By Ken Glassman
Way back in 1996, Toyota introduced the RAV4 as a small sport utility vehicle that was something different than a stodgy station wagon. It provided the cargo carrying capacity of a wagon, comfort for 4 adults (and a fifth in a pinch), and was fuel efficient and high quality. It was a boxy and homely, but it quickly became the formula for other manufacturers to emulate. It wasn’t an exciting vehicle to drive, but its utilitarian function won over a generation of drivers.
Today the 2014 RAV4 is in its fourth generation, having been updated last year. It is larger, has more amenities and features than the previous iteration, but it’s still a bit homely and still does not provide an exciting driving experience. The optional 3.5 V-6 that provided class leading performance in the generation 3 RAV4 has been dropped.
The only engine available now is a 2.5 liter 4-cylinder motor that makes 176 hp and 172 ft. lbs. of torque. Those performance numbers may not impress, but they work well enough for this 3,500lb vehicle, and the mileage numbers of 22 City and 29 Highway make up for lack of breathtaking performance. And those mileage numbers are very good for a vehicle with All Wheel Drive.
The 2.5 liter engine is mated to a 6-speed manumatic transmission, that is slick shifting and smooth. Shifting manually with the shift lever will help the RAV4 to drop down a gear or two when passing on a two lane road, and makes up for some power deficiency. It does not, however add to the driving experience in that it is programmed to shift leisurely rather than immediately as it would be in a sportier car. Pushing the Sport button will give the driver another 1000 revs before upshifts for a bit more perceived power.
Having said all that, we don’t mean to convey that the RAV4 is not a worthy vehicle. In fact, we like it very much. It does everything well, and for everyday use it is a fine little SUV. The ride quality is very comfortable, over any kind of pavement. It soaks up potholed and washboard surfaces with ease, and with nicely controlled body motions when leaned into a turn.
You feel the understeer when cornering hard, but that is not unusual in this class. The electric power steering is a bit vague, but it reacts fairly quickly to driver input, and it has a tight turning circle. The brakes are good, not great. Still they’re effective. The Nissan Rogue, Mazda CX-5 and Ford Escape will all score higher on the handling scale, but for most folks looking for a small crossover, handling performance is usually down on their list of priorities.
The RAV4 is quieter than the competition, and it feels as solid as any small SUV out there, including those from luxury makers. The cabin is nicely laid out, with some handsome lines and curves on the dash, and all controls are easy to use. Even the Navigation system is easy to use, and gives enough ancillary information to satisfy all but the most tech oriented driver.
The RAV4 also had one small feature that I stumbled upon by accident that I haven’t seen in any other vehicle I’ve tested. The radio has a feature that acts like a DVR in that you can pause the radio and go back to replay something you may have missed. I was listening to a news station and missed part of a story that due to a siren from an emergency vehicle. I was able to “rewind” and listen to the details I had missed. I thought that was a cool feature.
The cloth seats were covered in a nice feeling fabric with contrasting seat inserts which dressed up the cabin. And they rated outstanding for comfort – nicely bolstered and all -day comfortable. Soft touch materials were found in all the right places, and the interior materials were all first rate. The headroom front and back was generous and the moonroof gave the cabin a light and airy feel. The rear seat is very good for 2 adults for leg and shoulder room. The middle seat will be fine for short trips.
Cargo area is generous with the rear seats in place, and cavernous with the seats folded down. And thankfully they dropped the old side-hinged rear gate with the spare tire mounted on the outside of the car, in favor of an under the floor compact spare, and a very convenient low 26” liftover height to load groceries or any cargo.
Toyota in general, and the RAV4 in particular, have never been at the cutting edge of styling. And the fourth generation is no exception. The front end has been improved, with its upper and lower grill openings, and the character lines running from the front to the back flow nicely. But the rear end is, forgive me, butt ugly. The profile gives a bustle-back look with the roof-top spoiler and the bulbous liftgate sticking out past the rear glass window. Also, the taillights that wrap from the rear quarter panels into the tailgate area looks funky. So if styling is high on your list, you’ll have to look to a Hyundai Santa Fe, or the Mazda CX-5.
PRICING AND SUMMARY
Our tester stickered for $26,400, and added a $585 package which added the Toyota’s Entune Premium 6-speaker Audio system and Nav screen, with back-up camera. It also has a host of other electronic goodies for playing MP3 players, integrating iPad, and Bluetooth phone and voice recognition. A few other minor add-ons like mud guards, floor mats, and security system, brought the bottom line to $28,772.
In closing, the RAV4 is an excellent family vehicle that is capable and competent, with good amenities and gas mileage, in a quality practical package. And to many drivers, that’s all the driving excitement they need.