Toyota RAV4 Review

toyota rav4 review

Toyota’s RAV4 is often called a “cute ute.” For die-hard SUV drivers, the label is sacrilege, implying that the small four-by-four is a downsized, de-butched truck. To paraphrase the B52’s, WELL IT ISN’T! Like many so-called crossovers, Toyota “Recreational Active Vehicle with 4WD” is a hatchback on stilts that looks something like truck and drives something like a top-heavy station wagon. Despite these drawbacks, the RAV4’s runaway success has green-lighted the entire crossover genre. The latest version tells us all we need to know about the niche’s immediate future.

The first RAV4 looked like a small Toyota 4Runner. Generation two traded an off-roader’s stance for a distinctly lower and broader posture, belying a solid commitment to paved roads. V3 completes the transformation from macho lite to suburban grocery-getter. The new RAV4 is noticeably larger than its predecessors in every dimension. By stretching its clean lines, the RAV loses its dainty demeanor and gains… nothing much. The wrap-around taillights and blacked out B-pillars tells the tale, reflecting a conscious decision to sacrifice adorability on the altar of clean, sleek, inoffensive and, ultimately, boring design.

Other than our tester’s metrosexual color designation (White/Bisque/Taupe instead of Bleached Bone/Desert Sand/Savannah Clay), the RAV4’s only exterior faux pas is ergonomic. The tailgate hinges are on the right of the back; the door swings open to the left. It’s obviously a carry-over from the Land of the Rising Sun, where people drive (and park) on the left hand side of the road. The layout forces American soccer moms to the street side of the vehicle to access their shopping bags, rather than accessing them from the safety of the curb.

The RAV4’s interior runs from the sublime to the ridiculous. The major controls are as ergonomic as a fine writing instrument. The second row seats are equally well designed; they adjust forwards and backwards to steal or bestow legroom, and recline. The rearmost space rocks. Optional third row seats, fit for two children, fold flat into the floor. Two convenient floor panel compartments lie just fore and aft of the third row seat. An easily adjustable system of hooks, rails, and netting serve as useful rigging for any cargo configuration.

On the other hand, the driver’s seat does not scoot back far enough for my 32” inseams. Two of the ten cup holders are inaccessibly positioned in the rear doors. The cowling over the instrument binnacle is oddly shaped. Rather than a classic arch, Toyota’s designers created an unnatural arch-on-arch – sort of like an extraneous pimple growing on top of a boil. It looks okay from the driver’s perspective. From any other angle, it’s just about as ugly as it sounds.

The RAV4’s optional 3.5L V6 engine is the vehicle’s must-have feature. With variable valve timing, the rev-happy little monster produces 269hp. The sprint from rest to sixty takes a fraction over six– yes six– seconds. You’d be hard pressed to find a family hauler of any description in the RAV4’s price range ($25,168 as tested) so willing to flare its wheel arches and just go. Even more surreal, a RAV4 so-equipped still manages to deliver real world mileage in the high twenties.

Once you’ve achieved significant velocity, the RAV4’s front strut / rear double wishbone suspension keeps the ride Camry smooth while suppressing lean and pitch. When pushed hard through the twisties, the [optional] Yokohama 225/65 R17 Geolandar rubbers howl like Little Richard on Viagra. The helm also evokes a quick “Good Golly Miss Molly;” give it some and the electrically-powered steering system immediately intervenes to counteract torque steer. Road feel disappears.

Toyota maintains the RAV4’s SUV facade by offering optional Electronic On-Demand Four Wheel-Drive (all wheel drive or AWD to the rest of the world), with Hill Start Assist Control and Downhill Assist Control modes. The literature claims the RAV4 is “designed to meet most off-road driving requirements.” But not all. While a skid plate under the engine bay protects the vital bits from gnashing rocks, other not-so-vital but important, low-hanging components (e.g. the exhaust system) remain vulnerable. And despite the RAV4’s impressive off-road armory, 7.5” of ground clearance give it roughly the same terrain-crossing abilities as your average car.

For what it is, for what it’s generally expected to do, the RAV4 is an excellent machine. It sets new benchmarks in nearly every area for this classless class of vehicle, including design, comfort, power, ride, safety and economy. But the RAV4 is too civilized to rough it and too tall and heavy to waft it. Perhaps crossovers like the RAV4 are vehicular deprogramming for SUV owners who never should’ve bought a truck. Either that or a very agreeable sort of rehab for drivers on their way back to cars.

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  • Flyerbry Flyerbry on Mar 18, 2007

    The thing I don't get is why all you folks who hate SUVs so much are even reading this or any of the other SUV reviews on this site. I hate the way minivans drive but I don't go off ranting in all the minivan reviews. From reading some of your comments it sounds like some of you also can't handle a little change in your life. Think about it for a second. The new Rav now gets even better gas mileage while providing more space while remaining true to it's original design yet you still prefer the old model that you are used to. The Rav has always taken the realistic approach that most folks don't drive their SUV off road. This was true of the first and second generations and now has carried on to the third. As far as looks well, you know the old saying, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Even with that said, I totally disagree with the individual that said the first generation looks better. I'm sorry, that was one of the butt-ugliest vehicles to hit the road in a long time. It is only my opinion but it is a strong one. The second generation was a big improvement. Personally, I like the third even better but I can see where some may like the second generation more. My dad has a second generation Rav and I have always tried to like it for what it is. However, it does have some "quirks" that keep me from taking it seriously. The steering wheel is so tiny it looks like it came off one of my kids Power Wheels. The seats are made of some kind of stiff molded foam that feels like it should be padding a new computer in a cardboard box. Worst of all, the second generation has possibly the worst ride of any production vehicle I have ever driven. And that's saying a lot - my daily driver is a lifted Jeep Wrangler with a stiff off-road suspension! I have looked at the new Rav at a couple auto shows and the increased size is finally making it worth my consideration. All the talk of old cars was entertaining but how many of us grew up riding in a child safety seat? I know I didn't. For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of dealing with these contraptions they eat up more interior space than an average size adult. Therefore, a back seat that will seat three adults in a pinch now isn't big enough if you have more than two kids. Even if the third kid is big enough not to require a safety seat, they are left with little usable space and hard plastic safety seats to sit between. Minivans fare no better in this respect. And everyone wonders why full-size SUVs and third-row seats have become so popular! The thing to remember is the car designers are trying to also meet the needs of someone other than you. A larger vehicle will look attractive to more potential customers than one that is so tiny it only fits the needs of a select few. When I finally test drive one of these new Ravs one of the things I will be looking for is how solid the vehicle feels. The second generation has the feeling of a tin box which isn't helped by the poor suspension. Fix the ride quality and that feeling will probably be fixed as well. The V6 is one of the items that makes me want to like the new Rav. I have driven it in the Camry and it sounds like a winner in the new Rav as well. The deciding factor will be what else is out there that meets my needs.

  • Kenlight1 Kenlight1 on Feb 16, 2008

    My girlfriend bought a RAV4 and it seems very nice. My main complaint would be that being 6'3" my knees are blocked in the front passanger seat by the extended glovebox. If I could only remove that bottom piece of the glovebox as it is anoying on long trips. I have more knee room in my little Grand Am. Also I agree with the reviewer that it would have been nice if the front seats could go back a little more.

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