No longer, in either regard. With the 2006 RAV4, Toyota has caught up. There's a new, 269-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine coupled to a new, five-speed automatic. And there's an optional third row of seats that, by the way, folds into the floor, leaving a flat cargo space that holds almost five more cubic feet of stuff than the '05 model. The RAV4 is also available with the tried and true four cylinder that powered the '05, but with an added five horses under the hood. Buyers also have the choice of front-wheel drive and four-wheel drive, just as before.
The RAV has been completely restyled for 2006, inside and out, although functionality has been maintained. The RAV4 has been a standard-setter virtually from its inception. And the exterior is fresh, less flashy, with fewer styling gimmicks. But the same can't be said for the interior, where some of the updating appears not to have been so much an improvement as a change to something different, while still just as good as before.
The 2006 RAV4 is a mix, then, of best, better and good, but with one reservation: the V6 seems almost too much for the package, as if in catching up, Toyota leapt too far ahead. It's a good, solid engine, and it adds substantially to the RAV4's capabilities. It has to haul as many as seven people, for instance, and it raises the tow rating to as high as 3500 pounds. But as it's engineered for the 2006 RAV4, it just might be more than was needed. In other words, the new RAV4 really scoots with the V6.
2006 Toyota RAV4 ($20,200); RAV4 Sport ($21,775); RAV4 Limited ($22,455)
The all-new 2006 RAV4's front end contains all the same elements as the '05, but more tautly composed. The rectangular grille is rounder, the slits below more symmetrical. Headlights are more compact, fog lamps smaller and more focused. The wider track (the distance between the tires side to side), by more than two inches front and rear, gives the '06 RAV4 a more solid stance, which is good news for resisting rollover in emergency maneuvers.
A boxier shape defines the side view, the better to accommodate that third-row seat; from the front quarter oblique, the fatter, more upright C-pillar and taillight housing remind us of the Subaru Tribeca, a larger seven-passenger, Japanese-brand import, priced a notch or two above the RAV4. The seven additional inches of wheelbase (measured between the front and rear wheels) and almost 14 inches of added overall length stretch the cabin and give the windshield a sleeker rake. An understated indent runs along the bottom of the doors, softening the visual impression of bulk. Wheel well arches blend smoothly into the fenders.
The back end shows more revision than either the side or front of the '06 RAV4. A single-piece rear bumper cradles the swing-gate, which, sadly, still opens from the left side, so you have to walk around it when unloading curbside here in America. Taillights are slightly smaller and positioned higher on the rear fenders. The spare tire bolts into a recess offset to the right in the swing-gate, but it's a less-aggressive recess and contained fully in the swing-gate. Thus, no longer does the bumper house the bottom third of the tire. The rear license plate preserves the asymmetrical look by bolting into the lower left of the swing-gate, beneath a Toyota logo and RAV4 badge.
The front seats are supportive but not overly firm, with modest bolsters and decent thigh support. The tilt-and-telescope steering wheel combined with the multi-plane adjustable driver's seat enables almost any percentile driver to find a comfortable fit, and without the added complexity (and cost) of adjustable pedals. The relatively high seating position, low cowl and sloping hood make for good visibility to the front. The lengthy side windows ease lane checking. Fully retracting head restraints in the second row and optional third row of seats deliver the full backlight to the inside rearview mirror.
The second-row seats are less padded than the front seats, sans bolsters, but no surprise, really, seeing as how the seat has to fit three people in a pinch.
The optional third row seats barely qualify as such, with flat bottoms and equally featureless backs and head restraints that do, however, and to their credit, compel proper height adjustments to spare occupants' upper backs. Access to that back row, by folding and tilting forward the outboard second row units, while not especially easy, isn't as much a strain or as awkward as in some larger, full-bodied sport utilities.
The new RAV4's longer wheelbase delivered more than space for a third row of seats. It also allowed almost six inches to be added to second-row legroom over the '05. Headroom in the second row also grew by more than an inch, although front-row occupants lost half an inch. Its major competitor, the 2006 Honda CR-V, betters the RAV4 in second-row headroom and hiproom, by about a half-inch and an inch, respectively, and in front row hiproom by a pinch more than one inch; elsewhere, differences are less than a half-inch. The 2006 Suzuki XL-7 provides the sole seven-passenger competitor in the class and betters the RAV4 in third-row headroom and legroom by about an inch and a half; it trails in every other measure by an inch or two. Same for cargo space, where the Toyota beats the Honda by a cubic foot but comes in almost two cubic feet behind the Suzuki.
Most everything in the instrument cluster and on the dash of the new RAV4 is where it was in the 2005 models. The speedometer is now centered in the cluster, swapping places with the tachometer, which is now off to the left, and the fuel and coolant gauges are conjoined on the right, instead of splitting their own circle. But the placement, and most important, the usability of the controls populating the center stack is virtually the same as the '05, which means very good, and the arrangement of the hand brake and the shift lever is unaltered. It's all styled differently, however. The dash is sharply split by a horizontal gash running the width of the car. About the only plus we divined in this garish feature is a bi-level glove box, with an upper bin covered by a retracting lid and a lower bin fitted with a traditional, bottom-hinged cover.
Materials are quality, if not Lexus level. Fit and finish is Toyota grade, which means excellent. All three models share motif, with contrasting, but complementary colors and brushed metallic trim elements along each side of the stereo and climate control panels and the shift gate and swooping around the door handles. A passenger assist grip folds down from the headliner over each door, even when the side-curtain airbags are ordered.
Storage areas are plentiful. Beyond the glove box, doors have fixed plastic map pockets, the backs of the front seatbacks wear net pouches, a total of 10 cup/bottle holders are situated about the cabin and when the third-row seats aren't ordered, a deep cargo area awaits beneath a water-repellant, foldable deck board.
Brake pedal feel is firm, and depending on the engine, response to the gas pedal is prompt or borderline overwhelming, especially in light of the fact that the 2006 RAV4 weighs 500 pounds more than the '05. Prompt response comes from the four cylinder, up five horsepower over the '05 and unchanged in torque. In both front-wheel drive and four-wheel drive, this engine delivers solid, linear acceleration. Torque steer, that front-wheel-drive syndrome that tugs on the steering wheel, is minimal. The accompanying mechanical and exhaust sounds, although not intrusive, clearly identify the engine as a Toyota four cylinder.
Not so with the V6, with its head-of-the-class 269 horsepower and 246 pound-feet of torque. This engine readily challenges for command of the steering wheel, rather stoutly with front-wheel drive, somewhat less so but even with four-wheel drive. There's effective masking of mechanicals, and the exhaust note is more soothingly tuned than in the four. Some wind whistle crept into the cabin around the side door windows, but we were driving an early production version.
The 2006 Toyota RAV4 is all new, with more power, more room, and more seats. The presentation is seamless, the driving pleasurable and the packaging delivered with the usual Toyota aplomb. The RAV4 and the Honda CR-V essentially created this class. With the availability of a V6 engine, three rows of seating, and the virtues mentioned above, Toyota has now climbed back into the lead with the new RAV4.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Irving, Texas.