Toyota RAV4 Review

William C Montgomery
by William C Montgomery
We’re committed to finding, researching, and recommending the best products. We earn commissions from purchases you make using links in our articles. Learn more here
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.

William C Montgomery
William C Montgomery

More by William C Montgomery

Join the conversation
2 of 42 comments
  • 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.

  • Richard Chu Richard Chu on Oct 25, 2023

    I don't agree with William who mentioned about the cowling over the instrument binnacle being oddly shaped. I find the arch over arch design to be really cool. It makes it unique and different compared to the classic look. the classic arch design actually is kinda boring as they look the same on all models of cars. On the other hand I find the car to be really reliable. I have the 09 V6 model and it is just amazing. I have close to 400,000km and it's still running trouble free. other than general regular scheduled maintenance work no major service was needed. I expect the car to last a long time.

  • Ernesto Perez There's a line in the movie Armageddon where Bruce Willis says " is this the best idea NASA came up with?". Don't quote me. I'm asking is this the best idea NY came up with? What's next? Charging pedestrians to walk in certain parts of the city? Every year the price for everything gets more expensive and most of the services we pay for gets worse. Obviously more money is not the solution. What we need are better ideas, strategies and inventions. You want to charge drivers in the city - then put tolls on the free bridges like the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. There's always a better way or product. It's just the idiots on top think they know best.
  • Carsofchaos The bike lanes aren't even close to carrying "more than the car lanes replaced". You clearly don't drive in Midtown Manhattan on a daily like I do.
  • Carsofchaos The problem with congestion, dear friends, is not the cars per se. I drive into the city daily and the problem is this:Your average street in the area used to be 4 lanes. Now it is a bus lane, a bike lane (now you're down to two lanes), then you have delivery trucks double parking, along with the Uber and Lyft drivers also double parking. So your 4 lane avenue is now a 1.5 lane avenue. Do you now see the problem? Congestion pricing will fix none of these things....what it WILL do is fund persion plans.
  • FreedMike Many F150s I encounter are autonomously driven...and by that I mean they're driving themselves because the dips**ts at the wheel are paying attention to everything else but the road.
  • Tassos A "small car", TIM????????????This is the GLE. Have you even ever SEEN the huge thing at a dealer's??? NOT even the GLC,and Merc has TWO classes even SMALLER than the C (The A and the B, you guessed it? You must be a GENIUS!).THe E is a "MIDSIZED" crossover, NOT A SMALL ONE BY ANY STRETCH OF THE IMAGINATION, oh CLUELESS one.I AM SICK AND TIRED OF THE NONSENSE you post here every god damned day.And I BET you will never even CORRECT your NONSENSE, much less APOLOGIZE for your cluelessness and unprofessionalism.