Full disclosure – I have never liked crossovers. While a sport compact or a hot hatch is my idea of motoring perfection, I’d rather drive a wagon rather than an SUV or crossover, and it’s because of two things: The first being size; Second, historically inferior driving characteristics. There always seems to be some sacrifice when stepping up to a larger vehicle, and until very recently both of these aspects have been directly related – the larger the car, the worse it drives (it’s just physics, no surprise there). However, after climbing behind the wheel of a 2013 Toyota RAV4 XLE and putting some miles on it, I can safely say (with some reluctance) that not only is my foot wet, it doesn’t taste very good either. That’s because it’s been in my mouth since last week. I’m not sure what Toyota engineers have done to the RAV4 to make it so rewarding to drive, but it’s the most fun you can have in a crossover.
Powered by a 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine that produces a respectable 176 horsepower and 172 lb.-ft. of torque, the fourth-generation RAV4 is no slouch. While some of its competitors still offer an optional V6 or four-cylinder turbocharged engine, Toyota only offers the RAV4 with one engine option, in part because of the 80/20 sales mix of the outgoing model. Not only have consumers favored the four-banger, it’s a damn good engine that provides drivers with immediate response and ample power relative to the heft of the vehicle it’s assigned to propel. This year is also marks the first time that Toyota has offered RAV4 with a modern, six-speed automatic transmission (with manual mode), which not only boosts fuel economy – it allows the RAV4 to both accelerate more quickly and cruise very quietly – not to mention the gear selector looks like it was lifted straight out of that Lexus GS we drove not long ago.
As if its light and nimble handling right out of the box wasn’t enough, Toyota went and stuck a ‘Sport’ button in the RAV4. What does it do? Well, it supposedly sharpens steering and throttle response – While there seemed to be a slight increase in steering responsiveness, it could have been the Toyota propaganda machine manipulating me into thinking that the steering feel had indeed improved (read: drive it for yourself and verify that I’m not crazy). Undoubtedly, ‘Sport’ mode manipulates throttle and transmission behavior, as the throttle became twitchier and the tranny held gears much longer for more brisk acceleration.
Since we’re talking about a crossover, I might as well mention a little bit about what it’s like… as a crossover. Overall, I’d put the RAV4 right up there with class leaders like the Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5 (both of which I also recommend you cross-shop against the RAV4 and choose what’s best for you). Interior fit and finish is best-in-class, although if you’re looking for something a bit more upscale, you may want to consider the CX-5 or even the Ford Escape, although you may end up shelling out slightly more money on the Mazda, and thousands more on the Ford – while forfeiting the craftsmanship of the Toyota. The RAV4 very attractively packaged. It’s a great looking vehicle with some of the boldest lines on a Toyota/Scion product this side of an FR-S, and it’s a revolutionary design departure from the previous generation model. Up front, the large, single grille is gone and has been replaced with a more attractive split grill with a prominent badge in the middle, and the reflector headlights have been ditched in favor of more modern projector-style headlamps (no HIDs, sadly). The lower fascia features a trapezoidal design out of the lower molding, and the available fog lamps are large and smartly positioned at either bottom corner. The black plastic molding frames the bottom of the car, and it gives the RAV4 a rugged appearance while protecting high impact areas. Around back, Toyota has given the RAV4 a proper liftgate (versus the old one, which awkwardly swung out) and the spare tire has been relocated to inside the vehicle underneath the rear cargo area, just where you’d expect to find it.
I have two very small (and I really do mean small) gripes about the interior of the RAV4. Firstly, the top of the dash is fitted with hard plastic (same with the CR-V – both cars are on par here). While this is par for the course when it comes to plebian Japanese crossovers, it would be nice to have something with a little ‘give’ like you find in the CX-5 or even in the Ford Escape. Also, the faux carbon fiber-textured trim found on the doors isn’t for everyone, but it does hint at the sportiness of the RAV4, but it’s not so bad and I’m not faulting it (I actually think it looks really good on the car, and it’d be weird without it). The second gripe is that there are no quick release levers for the rear seats in the rear cargo area. It’s a small catastrophe, given that they’re present on other cars in the segment. Although the seats do fold with a 60/40 split, the quick release levers are a lifesaver when you are in a tight parking space and you’re trying to quickly load longer items into the vehicle directly from the rear.
Beyond that, the RAV4 provides copious amounts of passenger and cargo volume. All seats are very comfortable, and I was very impressed with the quality of the cloth in the XLE-trimmed vehicle I tested. The rear seat offers three seating positions – one I’d describe as ‘upright’, a more ‘normal’ seating position, and then a ‘relaxed’ (reclined) position that would allow rear passengers to rest on long trips.
If you’re into tech, the RAV4 is a good pick, largely in part because of the standard Display Audio System that features a generously-sized touchscreen. It also displays the image from the standard rear backup camera, which features guidance lines for easy placement of the vehicle. Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity, as well as Bluetooth audio, are standard in addition to an iPod/USB port and auxiliary jack, are all standard. The steering wheel controls are very well laid out, although the circular dial on the left that controls music playback might take some time to learn. Bluetooth hands-free phone controls are located on the right. XLE or Limited models equipped with navigation also feature a voice command toggle on the right as well. All other buttons are intelligently laid out. While LE models come standard with manual climate control knobs, XLE and Limited models feature dual-zone automatic climate control, as well as a power moonroof with one-touch open/close. Limited models add leather interior, rear cross traffic alert and blind spot warning systems, along with pushbutton start and a height-adjustable remote power liftgate.
With all the mixed reviews in the media about the RAV4, I was eager to drive one for myself so that I could form my own opinion on the car. Overall, I find it very comparable to a Honda CR-V, albeit a bit better once you look at craftsmanship and compare the numbers side-by-side. For many buyers who might cross-shop both crossovers (pun intended), the Toyota may squeak out ahead because of ToyotaCare – which covers owners’ routine maintenance for the first two years of ownership or 25,000 miles; whichever comes first. CR-V owners will have to pay for their service during that time, and it adds up. Overall, RAV4 is poised to help Toyota reclaim market share over the last several years to competitors by offering a top-quality product that comes nicely-equipped for a reasonable amount of money.