The compact Toyota RAV4 crossover SUV received a full redesign last year with fresh styling and myriad mechanical improvements, but perhaps the biggest news in a segment that’s already crammed with worthy models was the addition of a conventional lift-up tailgate instead of the side-hinged refrigerator-door style it’s featured since its inception for the 1996 model year.
Fortunately for Toyota, this didn’t seem to rankle its rank-and-file boosters, as the RAV4 remains not only one of the most popular crossovers, but among the best-selling models among all vehicle types. After spending a week behind the wheel of the latest iteration it’s easy to see why.
The recast RAV4 is styled with far more visual flair than its predecessor. A narrow front grille and cats’ eye headlamps reach upward and into muscular front fenders with an aggressive air dam residing beneath. The vehicle’s dashboard is nicely styled with large gauges and sufficient analog buttons and controls for most functions. It’s trimmed – perhaps too extensively – in faux metal with an unfortunate overabundance of hard surfaces throughout the cabin.
Seating is sufficiently comfortable for four adults (with a child able to squeeze into the back seat as needed), with plenty of legroom up front to accommodate taller drivers. While the latest RAV4 no longer offers a third-row seat option (it was all but unusable in the previous generation anyway), the vehicle offers a generous 73.4 cubic feet of cargo space with the second row seatbacks folded.
What’s more, the former V6 engine option is no longer available. Instead, the current RAV4 offers only a single powertrain, which is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that nets 176 horsepower and comes nicely mated to a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission. We found this engine to be adequately powerful, though it does tend to be a bit rougher – not to mention slower – than the former 269-horsepower V6. On the plus side, the 2.5-liter four gets decent fuel economy at an EPA estimated 24/31 mpg city/highway.
A sophisticated all-wheel-drive system is optional, though most buyers will find the standard front-drive configuration affords sufficient traction on wet roads. For those who require the added grip to, say, plow through deep snow, sand or mud, AWD can be locked to send 50 percent of the engine’s power to both axles at speeds under 25 mph. Unfortunately the vehicle’s fuel economy falls to 22/29 mpg with AWD, due largely to the components’ additional weight.
The RAV4’s ride and handling qualities are well balanced, with the vehicle able to hang onto sharp highway on-ramps without drama, as well as isolate occupants from all but the worst road imperfections. For those seeking a little more excitement, a selectable Sport Mode sharpens shift timing, throttle response, and steering response; conversely, an Eco mode tames the RAV4 a bit to help enhance its fuel economy.
Available in LE, XLE and Limited trim levels, all versions come equipped with a Bluetooth mobile phone interface, rear backup camera and a multi-information LCD screen on the dashboard. The top Limited version packs myriad comfort and convenience features like a leather-wrapped steering wheel, power moonroof, power driver’s seat, heated front seats and heated side mirrors. A navigation system, Toyota’s Entune multimedia system with smartphone data streaming and a blind spot monitor are optional.
While model-year 2014 prices were not available as of this writing, we expect the RAV4 to start at around $23,500 for the entry-level LE (including destination charge), and range up to nearly $26,000 for the well-equipped Limited. That keeps it mid-pack among other compact crossovers – including stalwarts like the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V and Chevrolet Equinox – in one of the most competitive segments in the auto industry.