, so-called front foglights.

Inside, there are new, improved shape seats with, on the five-door Cruiser test car, height adjustment for the driver. Sharp-eyed observers will note there’s now illumination for the ignition key, a new steering wheel and a number of other small changes including new trim materials. The seats are apparently also built tougher and more rigid.

All RAV4s now get dual front airbags, air-conditioning, cruise control, remote central locking, power windows and mirrors, driver’s seat height adjustment, and rake and reach-adjustment for the rear seats.

The Cruiser model adds ABS, 16-inch alloy wheels, an improved sound system with six-disc CD changer in the dash, a rear spoiler, roof rails, power sunroof and leather on the steering wheel and gear lever.

Combine this with the existing well-rounded RAV package and you have a small SUV that covers most bases. In the longer-wheelbase five-door version there’s enough space in the back to contain a couple of bikes (wheels-on if the rear seat is folded), as well as quite good legroom for two passengers.

The back seat split-folds in the middle rather than off to one side as is usually the case - which probably makes sense because there’s rarely enough room for two on one side anyway, even with a 60-40 split-fold.

In a package that is generally slightly smaller than X-Trail or CR-V, the Toyota still provides good all-round stretching space, even for tall adults.

The (carpeted) rear load space might not be anything exceptional longitudinally, but is unusually deep, with a nice, low load height due to the location of the spare wheel on the back door. There’s also a cargo cover, while the back seats offer some fore-aft adjustment and are removable after a little effort.

On the road the RAV benefits from reduced interior noise levels. Our test car was a Cruiser five-door auto with all the fruit – including the safety pack - and it proceeded with a smoothness and silence broken only by the frantic sounds of the engine under kickdown.

The 2.4-litre engine offers instant accelerator response and the four-speed auto will step down a couple of ratios with an almost frantic need to please.

For a little more driver control, a sequential shifter would be nice one day.

On the highway, 100km/h equates to roughly 2000rpm, which is a pretty relaxed pace for a smallish four-cylinder car, helping both fuel economy and passenger relaxation. Cruise control is now a standard feature on all models, as is manual air-conditioning.

The steering feels too light, in typical Japanese fashion, although most RAV buyers will probably appreciate it. The steering lock is not too bad (turning circle is a respectable 10.6 metres), making the car quite easy to manipulate in tight urban situations.

The RAV4 will even manage a little off-road work provided the driver recognises its limitations. There’s quite good ground clearance as well as a decent amount of wheel travel to keep contact with the earth - and now, a handy supply of torque that keeps it motivating on quite steep grades. But it will never tackle the really tough stuff and it is unlikely anyone will ask it to.

The full-time four-wheel drive system works to maximise traction and stability on the road, as well as provide extra grip off the beaten track. Unlike the Honda CR-V and Nissan X-Trail, it’s a "proper" four-wheel drive that works for you in all situations, rather than stepping in only when the occasion demands.

The only arguable advantage of the Nissan’s on-demand system is that it offers lock-in 4WD that can be selected to delve a little deeper into the unknown.

RAV4 ride quality errs on the firm side (a little more so than before?) but, as this tends to contribute towards sharper steering response and a nice, steady attitude through corners, that’s more a credit than a deficit.

More than anything else, the RAV4 is a vehicle that can be quickly acclimatised to. It does everything without fuss, is very easy to drive yet quite rewarding in the way it responds to both the accelerator and steering wheel.

It looks and feels slightly more car-like than, for example, an X-Trail. And it promises, in typical Toyota style, to be a faithful companion over the long haul.

In its latest guise it is faster responding, quieter on the road and slightly more sure-footed. Add these to the RAV4’s well-established values and it’s little wonder that even the excellent new Nissan X-Trail is not about to eclipse it.

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