Roaming in Toyota’s RAV4

By Casey Williams
Created: September 24, 2012 Last Updated: September 24, 2012
Related articles: Life » Autos
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Toyota RAV4. (Courtesy of

Toyota RAV4. (Courtesy of

With the RAV4, Toyota, along with Honda and its CR-V, virtually invented the “cute ute” segment.

Domestic automakers thought the little car-based crossovers (we didn’t even call them that then) were a joke against their brutish SUVs—that is until the little wagons began taking a bite out of their sales forecast with maneuverable size, spirited handling, and excellent fuel economy.

Several generations on, the RAV4 proves it still has what it takes to make competitors sweat.

There is no one thing that makes somebody want to hurry down to their local Toyota dealer and drive a RAV4 home. It is not the fastest or most powerful crossover available. It isn’t even the most fuel efficient. On paper, it is just another crossover. But, the vehicle’s overall competence wins friends.

A co-worker and I spent some very long RAV4 miles while driving through Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine recently. We could have taken a mid-size sedan, but opted for the Toyota. It was a fine choice.

Refined But Rugged

Walking up to the vehicle, it looks like a miniature version of the legendary Toyota Land Cruiser. The design attaches itself to Toyota’s off-road heritage while disguising the fact that the RAV4 will spend almost all of its time on-road.

Snow and gravel paths are the worst it is likely to see, but slab sides and a tall greenhouse give the impression the driver owns a country estate. LED tail lamps, 18” wheels, roof rails, and big grille give the vehicle a refined but rugged look.

The interior is exactly what I like: simple, roomy, and stylish. Cloth seats are comfortable and presumably child-resistant, although we only spilled a little soda and didn’t submit them to the all-out-tantrum-flying-milk test. Rear seat passengers have space to stretch long legs.

A clever two-level dash design packs climate controls and two glove boxes below with audio placed high in the middle. Sporty analog gauges and a three-spoke steering wheel give the impression of being fun to drive—although a tall crossover is only so much fun to drive.

Adding contemporary technology, engineers worked in Toyota’s Entune infotainment system. Included with three years of complimentary service, Entune uses the owner’s USB-connected smartphone to pipe in internet radio like Pandora and to make calls through Bluetooth and the vehicle’s controls.

There will also be mobile apps for Bing, iHeartRadio,, OpenTable, stock reports, sports scores, fuel guide, traffic, and weather. Many functions are voice-activated.

Our test vehicle was fairly basic, but Limited Grade adds a wave of luxury. Dual-zone automatic climate control, Smart Key with push-button starting, nicer seat material, leather-wrapped steering wheel, footwell lighting, and leather-trimmed gear selector are all included.

The available Appearance Package adds chrome door handles, parking brake tip, shift lever, and vent trim. I’m sure it would all be very classy, except our rental-grade RAV made do with a rubber steering wheel, gear selector, and three big knobs to adjust the climate control from here to Hades (at which point the freezing cold air conditioning would come in handy).

Fuel Economy Could Be Better

Putting the little Toyota to highway reveals its inner-workings. Our ride had the standard 179 hp 2.5-L 4-cylinder engine attached to a 4-speed automatic transmission. That was plenty to keep pace through hills and byways.

Surprisingly, the front-drive model only achieved 22/28-MPG city/hwy. Adding all-wheel-drive nicks a point off each for 21/27-MPG. Competitors, many larger, do significantly better. Going whole-hog and choosing the 3.5-L V6 enlivens the chassis with 269 hp and barely affects fuel economy. The bigger engine also lets you pull up to 3,500 lbs. I think I’d go with the V6.

Power is only part of the RAV4’s performance equation. Electric power steering eliminates the hydraulic pump for more precise control and fuel savings. Whether on rough or smooth roads, the 4-wheel independent suspension system balanced comfort and handling. OK, so nobody is going to confuse handling with that of a Corvette, but families should ride nicely.

Although there is no reason to think anything of the recent “unintended acceleration” claims, Toyota went overboard to quiet nerves. Like all Toyotas, the RAV4 comes standard with the STAR Safety System that includes Vehicle Stability Control, Traction Control, Anti-lock Brakes, and Electronic Brake-force Distribution (balances braking forces to all four wheels). Dual front, front side, and side curtain airbags are also standard.

Toyota has an all-new RAV4 in the works, but there’s nothing wrong with the current model that a bump in fuel economy wouldn’t fix. It’s roomy, well-built, quick, and safe. Given a base price of $22,650, competitors include the Honda CR-V, Chevy Equinox, Kia Sportage, Ford Escape, and Jeep Compass.

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