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The Toyota RAV4 offers tidy handling and fine engines, but also a choppy ride and high price

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Back in 1994, when Toyota launched the original RAV4, the market for style-led small off-roaders didn’t exist, but customers quickly warmed to the appeal of a car that offered ‘street-tough’ looks (to a point) mixed with hot-hatch driving characteristics (again, to a point).

The firm soon discovered it had a star on its hands, the market boomed and suddenly its competitors got in on the act and the opportunities to succeed got tougher. Keen to protect the very market it generated, Toyota launched the second generation RAV4 in 2000 to continued success and the latest example in 2006.

The storage compartment opens smoothly with a trick button, but a pair of gloves will fill it.

It’s a gentle evolution of this proven formula, and the biggest change is perhaps the absence of a three-door model – it only accounting for around 20 percent of sales in its final year. What the means is you get a practical, but still relatively compact, SUV with car-like driving dyanmics and Toyota’s famed quality and reliability levels.

There’s petrol, diesel, manual, automatic, four-wheel drive and two-wheel drive options as well as high levels of standard equipment. And like the rest of the Toyota range the RAV4 benefits from the firm’s five-year warranty.

It is however now six years old, and despite a couple of facelifts and new technology being added in the meantime, the RAV4 is beginning to show its age in face of more contemporary competition. Regardless though, as the car that kick-started the craze the RAV4 still has what it takes to appeal.
 

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DESIGN & STYLING

Toyota RAV4 rear light

Approach the new Toyota RAV4 from the front and the bloodline is evident: the bluff nose, broad, swept-back lights and grille are reminiscent of the previous model. Move further back and the changes become more obvious. In profile the doors are cleaner cut, losing the characteristic scallop line, and the wheelarches better integrated into the overall shape. It’s left to the rear three-quarters to inject a modern touch: the curved rear light clusters arching along the rear flanks and the rear window line kicking upwards.

Still, despite its age the RAV4 remains a distinctive choice in the segment, and we can certainly see its appeal. And that’s an appeal born out of its ride height – you see, the distance your average soft-roader driver sits higher than their counterpart in a regular hatchback is only 20 centimetres. The greater vantage point and the subjective feeling of greater security it provides is at the root of the soft-roader’s appeal and the reason for the segement’s popularity. And we can understand why: the RAV4 blends elements of 4x4 and normal car to great effect, the height giving easy access to the cabin while the familiar car-like dash makes the driver feel at home.

The rear door doesn't open fully due to crash-protection restraints, but this restrains loading and rivals don't seem to have the same problem

It’s not as modern as a Kia Sportage, or as funky as a Skoda Yeti, but there’s no doubt the RAV4 still manages to stand out in the crowd as it looks more muscular and grown-up than many rivals.

INTERIOR

Toyota RAV4 dashboard

As you would expect from Toyota, the RAV4's cabin feels utterly solid – although it is evident that materials have been carefully chosen to boost the quality feel for the least cost. It scores highly for cabin storage too, and the major controls are well placed except for the dials, which are set low and deep in the dash. The steering wheel could also do with some more height adjustment, and though the front seats are supportive and adjustable, taller drivers may find they cannot push them as far back as they’d like. Compared to the fine driving positions in the Ford Kuga and VW Tiguan, the RAV4’s accommodation really isn’t up to scratch.

Still the gearlever falls readily to hand. With an average-height driver at the wheel, there is ample room in the rear for adults, even with the adjustable rear seat set a few notches forward. There’s some ingenuity in the rear too, the bench seat splitting 60/40, and sliding, reclining and folding flat in one operation incredibly easily thanks to a weighted system making light work of it all.

Forward-leaning gearstick may look awkward, but the ergonomic positioning for this car is perfect

The boot itself is conveniently shaped and, with a 586-litre capacity, larger than the Honda CR-V’s, the RAV4’s trailing arm rear suspension positioning the dampers diagonally under the floor to minimise intrusion. Why Toyota persevered with the frustrating side-hinged rear door is a mystery. It’s heavy, useless in tight spaces and does not open to a full 90 degrees.
 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

2.2-litre Toyota RAV4 diesel engine

Toyota offers two engine options on the RAV4 (though there are actually three different designations) starting with the 2.0-litre Valvematic petrol. It’s the most powerful of the pair, developing 156bhp, though peak torque is just shy of 150lb ft. Regardless of this lowly figure, the petrol-powered RAV4 manages to complete the 0-60mph sprint in 11 seconds – though the rather lifeless power delivery makes it feel slower than it actually is. Still, there’s little complaint about this unit’s refinement, only becoming vocal at the top of its rev range.

A better option is the 2.2 diesel; it is available with a six-speed automatic gearbox lifted directly from the Toyota Avensis. In this case it is badged 2.2 D-CAT, though if you opt for a manual gearbox it is named D-4D. Regardless, the 148bhp turbodiesel hauls the chunky RAV4 along with reasonable verve, completing the 0-60mph benchmark in 10.2 seconds (10.0 dead if you opt for the 2WD model). Peak torque of 251lb ft means you can make the most of each gear, and the unit remains refined throughout the rev range.

Digital display adds some interest to an otherwise plain dashboard

Both gearboxes are easy to use, and though the automatic dulls performance slightly, it shifts smoothly and quickly, and you rarely find yourself stuck in the wrong ratio, even climbing up steep hills. Refinement on the whole is impressive. There is some road noise evident, which does detract from the experience slightly, but on the whole the RAV4 feels rather more sprightly than its not inconsiderable bulk might suggest.
 

RIDE & HANDLING

Toyota RAV4 cornering

The original Toyota RAV4 really was deemed the hot hatch of high-riders, but as so often happens its competitors soon caught up and in some cases surpassed its abilities. And so the same thing happened with the third and current generation car, which is now wandering behind talented rivals such as the Skoda Yeti and even the Nissan Qashqai when it comes to driving dynamics.

But it is remarkably entertaining to drive, especially when you consider its 1600kg weight. There’s little roll as you turn into a bend and despite the compliant straight-line ride the damping remains composed round the bends. It will understeer at the limit though, sometimes earlier than you’d expect it to, and the artificial-feeling steering doesn’t always inspire confidence. 

Four-wheel-drive system can be locked to distribute power 55/45 front-to-rear up to 25mph

In normal conditions the AWD system sends power to the front wheels only, but any change in the situation can see it transfer up to 45 percent of the drive to the rear wheels. Combined with the VSC+ stability control and the electric power steering this makes up what Toyota calls Actibve Drive – giving a co-ordinated steering, drive and braking response to emergency situations. With the right rubber on the rims the RAV4 is actually quite talented off-road too. Short overhangs and a decent ride height are complimented by the Active Drive’s Hillstart assist and on the automatic models Downhill Assist too, though unlike the first generation the bumpers are all body-colour and will be expensive to repair if damaged while mud-plugging.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Toyota RAV4 2006-2012

Choosing a Toyota RAV4 is actually a simple enough process. There’s really only two engine options, two gearbox options, two drivetrain options and two trim levels. It starts with the XT-R, which is available with both 2WD and AWD. The former comes with dual zone climate control, Bluetooth connectivity, cruise control and keyless entry. The only engine available with this combination is the 2.2 D4D.

If you want an AWD XT-R then you can choose between the diesel or the 2.0-litre Valvematic petrol, and the extra driven wheels also result in Alcantara and leather upholstery, heated seats and hill-start assist to the specification. The top-spec SR model gets standard Toyota Touch and Go sat-nav. It’s only available with the 2.2-litre D-CAT diesel engine (essentially the same as the XT-R’s 2.2 D-4D) and the six-speed automatic transmission and AWD though.

Steering wheel is easy to twirl and is adjustable for rake and reach, but doesn't extend far enough for tall drivers

The latest engines mean the RAV4 is more efficient than ever, and the 2.0-litre petrol managed a combined economy figure of 37.2mpg while emitting 177g/km. Choose the 2.2-litre diesel, and depending on whether you have the manual or automatic transmission fitted you can expect 47.1 to 39.8mpg and 156g/km to 186g/km of CO2 emissions respectively.

One benefit of choosing the RAV4 over its VW or Ford rivals is the aftercare on offer. Whereas its rivals make do with three-year cover, the Toyota comes with the firm’s excellent five year or 100,000 mile warranty, which is transferrable between owners.
 

VERDICT

3.5 star Toyota RAV4

Nearly two decades after the first model appeared, the Toyota RAV4 is still firmly in the sights of compact SUV buyers – with plenty of justification. Not only does it boast a five-year warranty, but that peace of mind is backed up by the firm’s reputation for solidity and reliability.

However, the interior plastics look far better than they feel, and many contemporary rivals have moved this part of the game on in recent years. It is still relatively flexible in there, and we like the amount of stowage areas, but that’s not enough to lift it above the class best.

60/40 split rear seats can be folded from the boot - a useful touch

The same could be said for the RAV4’s handling, which at the time was certainly up there with the best when launched. It still changes direction gamely, with decent body control, but is let down by artificial steering and a greater tendency to understeer than rivals like the Ford Kuga or Skoda Yeti.

But the new engine and gearbox combinations from the Avensis make it more pleasant to drive than ever, the 2.2-litre diesel offering the best of both worlds in terms of economy as well as performance – even when mated to the six-speed automatic gearbox.

All trim levels are generously equipped too, which makes the RAV4 good value, and overall, in isolation, the RAV4 makes a lot of sense. However many of this car’s rivals, in an admittedly competitive market segment, are now comfortably superior in almost every sense. The result is it’s hard to truly recommend the RAV4. The replacement can’t come soon enough.

Toyota RAV4 2006-2012 First drives