From £23,390
More spacious and more refined than its predecessor, but likely to be costlier.

WHATEVER YOU DO, don’t mention this new RAV4 in the same breath as the Honda CR-V or Nissan X-Trail. For Toyota, those vehicles are now too outdated to stand up to the new RAV4 that has just hit the Japanese market, and that will land in Europe next February.Instead, Toyota fully intends the third-generation RAV4 to launch a direct assault against the likes of the BMW X3 – not in price, perhaps, but certainly in terms of quality and driveability.To that end, Toyota claims to have reinvented the RAV4, doing away with the three-door version, and pushing the car upmarket. Bigger, more powerful (but claimed to be more fuel efficient), the 2006 RAV4 is aiming high.While the Americans get the option of a 3.5-litre V6, European RAVs will be offered with a 2.0-litre petrol and two diesels: both are 2.2-litre D-4D units, of 134 and 175bhp. Japan’s choice is limited to just a 2.4-litre four-cylinder auto with either two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, and that’s the engine we managed to sample during our first drive in the area around Mount Fuji.It’s clear that things have moved upmarket. Like its Lexus cousins, the new RAV4 now has a smart-key that you don’t have to remove from your pocket to unlock the door, and a starter button for the engine.The cabin is more luxurious than the old car’s, with better fit, finish and materials. The controls are thoughtfully laid-out, and colour-screen satellite navigation is now an option. There are cup-holders galore, two gloveboxes, numerous storage areas and three 12-volt sockets.Along with improved quality comes greatly improved interior space – the wheelbase is up by 70mm, while the new car is 145mm longer and 80mm wider than before. Improved packaging has means that all this – and more – has gone into the cabin, which is now 150mm longer than in the old car. So there’s decent room for adults in the back, although because the centre rear seat has no headrest, it’s still best for two.The rear seat folds and splits 60:40, slides back and forth, reclines and can be folded to reveal a vast boot that will swallow a pair of bikes.Push the start button and the four-cylinder motor near-silently comes to life. Move off and, although the new car is heavier (1520kg against 1325kg), it still feels reasonably lithe, most likely thanks to much-improved weight distribution and a very convincing power steering system. Although our test roads weren’t entirely representative of UK roads, it’s clear that the new RAV4 is far quieter and more refined than the outgoing model.Mated to the new Super CVT-I transmission (a continuously variable system but with seven ‘ratios’), the four-cylinder delivers its 168bhp smoothly. Slot the gearbox into manual mode and there’s fun to be had pushing the chassis to its limits, and you’d be hard-pressed to outdo the stability and traction controls.Off-roading fans will be pleased to hear that the ground clearance (190mm) has not changed from the previous model’s and that the turning circle has been tightened from 5.3m to 5.1m, but there’s still no low-ratio transfer ’box, unlike its cheaper and less refined rival, the new Suzuki Grand Vitara.In the Japanese RAV4, between 97 and 98 per cent of power is usually put to the front wheels, but if it senses a loss of traction up to 45 per cent will go the back wheels. The European incarnation will be able to be locked into a 50:50 ratio; ideal for gentle off-roading and towing.So, a good first impression, but we’ll save a full judgement for when we drive European cars next spring.Laurent Benchana

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