Scottsdale, Ariz. - I did a funny thing a few years back, when someone temporarily stopped lending me test vehicles - I took my own advice, for once, and I went out and bought a Toyota RAV4.
Though I know it had a serious reputation as, let us say, a "female-focused vehicle," it was an affordable, well-built all-wheel drive option that I'd liked in the past.
So I had a very personal connection as I spent a day cruising around tony Cave Creek and Carefree in the very much reinvented 2013 RAV4, a vehicle that's undergone perhaps the most radical transformation I've seen in Toyota's busy, recent campaign of automotive updates.
RAV's rounded and somewhat dated looks have been completely reinvented in a small crossover SUV design that's sleek, angular and intriguing - and male friendly, as well.
And as everyone asked me, yes, they did get rid of that somewhat ungainly rear-mounted spare tire and the swing-to-the-side tailgate: even with a spare hidden under the rear cargo deck, there's actually more interior cargo room (73.4 cubic feet), and the optionally powered liftgate now goes up and down like everyone else's.
All that now-available rear real estate has been given a contemporary makeover and a built-in spoiler, the first of the spots where the new RAV starts to build a new identity with design cues blended from the Mitsubishi Outlander, the Acura RDX and the design-heavy Korean twins, the Santa Fe and the Tucson.
In Toyota's case, it's a welcome change, with a wedge-shaped nose and an aggressive looking faux skidplate up front (off-roading was not mentioned for a nanosecond in Toyota's marketing push for the car, though a seamless AWD system with an electronically locking center differential is still a popular option).
And from the snow-resistant covered lower rocker panels to the sweeping glass on the side, the multiple updates make it a pretty slick-looking machine.
Toyota also admitted that the old RAV was awfully plain and very heavy on the plastics inside, so the 2013's cabin is probably the biggest change.
Better-bolstered and more comfortable seats, a pillowy, faux-leather-covered protrusion across the middle of the dash (looking a bit like the edge of a pool table in some of the color schemes) and a better-designed center console with carbon fiber-looking details - all add up to pleasantly transform the look and feel.
On the higher XLE and Limited models, you can also order up two-toned front and rear seats covered in that SofTex synthetic seen on the dash - Toyota claims it's been treated so it won't be flesh-searingly hot if the car sits in a sunny parking lot all day, and those seats are also heated for wintertime use.
Thinner seat backs also mean even more rear passenger leg room - the car feels like a virtual limousine compared to most small crossovers.
Mix those improved seats with a more comfortable steering wheel position and the RAV is now starting to move into baby Highlander territory. Out on the road, the ride is still a bit brisk - this is the littlest member of the Toyota SUV family, remember - though steering feel is solid and braking precise.
I think I partially sold myself on the old RAV based on the astounding, almost-too-intense power of the optional V6 engine; that option has now disappeared, leaving a more-than-competent 176-HP 2.5-liter four-cylinder as the standard engine.
And while I was disappointed with the old four-banger RAV when I headed up toward the passes, part of that issue was probably an archaic four-speed automatic transmission.
The 2013 model sees the debut of a slick six-speed automatic that's much improved, part of a set of new technology including dynamic torque control (for better AWD steering) and performance-minded Sport or fuel saving Eco mode switches for tweaks to the driving character.
RAV4 can be configured with either a standard manual or a new automatic, dual-zone climate control system and your choice of three different audio and navigation systems, topping out with an 11-speaker JBL setup.
You can also add blind spot and cross-traffic monitors, 18-inch wheels and a litany of upgraded bits: in its most austere form, not all that austere, the RAV4 will list at about $23,300 - and is already at dealers.