Pros: V6 and third-row available; roomy; fun to drive with the V6
Cons: Thoroughly typical of the class in four-cylinder, five-passenger form
In the past, Toyota has made product decisions that almost make it seem like it doesn't want to do too well. The first Sienna minivan was a half-size smaller than the leaders. The styling of the Highlander and Camry could not be more boring. The Tundra and RAV4 are both the smallest in their respective classes. The full-size trucks have the smallest engines in their respective classes. And so on.
Well, for whatever reason that Toyota is gone. Going forward, you can expect each new Toyota to be at least as large, stylish, and powerful as the leaders in its segment. The fully redesigned 2006 RAV4 is a case in point.
The original RAV4 was tiny and underpowered, not far removed from a toy as SUVs go. Unlike other SUVs at the time, it was innovatively based on a car chassis. Toyota didn't even originally plan to sell the thing here--it was designed primarily for Japan, with Europe a secondary market. But American dealers begged for this tiny SUV, and got what they wanted in 1996. The dealers were right: like the similar (but larger) Honda CR-V, the trucklet did pretty well.
Most of Toyota's products are on a five-year cycle. So the RAV4 was redesigned for 2001. The 146-inch long three-door went away, and the five door gained three inches of length, to 165 inches. Weight remained comfortably under 3,000 pounds, so the 2.0-liter four-cylinder, boosted from 120 to 148 horsepower, didn't have to work too hard to move it. (A larger 2.4-liter four came a few years later.)
More important than the modest size increase, the second-generation RAV4 was considerably more solid, sophisticated, and even luxurious. It was one of Toyota's more interesting designs at the time. Not strong praise, but praise nonetheless.
Throughout this period Honda's CR-V was clearly more in line with American tastes. About a foot longer than the RAV4, it had a much roomier rear seat and was simply less toy-like. Why didn't Toyota produce a similarly-sized RAV4 in 2001? Beats me--see the introduction.
Another five years have now passed and the third-gen RAV4 has arrived. This time not only is the RAV4 about as long as the CR-V, but it offers, as options, a 269-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 and a third-row seat. Neither is entirely unprecedented in the compact SUV class--Saturn offers an almost equally powerful V6 (ironically supplied by Honda) and Suzuki offers a third row--but they are firsts among the major players and a substantial jump from the previous RAV4.
With three kids and a neighborhood that doesn't get plowed promptly I could use three rows of seats and all-wheel-drive. But I also like my vehicles compact and agile. So the new RAV4 seemed a definite possibility. When the weather warmed a bit I dropped by a Toyota dealer to check one out.
Sadly, neither the V6 nor the third row was initially available. Why delay the two most unique features? Why advertise them anyway? It seems Toyota still maintains some quirks in its product strategy. At least these are just temporary.
Less temporary is the unavailability of a manual transmission (I know, very limited market) and of the third row with the Sport trim (not so limited a market). To see how much "sport" one would have to give up to get the third row, I drove both a Sport and a Limited with the 166-horse 2.4-liter four.
Update: I later returned to the dealer to drive the V6. As of May, the third row is still not available in my area.
The previous RAV4 was pleasantly styled, if a bit fancy for manlier buyers. The new one looks awkward in the usual Toyota manner in photographs, but comes across better in the metal. If the ungainly Toyota Highlander and avant-garde Nissan Murano got together and produced offspring, it would look about like this. The sides are nicely sculpted and the Murano-like upswept D-pillar lends some rakishness.
The SUV looks best in Sport trim, as it includes 18-inch alloys (the Limited has 17s) and modest fender flares. The latter lend some needed visual weight to the wheel arches. Without them the other trims have a bit of the pinched appearance that afflicts the departing first-generation Hyundai Santa Fe.
Inside the RAV4 looks much like other recent Toyota SUVs. Meaning that the dash and door panels possess organic shapes that are visually interesting yet seem somehow alien. Maybe if I dressed like Buck Rogers I'd feel more at home. Materials are a bit lower than the Toyota average, which is to be expected given this is Toyota's least expensive SUV. They look and feel solid, but are generally hard to the touch.
The only significant difference with the Sport interior is that the cloth is black. Which I like, but a little more differentiation wouldn't have hurt. Sport trims often include a leather-wrapped wheel, but if you want one of those you'll have to opt for the Limited.
When I drove the V6 I heard a number of small creaks in the instrument panel. The new RAV4 could be prone to minor creaks and rattles.
The driving position is thoroughly typical of a compact SUV. Though the D-pillars are a bit thick, visibility is good. Unlike in the Murano, the instrument panel isn't overly deep, so you don't feel as if you're in a minivan. I drove the V6 immediately after driving the FJ Cruiser. Compared to the FJ, the RAV4's driving position is dramatically car-like, with a low, unobtrusive instrument panel. I felt like I was driving a compact hatch.
The front seats are a bit oddly shaped, at least for my back. Lumbar support is only adjustable in the Limited (which has a standard 10-way power driver seat), but with or without this feature the lumbar bulge is overly prominent. If I adjusted the seat's angle of recline to fit my lower back, the upper seatback ended up far from my shoulders. This might be something I'd get used to once I found the best position. Or it might not. Typical of a compact SUV, lateral support is minimal. True sport buckets might not be a bad addition to the Sport.
Even though the compact SUV segment has now been with us for some time, many people even today do not realize how roomy the back seats in these vehicles generally are. Midsize conventional SUVs should have backseats as good. With the new, larger body the RAV4 gains a half-foot of rear legroom. So it can now compete with the CR-V, Tucson, and Equinox in this area (thought the Honda and Chevy continue to offer a bit more). Somehow even the slightly larger Highlander has less legroom. Headroom is also plentiful.
Seat comfort is another matter. The second row manually reclines and slides fore-aft, like the CR-V and Equinox, but this does not change the fact that its cushion is flat and overly firm. It's still reasonably comfortable, but there are slightly better ones out there.
The Highlander, though little if any roomier, maintains an edge is seat comfort. No doubt the next Highlander, less than two years off, will be considerably larger than the current one to restore the gap between the two and better compete with the Honda Pilot.
Neither RAV4 had a third row to evaluate. Maybe there will be one to sit in at the Detroit auto show next week. I wouldn't count on much, as the area behind the second row remains fairly compact. The RAV4 ranks with the Mazda5 as the shortest three-row vehicle available in the U.S.--and the RAV4's length includes a few inches of rear-mounted spare tire.
There might be no fold-flat passenger seat, but Toyota did match the Saturn in offering a flat screen entertainment system.
As on the Honda, the rear-mounted spare doesn't have to be separately swung away to open the side-opening tailgate. It simply remains attached to the tailgate and swings easily with it. The major negative of this approach: back into a post and you'll easily push in the tailgate. Rear bumper tests aren't going to be kind to the RAV4.
The cargo volume itself is now class competitive. So there's a useful amount of room back there, at least as long as the third row isn't up. On RAV4's without the third row a set of usefully large storage compartments reside beneath the load floor. Folding the second row is facilitated by levers in the cargo area. When this row is folded it sticks up just a bit higher than the floor.
One odd omission: many SUVs and even cars these days have a fold-flat front passenger seat. I use this feature all the time in my wife's PT Cruiser. This feature is absent in the new RAV4, a remaining trace of Toyota's traditionally spotty product strategy.
A second omission: the second row seats have no latches for carseats on their backs. My son was with me for the test drive, and I used a ring attached to the cargo floor, but do not know if said ring was intended for this use. And if the third row is present, even this ring might not be accessible. So people with young children might have to upgrade to Isofix seats.
Another reviewer, tjb63, noted a third omission: there is no lamp in the cargo area, which can make loading and unloading at night a bit too much of a challenge.
On the Road
Even though the RAV4 has gained about a couple hundred pounds the standard four moves it adequately, if not sportily. About average in refinement for a four, it sounds like what it is. Nothing to get the pulse racing--unless a semi is closing fast on your rear bumper. My suggestion: don't offer the four in the Sport, but do offer a third row. Why Toyota would think Sport buyers would want the four but not the third row...yeah, another puzzle.
The four produces most of its power at higher RPM. The four-speed automatic downshifts to facilitate this. As is often the case when ratios are limited, you often must choose between too little thrust and more engine noise than you bargained for. I felt the need to apologize to the salesmen when a moderate stab at the throttle affected a downshift and the cacophony of the engine surging towards the redline.
The V6 gets a five-speed automatic. With roughly one hundred extra horsepower, it is much quicker than the four. Very smooth, too. This is definitely the engine I'd get. With AWD at least torque steer is very minimal.
Steering and handling, while sprightlier than in the slightly larger Highlander, are at best average for the class. I enjoyed driving the sharper-handling Escape quite a bit more, and the Tucson a bit more. Even the Honda, with an obviously aging chassis, feels more agile. The fairly quick electrically-assisted steering isn't as numb as some such designs, but is hardly talkative, either. The Limited feels somewhat looser and less precise than the Sport, and leans a bit more in hard turns, but the difference is not huge and even the Sport does not feel sporty. Just transportation, I'm afraid.
With the V6, handling feels sportier. It seems that the chassis needs the six's extra oomph to get it dancing. Driving the V6 right after driving the very trucky FJ also might have affected my perceptions. But even taking this into account, the V6 RAV4 is at least as fun to drive as any other compact SUV I've sampled.
Like an increasing number of SUVs, including the Honda and the Koreans, the RAV4 comes standard with stability control. Unlike others in the class, it also includes descent control that maintains a steady speed down steep hills with the V6 or the third row. Apparently it doesn't make sense to offer a third row in the Sport, but it does make sense to include this off-roading feature with the third row. (Logic? Who needs it.)
Despite the fairly soft suspension ride quality is a bit below average. Even small road imperfections knock the RAV4 about a bit. It's not a harsh ride, but it can be a busy one. The Limited feels a bit more cushy, but if anything it rocks about more. A Ford Escape, though more firmly suspended, feels more tied down, and the Equinox and Korean SUVs ride more smoothly.
Toyota RAV4 Price Comparisons and Pricing
Similarly equip a CR-V and RAV4 and the former comes out $1,000 to $1,600 less expensive. However, the Toyota has more features. Adjust for these and the two are nearly dead even. Unless you compare invoice prices. Toyota dealers have unusually fat margins, so on this basis the RAV4 comes out significantly less expensive.
Suzuki is introducing a new XL7 that should compete much more directly with the RAV4. The prices of the two are within a couple hundred dollars.
Prices change frequently, and differences will vary based on feature level. To quickly generate these and other comparisons with the specific features you want, visit my Web site, www.truedelta.com. (It's the only site that provides true "apples-to-apples" price comparisons.)
TrueDelta's page for the RAV4:
I went to the Toyota dealer hoping to drive a V6, three-row RAV4. But neither feature will be available until the summer. So I drove a two-row four. In this form we've got nothing particularly special. It's nice enough in the usual Toyota ways, pleasant with solid materials, but it isn't especially comfortable or enjoyable. Many competitors have more character; it seems the blandness that Toyota is often accused of remains. Finally, some important features are either missing or not available together.
So I'm not wanting one of these. The Sport would have to get truly sporty, and offer a third row and perhaps a manual transmission as well, for that to happen. But people in the market for a compact SUV should give it a look, and in most cases likely will.
I originally gave the RAV4 three stars. Add the V6 and I give it a fourth, almost a fifth.
A Note on Toyota RAV4 Reliability
I cannot practically cover reliability within the context of this review. However, many people are interested in such information, so I've started collecting my own data. Results, once they are available, will be posted to my site, www.truedelta.com, with updates every three months.
Unlike other sources, TrueDelta will clearly identify what difference it will make if you buy a RAV4 rather than another vehicle by providing "times in the shop" and "days in the shop" stats (among others). You will be able to specify the number of years, annual miles, and types of repairs to include in Toyota RAV4 reliability comparisons.
Before I can report results, I need data on all cars--not just the RAV4--from people like you. To encourage participation, those who help provide the data will receive free access to the site's reliability information. For non-participants, this access will cost $24.95.
For the details, and to sign up, visit www.truedelta.com.
A link to this website and alphabetized links to my other vehicle reviews can be found on my profile page.
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Some of my reviews of related vehicles:
Chevrolet Equinox review
Ford Escape review
Honda CR-V review
Hyundai Tucson review
Kia Sportage review
Saturn VUE review
Subaru Forester review
Suzuki Grand Vitara review