So what was once the cute baby of the family is now the family car.
The available 269-horsepower V6 tops most of the RAV4's competitors. It's more than the RAV4 needs, really; but it allows the RAV4 to really scoot while carrying as many as seven people and all their associated stuff. Yet the RAV4's fuel efficiency remains comparable with some less powerful four- and six-cylinder SUVs. The base RAV4 seats five and offers a more frugal four-cylinder power.
Style-wise, the RAV4 looks like other contemporary Toyotas, featuring an aerodynamically efficient ovoid profile strategically relieved by sharp character lines. A coefficient of drag (Cd) of 0.33 is among the best in its segment and a major factor in minimizing wind noise and maximizing fuel economy.
Only small details have changed for 2008. Most significantly, an engine immobilizer is now standard on the Limited grade and optional on other models.
Toyota RAV4 ($21,250); RAV4 Sport ($22,825); RAV4 Limited ($23,505)
The RAV4's truck-like front end is tautly composed. Visually, the fenders are separate elements from the engine bay, a situation emphasized by a tight rectangular grille that seems to sit comfortably atop the wider bumper slits below. Headlights are compact and focused. A wide track gives the RAV4 a solid stance visually, while resisting rollovers in emergency maneuvers.
The side view is oblong, a mix of boxy and oval, the better to accommodate that third-row seat. The fat, triangular C-pillar with the taillight at its base reminds 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 RAV4's 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 tailgate, which, sadly, still opens from the left side, so you have to walk around it when unloading curbside here in America. As in the Tribeca, 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, sunk into the lower left side of the swing-gate below the handle, visually balances the spare.
Placement of the gauges will be familiar to anyone who has owned a previous RAV4. The position and function of the controls populating the center stack is virtually the same as it has always been, which means very good; that also applies to the arrangement of the hand brake and the shift lever. The current dash is sharply split by a horizontal gash running the width of the car. About the only plus we found 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 trim levels share the same motif, with contrasting but complementary colors and brushed metallic trim elements around the stereo and climate controls, 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.
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 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 that 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. Still, the 104.7-inch wheelbase of the current RAV4 allows significantly more interior room than in pre-2006 models.
The Honda CR-V, the RAV4's closest competitor, was redesigned for 2007, but the Toyota still either leads significantly, or trails by a mere 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, was 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.
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. When the third-row seats aren't ordered, a deep cargo area awaits beneath a water-repellant, foldable deck board.
Depending on the engine ordered, response to the gas pedal is either prompt or borderline overwhelming. The base 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 four-banger.
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 in front-wheel drive models: Hang on to 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 with 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.
The RAV4's on-demand four-wheel-drive system uses an electronically controlled center coupling to distribute torque between the front and rear wheels, depending on road conditions and driver input. The system can continuously and seamlessly switch from front-wheel-drive to four-wheel-drive mode, maximizing fuel efficiency. In Auto mode, torque distribution to the rear wheels is decreased during low speed cornering for better maneuverability.
A 4WD manual locking switch will disengage the Auto mode, maximizing torque to the rear wheels. When vehicle speed reaches 25 mph, Lock mode will disengage, reverting back to Auto mode. Lock mode also disengages when the brakes are applied, optimizing ABS and VSC operation. FWD models come equipped with an automatic limited slip differential.
Hill-start Assist Control provides additional control for on-road and off-road driving by helping to keep the vehicle stationary while starting on a steep incline or slippery surface. Downhill Assist Control is designed to enhance low-speed descending ability by helping to hold the vehicle to a target speed with minimal intervention from the driver.
The Toyota RAV4 is enjoyable to drive and packaged well. Three rows of seating are available. The available V6 engine delivers lots of power.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report after his test drive of the RAV4 in Texas.