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Car reviews - Toyota - RAV4 - range

Our Opinion

We like
Sweet steering, sprightly six-speed manual, improved all-round vision, linear handling, surprising (light-to-medium) off-road capability, diesel option, smart styling
Room for improvement
Firm ride, non-removable rear seats

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Toyota logo19 Feb 2013

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

ARGUABLY the most original Toyota in history, the RAV4 has been a reflection of the company’s mindset.

The 1994 original came at a time of exploration and daring, with models such as the futuristic Tarago/Previa, mid-engined MR2, and Celica GT-4 proving innovative and appealing.

Until then, 4WDs were basically crude trucks – Suzuki’s groundbreaking Vitara notwithstanding – but the first RAV4’s combination of Camry and Celica running gear in a versatile and funky wagon captured the world’s imagination and sparked a revolution.

Meanwhile, its mid 2000 replacement brought even better design, improved driveability and greater refinement, virtues also reflected in the lauded Echo/Yaris 1 and final Celica.

But progress stalled by 2006’s third-gen RAV4, as Toyota focussed on global domination with increasingly timid mediocrity. Even CEO Akio Toyoda later lamented his vehicles had lost something special.

Within this context, how do we see the redesigned fourth-gen RAV4?

Contentious points like the antiquated gearboxes, no diesel option, anachronistic side-hinged tailgate with spare wheel and lacklustre interior, have been addressed. This is the RAV4 its pedestrian predecessor ought to have been.

Dig deeper, though, and you’ll find that the new 40 Series a merely a clever reworking of the old model’s basic structure, meaning that while everything you see and touch feels fresh, the sense is overwhelmingly familiarity anyway.

Styling is subjective, of course, but the pointy nose, lift-up tailgate, contemporary stylistic flourishes and lower ride height all hide exactly the same body proportions.

You’re definitely looking at a RAV4.

Inside, the latest Yaris and Corolla’s edgy asymmetry has junked the boring old dash, and it is certainly distinctive and well put together, but there is a cold, downmarket look compared with what Volkswagen is offering.

Clear instruments, Toyota’s cookie-cutter switch placements/operation and an excellent driving position ought to scare off nobody, but it is a surprise to find a few out-of-driver’s reach/sight minor controls (such as the 12V outlet).

We’re more impressed by the seating (comfier up front, better out back, and with a reclining mechanism that’s very easy to use for all four outboard occupants), while that now-normalised tailgate opening is motorised on the top-line Cruiser, and features a variable height limit to avoid damage.

Note, though, that a full-sized spare wheel ($300 option) eats into the now-lower load sill height.

Unfortunately, Toyota’s clockwork launch regime only allowed for limited driving impressions, and we missed out on assessing the 2.0-litre FWD and new Diesel all together.

That will have to wait.

What we can tell you is that the volume-selling 2.5-litre AWD version feels like two different cars, according to which transmission you choose.

The slick-shifting six-speed manual turns what is a sufficiently powerful and smooth but not very exciting engine when saddled with the six-speed auto, into an eager and revvy unit, with responsive low-down get-up and go, as well as an appealing amount of overtaking punch when needed.

The manual also takes advantage of the unexpectedly linear steering and balanced chassis tune, with this RAV4 feeling both alert and planted through tight corners.

Over gravel, traction controls allow for smooth slides before gently pulling it all in line (another surprise given the size and weight of the SUV), while the dynamic torque control system seemed to keep everything flowing beautifully through faster corners in the dry.

Can you believe we actually had a whole heap of fun punting a RAV4 AWD around beautiful rural roads?

Plus, a brief stint off-road, over a course you would think twice about taking a crossover or most compact SUVs, was plain sailing for the RAV4 2.5 AWD auto we sampled.

The RAV4 chief engineer, Makoto Arimoto, previously managed the development of the current Prado, so demanded more than just rudimentary gravel road capability, adding that the 40 Series was developed to his satisfaction for people who need occasional good 4x4 capability.

The only driveability question that’s yet to be answered is the firmness of the suspension – it might translate to a busy urban ride. We eagerly await a longer test session with the RAV4.

So there you have it – the latest RAV4 looks edgier, drives better (in 2.5-litre AWD guise at least), can go further off-road than we expected and offers marginally more interior comfort and space inside.

We wonder, though, whether the Toyota hasn’t gone further than just play catch-up, in a class that is at last showing some real progress after years of mediocrity.

Does it possess the wow factor of Mazda’s attractive CX-5? Is Honda’s longer CR-V a more practical family car? Will the upcoming Ford Kuga be a better drive? We reckon the latest RAV4 won’t have it as easy as the earlier models had it up to about 10 years ago.

Toyota is clearly trying harder than it has been, so if you like what you see, then by all means test drive one.

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