What is it?
The all-new Toyota RAV4. With the car’s 20th anniversary approaching next year, Toyota made much of its status as self-proclaimed founding father of the modern monocoque-based compact SUV at the launch of this, the fourth-generation car. From behind the wheel, however, it’s not instantly obvious if that status is more a blessing or a curse.
One of Europe’s few remaining growth segments, the compact 4x4 market must look like a bewildering place to the makers of 1994's original, three-door ‘Recreational Activity Vehicle’. Over the past two decades, as buyers have moved out of family saloons and into these ‘lifestyle’ utility specialists, so choice has burgeoned. You can now have seven-seat practicality, sporting dynamics, fashion-savvy style or premium brand cachet for the price of this new Toyota. None of which the RAV4 has ever had an answer to, and all of which continue to be unknown to it.
Old-school, rough-and-rugged, ready-for-anything 4x4 character has been Toyota’s reply to all that. The trick has worked quite well to give this soft-roader a distinctive selling point thus far. But Toyota knew even that wouldn’t give this car enough to trade on in 2013.
So it has parachuted the new RAV4 plumb into the middle of a fragmented class that, as Toyota sees it, has the likes of the Nissan Qashqai and Mitsubishi ASX at one end and the BMW X3 and Range Rover Evoque at the other. If you plot a graph comparing the price and overall length of every small and medium-size 4x4 you can think of – from the Hyundai iX35 to the Audi Q5 – this new Toyota marks the very centre, the sweet spot. That’s where the Japanese firm expects the most demand for SUVs to exist over the next five years.
But is that where a RAV4 belongs?
What is it like?
Wieldiness was always something the RAV4 did well. It’s never been a big, cumbersome car; in fact, it used to be shorter than a modern supermini. And Toyota’s own market research confirms that owners still value its relative manoeuvrability.
This new one has had 100mm added to the wheelbase, though, and 205mm in overall length. It’s much more practical for it, of course, and it now measures up as a proper medium-sized SUV on the inside. Toyota also claims its 10.6-metre turning circle is still class-leading. But it’s also, somehow, lost a bit of its individuality.
Outwardly, to these eyes, the car looks very ‘modern Toyota’, but not very ‘modern RAV4’. You can blame some of that on the stretched proportions. The rear end in particularl looks ungainly and odd, and a couple of trademark RAV4 cues are missing here: the door-mounted spare wheel, not to mention the side-hinged rear door it mounted to in years gone by. Toyota says a roof-hinged hatchback makes more practical sense, and it’s probably right. But there goes another identifying point of difference.
Inside, the RAV4’s upright classic SUV driving position was next in line for the chop. You can now sit up to 30mm lower than you could. That puts you closer to the centre of roll, which ought to be a good thing, but somehow it makes the RAV4 experience that bit more humdrum: less Range Rover, more StreetRover.
The cabin is pleasant, roomy and apparently solidly constructed, although it lacks much in the way of flair. The plastics look and feel impressive. We could live without the fake leather on the steering wheel boss and the mock carbo fibre on the centre console, but such things are subjective.
Toyota’s approach to ergonomic switchgear design is doubtless more troubling, though. The RAV4’s drive mode buttons, which you use regularly to switch between Sport and Eco modes, are hidden away almost out of sight by your right knee. it's not an easy place to spot them without taking your eyes off the road for very long. Its lane departure warning toggle button is the stretch of your arm away on the far side of the centre stack, while the digital clock next to it brings your granny’s microwave oven to mind – a simple, plain analogue clock would be infinitely classier. Strange that a company with such attention to detail in other respects can make basic errors such as these, but it continues to.
There are 2.0-litre four-wheel drive petrol, 2.0-litre front-drive turbodiesel and 2.2-litre four-wheel drive turbodiesel versions of the new car on offer, the latter with six-speed manual or automatic transmissions. Our test car was a range-topping 148bhp 2.2-litre AWD auto.
It had good mechanical refinement, plenty of mid-range torque and an elastic-feeling gearbox well calibrated to take advantage of that easy pulling power. This is an easy car to drive. Performance felt bang-on the class average, as the 10sec to 62mph claim would suggest. Economy was likewise, with a return of just over 35mpg in mixed use.
The RAV4’s ride is less settled, though, and handling id less responsive and precise than some family 4x4s. That may be exactly how Toyota’s long-retained customer base wants it, but it’s unlikely to endear the car to many youngsters.
It’s neat and tidy to drive at everyday speeds, with less body roll and related roll steer than of old. But it doesn’t change direction keenly. Off-centre steering weight is used to mask early onset understeer.
Push through that and you’ll soon trip over an intrusive stability control system, particularly if you try to cut through the dynamic mush originating from its high-sidewall tyres and long-travel springs in order to find a nicely balanced cornering line. So many similarly sized SUVs disguise their mass and height better; so many just make you feel like you could be driving any old passenger car.
Should I buy one?
This new RAV4 is no athlete. Neither is it compliant nor particularly comfy to ride in. But it’s not lacking in motive flavour – far from it. The beefy-feeling, lightly jostling damper settings speak of a strong, over-specified rolling chassis that’s just itching to prove its worth down a rutted trail.
In reality, the RAV4 may be no better off-road than many of its rivals, but it feels like it ought to be. And if you like a capable, reassuring feel to your 4x4, you may well respond to that.
Just don’t be fooled by it. There are plenty of new, sub-£30k 4x4s rated to tow more than this new Toyota, and many of them have more ground clearance. But if it’s chiefly rugged flavour you’re looking for, you could well find something you like here. The new RAV4 has quality, practicality, mechanical refinement and decent value for money on its side – but it’s definitely a more traditional kind of SUV in which a bit of rough still comes with the smooth.
Toyota RAV4 2.2 D-CAT 150 Invincible
Price £29,295; 0-62mph 10.0sec; Top speed 115mph; Economy 42.2mpg; CO2 176g/km; Kerb weight 1660kg; Engine 4 cyls, 2231cc, turbodiesel; Installation Front, transverse, 4WD; Power 148bhp at 3600rpm; Torque 251lb ft at 2000-2800rpm; Gearbox 6-spd automatic