After a complete redesign for 2006, the 2007 RAV4 gets significant safety improvements. Driver and front-passenger seat-mounted, side-impact airbags are now standard equipment, as are roll-sensing side-curtain airbags for first and second-row seats. Both systems were extra-cost options last year. Electronic entertainment options have also been updated.
The recent redesign addressed the buying public's demand for power and space among compact SUVs. The RAV4's length increased by 14 inches, creating more headroom and legroom for second-row passengers, and increased shoulder room all around. Cargo capacity grew by five cubic feet. The base RAV4 still seats five and offers a more frugal four-cylinder power, but a third-row seat (that folds flat into the cargo floor) and a powerful V6 are available.
With these additions, the RAV4 has caught up with its competition. Its 3.5-liter V6 generates 269 horsepower, almost too much for the package, although it adds substantially to the RAV4's capabilities. A V6 RAV4 can haul as many as seven people and tow up to 3500 pounds, and it really scoots. Even the four-banger is more powerful than ever, and buyers still have the choice of front-wheel drive or four-wheel drive.
On the outside, this latest RAV4 is fresh, less flashy, with fewer styling gimmicks than previous models. The same can't be said for the interior, where some of the change appears to have been for the sake of change alone.
Toyota RAV4 ($20,850); RAV4 Sport ($22,425); RAV4 Limited ($23,150)
This latest RAV4's front end contains all the same elements found on older models, but more tautly composed. The rectangular grille is rounder, the slits below more symmetrical. Headlights are more compact, fog lamps smaller and more focused. A wide track gives the 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 SUV priced a notch or two above the RAV4. An understated indent runs along the bottom of the doors, softening the visual impression of bulk. Wheel arches blend smoothly into the fenders.
In back, a single-piece rear bumper cradles the swing-open gate, which, sadly, still opens from the left side, so you have to walk around it when unloading curbside here in America. Taillights are positioned fairly high on the rear fenders. The spare tire bolts into a recess offset to the right in the swing-gate, and doesn't dip below the bumper line. The rear license plate visually balances the spare 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 and height-adjustable driver's seat enables almost any size 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 improve the viewing range through the inside mirror.
The second-row seats are less padded than the front seats, without bolsters. It's 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. Access to that back row, by folding and tilting the outboard second-row seats, is not especially easy, but it isn't as much of a strain or as awkward as in some larger, full-sized sport utilities.
The RAV4's 104.7-inch wheelbase delivers more than space for a third row of seats. It also allows almost six inches to be added to second-row legroom, compared to models built before 2006. Headroom in the second row also grew by more than an inch, although front-row occupants lost half an inch.
The Honda CR-V, the RAV4's major competitor, has been redesigned for 2007, but the Toyota still either exceeds it significantly, or trails it by a fraction, in headroom and legroom, both front and rear. The Honda offers more than 2 inches more hip room, both front and rear, than the RAV4. But the CR-V does not offer a third-row seat. Maximum cargo volume (with all seats stowed) is nearly identical: 73.0 cubic feet for the Toyota, 72.9 for the Honda.
The only competitor that comes with a standard third-row seat, the Suzuki XL7, is also all-new for 2007. It provides more headroom than the RAV4, particularly in the third row (by a significant 1.6 inches). In legroom, the XL7 gives up half an inch to the RAV4 up front, but gets that half inch back in the second row, and betters the Toyota by almost a full inch in the third row. But in hip room, it's the XL7 that loses by 1.6 inches up front, gains a scant 0.7 inch in the middle, and then loses to the Toyota by a whopping 5.1 inches in the third row.
Placement of the gauges will be familiar to anyone who's owned a RAV4. The placement and function of the controls populating the center stack is virtually the same as it has always been, which means very good, as is the arrangement of the hand brake and the shift lever. 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 high quality, if not Lexus level. Fit and finish is Toyota grade, which means excellent. All three models share the same motif, with contrasting but complementary colors and brushed metallic trim elements along each side of the stereo and climate control panels, surrounding the shift gate and swooping around the door handles. The standard side-curtain airbags still allow a passenger assist grip, which folds down from the headliner over each door.
Storage areas are plentiful. Beyond the glove box, the 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
The brake pedal feels firm, and depending on the engine, response to the gas pedal is prompt or borderline overwhelming, even though this RAV4 weighs 500 pounds more than the previous generation. The four-cylinder delivers plenty of grunt, in both front-wheel drive and four-wheel drive, with brisk, 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.
The V6, with its head-of-the-class 269 horsepower and 246 pound-feet of torque, is a different story. Acceleration is impressive. With this comes torque steer, particularly with front-wheel drive: Hang onto the steering wheel, because when you floor the gas pedal the engine feels like it wants to pull the wheel from your hands. You'll get used to it, and the V6 sounds much better than the four. Mechanical noise is more effectively masked, and the exhaust note is more soothingly tuned than in the four.
In general, the RAV4 is quieter inside than many small sport-utility vehicles, though perhaps not as quiet as the Honda CR-V. Some wind whistle crept into the RAV4's cabin around the side windows.
Fresh from a complete redesign, the 2007 Toyota RAV4 adds more standard safety features. It has more power, more room and more seats than models built before 2006. 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.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Irving, Texas.