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.
Among the best of the compact SUVs, 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. We prefer the five-passenger configuration.
We found the RAV4 smooth and stable underway. The Sport model has a harder ride due to its suspension tuning. RAV4's available four-wheel-drive system works very well in wintry conditions as well as on rain-soaked roads.
The four-cylinder is responsive and gets an EPA-estimated 21/27 mpg when equipped with four-wheel drive, slightly better with two-wheel drive. Ordered with the optional V6, the RAV4 really scoots, boasting 269 horsepower.
For 2010 the RAV4 is unchanged except for feature packaging.
The RAV4 looks like other contemporary Toyotas, featuring an aerodynamically efficient ovoid profile strategically relieved by sharp character lines. A coefficient of drag 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. Vertical brake scoops, lined with black ribs, bite into the bumper beneath the headlights — fog lights nestle into these scoops on Sport models.
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.
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. 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. 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 Sport Appearance Package eliminates the spare entirely, and centers the license plate up high. 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 RAV4 is 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 very good; that also applies to the arrangement of the hand brake and the shift lever. The dash is sharply split by a horizontal indentation 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. 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 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 enable 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.
Storage areas are plentiful. Beyond the glove box, the doors have fixed plastic map pockets, the backs of the front seatbacks wear net pouches, and a total of 10 cup 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 Toyota RAV4 delivers a smooth, stable ride. In the Sport variant, the suspension is tuned toward handling over smoothness. Steering response is confident, 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, response to the gas pedal is either prompt or borderline overwhelming. The four-cylinder engine produces 179 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 172 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. Designed specifically for low internal friction and high fuel efficiency, the 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.
The four-cylinder engine is partnered with a four-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission that is compact, lightweight and efficient.
The EPA estimates for the four-cylinder RAV4 are 22 mpg city/28 mpg highway with FWD, and 21/27 mpg city/highway 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: When you floor the gas pedal hard you can feel the steering pulling one way or the other. You'll get used to it, and the V6 sounds much better than a four. In addition, the V6 is matched to a five-speed automatic transmission.
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 operation of the ABS and electronic stability control (VSC) system. 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.