The Toyota RAV4 offers seating for seven and cargo capacity comparable to mid-size SUVs in a compact package. It's quick, relatively easy to maneuver, and comes with a choice of front-wheel drive or four-wheel drive.
For 2009, the RAV4 sports freshened styling with a new grille, new front and rear bumpers, and new wheels. A new four-cylinder engine comes standard on 2009 RAV4 models that delivers more performance and better gas mileage.. The new 2.5-liter four-cylinder is rated at 179 horsepower and gets an EPA-estimate 22/28 mpg City/Highway.
Among the best of the compact SUVs, the current-generation RAV4 was introduced as a 2006 model. The RAV4 excels at convenience and ease of use. Getting in and out of the driver's seat is easy. It can move lots of people or lots of gear on a moment's notice. And it comes standard with a long list of safety equipment. Ordered with the optional V6, the RAV4 is a regular hot rod, scooting around with 269 horsepower. We prefer the five-passenger configuration.
2009 Toyota RAV4 models get new options including a reverse monitor and touch-screen navigation, and all models come with integrated satellite radio. Also new for 2009 are active headrests for the front seats. 2009 RAV4 Limited models come with a new Smart Entry feature that unlocks the doors for anyone carrying the key fob.
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.
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.
Grille, bumpers, and fog light surrounds are all new for 2009. Most noticeable are the new, vertical brake scoops, lined with black ribs, that bite into the bumper beneath the headlights, where the fog lights used to be. (Fog lights nestle into these scoops on Sport models.) More subtle is the way the main grille now integrates better with the cooling slit just beneath it, while the formerly full-width slit beneath that has been replaced by three smaller slots.
Limiteds have a look all their own, with a single, deep, trapezoidal grille opening bolding bisected by a body-color horizontal bar with a large, chrome Toyota World-T badge at its center. A pseudo-skid plate wraps up from the bottom, leaving no room for additional lower air intakes. Tubular nacelles supporting the fog lights replace the brake scoops of base and Sport models. None of these changes, fortunately, has affected the RAV4's low coefficient of drag.
Alloy wheels have five spokes on Sport, six on Limited. 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. The taillights are new for 2009, as is the bumper itself, but the changes here are more subtle than at the front. Taillights are positioned 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. The Sport model's spoiler hangs conspicuously off the top edge of the roof.
The new Sport Appearance Package for 2009 eliminates the spare entirely, and centers the license plate up high beneath a bright metal strip that's just beneath another World-T badge that is just under the window. A bulge low down on the tailgate fills in the step in the standard bumper when the tailgate is closed. A handle on the left side still betrays the gate's swing-open design, but in spite of this the overall look with the Sport Appearance Package is remarkably more car-like, more station wagon than SUV.
Inside, the 2009 RAV4 is as good as ever, which is to say functional if a bit eccentric in style.
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. The standard seat fabric has been upgraded for 2009. 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.
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 Suzuki XL7 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.
The current-generation Toyota RAV4 offers improved stability (from its wider track) and a smoother ride (from its longer wheelbase) when compared with pre-2006 RAV4s.
In the Sport variant, the suspension is tuned toward handling over smoothness. Steering response is confident, although understeer (where the car wants to go straight while the driver wants it to turn) is the RAV4's dominant posture during aggressive turns. There's moderate body lean in corners, but dive under braking and squat when accelerating are well controlled. The brake pedal feels firm.
Depending on the engine ordered, response to the gas pedal is either prompt or borderline overwhelming. The new four-cylinder engine produces 179 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 172 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm (versus 166 horsepower and 165 pound-feet for the previous 2.4-liter engine on 2008 models). Designed specifically for low internal friction and high fuel efficiency, the new 2.5-liter engine applies Toyota's Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVT-i) to both intake and exhaust valves, rather than the intakes only.
This redesigned four-cylinder engine is partnered with a new four-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission that is more compact, lightweight and efficient than the previous unit, with twin balance shafts reduce noise and vibration.
EPA estimates for the 2009 four-cylinder RAV4 are 22 mpg city/28 mpg highway with FWD, and 21/27 mpg city/highway with 4WD. That's a significant improvement over last year's 21/27 with FWD and 20/25 with 4WD.
The optional V6, with its head-of-the-class 269 horsepower and 246 pound-feet of torque, is a different story. With its impressive acceleration 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 a 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. John F. Katz provided additional commentary from south-central Pennsylvania.