It’s really hard to imagine an automotive world without compact SUVs, isn’t it? But pre-1994, that was exactly the situation. Families looking for a practical all-in-one vehicle either had to go the station wagon route, or opt for a sedan and, perhaps, a double-cab pick-up. Little did Toyota know then that its first-generation Toyota RAV4 would start a trend that now sees every major motoring manufacturer worth its salt offering a similar vehicle. The Toyota RAV4, then, was a breakthrough product not only for traditionally conservative Toyota, but also for the automotive industry as a whole. Now the question is whether the third-generation RAV4 can win back the crown that Toyota forged in the first place, but has since lost to the likes of Nissan and Honda.
Toyota RAV4 heading upmarketUnlike its comparatively youthful forerunners, the new Toyota RAV4 is a more mature product. There’s nothing quirky about it. This is not to say it is not attractive. Riding on 17-inch alloy wheels, featuring softly rounded contours and with that particularly attractive rear end with its tailgate-mounted spare wheel, the Toyota RAV4 looks like a product from a higher (read, more expensive) segment of the market.
If anything, that impression is further reinforced inside a cabin that must surely be class-leading. Toyota has clearly learnt many lessons through its Lexus products, because the RAV4 facia is constructed using fine materials and boasts excellent fit and finish. Even the instrumentation looks Lexus-like, boasting smart chronograph-like detailing and soft orange backlighting. There are numerous other clever and stylish details – a secondary lidded storage compartment is fitted above the traditional glove box, for example.
Thought has also clearly gone into the rear of the cabin. The rear seats can slide forwards or backwards, allowing occupants to tailor their legroom or to allow for more packing space in the boot. The seats also fold flat to allow for bigger objects to be accommodated. Space all-round is excellent, and seating comfort probably without equal in this segment.
Toyota is often criticised for being relatively “stingy” when it comes to standard equipment, but the Toyota RAV4 GX boasts all the must-haves, and a fair bit more. There are no fewer than seven airbags (including a knee airbag), rake and reach adjustable steering, electric windows and mirrors, an impressive radio/CD player, air-conditioning and fog-lamps all-round. A pity there are no remote audio controls, though, as the RAV4’s audio controls are a bit of a stretch. Of course, we’ve become spoilt in this regard.
Compared with many of its rivals, then, the sophistication of the RAV4’s interior will come as a big surprise.
Power and refinementThe good news continues under the bonnet. Powered by the same 2,2-litre turbodiesel that also does duty in the Avensis, the Toyota RAV4 GX has 100 kW of power and 310 Nm of torque at its disposal. Toyota claims a 0-100 km/h time of 10,5 seconds, which is impressive in this segment. On the road, the RAV4 feels every bit as lively as those figures suggest. The engine is mated with a six-speed manual transmission which seems to be ideally geared for quick progress in town, but also economical cruising. In fact, with a fuel consumption figure of 6,6 litres/100 km the Toyota RAV4 also rates as one of the most economical vehicles in its class. What all the figures don’t tell you, however, is that the most impressive aspect of this engine is neither its power, nor its economy, but its refinement. It revs freely and easily and while it emits some diesel clatter at low speed, at the national limit it is just about inaudible.
Alas, there is one major hiccup. The clutch action is abrupt, something which may lead to regular stalling. As is the case with many manual-transmission turbodiesels, smooth and dignified pull-aways take a while to perfect in the Toyota RAV4. An automatic would actually suit its refined character far better.
On-/off-road balanceAlthough the new Toyota RAV4 rides on big 17-inch wheels, the tyres boast substantial sidewalls, which is always a good sign and indicative of a manufacturer that has prioritised ride comfort. The Toyota RAV4 certainly delivers on that promise, as ride comfort is exemplary – its smoothness and composure can rival many a medium sedan, in fact. Further boosting comfort levels is the excellent NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) control.
Unlike some rivals, the new Toyota RAV4 retains promising off-road credentials. It features a so-called Active Drive system that automatically switches between front- and all-wheel drive as the prevailing driving situation demands. Should the driver wish to head onto more challenging terrain, he (or she) can lock the system into a 55/45 torque split by pressing a 4WD Lock button. Overall, the RAV4 remains one of the best of its kind if you want to get the tyres dirty, even though the relatively poor ground clearance of 180 mm seems to indicate otherwise. The approach/departure angles are actually very good.
Toyota RAV4 GX - VerdictThis is a product that is very hard to fault. Toyota has used its head start in this segment to good effect, and the third-generation model again nudges the bar a fair bit higher. There is currently no other compact SUV that so effortlessly combines the best attributes of a sedan and a proper SUV as the Toyota RAV4. It is well-priced, too, and comes with that Toyota reputation for reliability and a large servicing network. You can’t really go wrong here.
- Facia design
- Safety specification
- Good off-road
- Clutch/gearbox tricky to modulate
- No remote audio controls
Engine: 2,2-litre, four-cylinder, turbodiesel
Power: 100 kW @ 3 600 rpm
Torque: 310 Nm @ 2 000 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Wheels: 17-inch alloy
Top speed: 180 km/h
0-100 km/h: 10,5 seconds
Fuel economy: 6,6 litres/100 km
- Nissan X-Trail 2,2D SEL: Nissan’s ageing top seller is still a credible rival, but only just. Its 2,2-litre engine is refined, but lacks power and the cabin certainly can’t match the RAV4’s for sophistication and flexibility.
- Jeep Cherokee Sport CRD: Has lots of street cred, but Jeep’s Cherokee is now outdated. The engine is torquey, though, and there’s commendable off-road ability, but the Toyota is a superior product in almost every other way, but particularly when it comes to refinement and comfort.