For many years of its long middle age, the third-generation Toyota RAV4 — while a popular choice for those seeking a basic compact crossover SUV — had started to get a little too wrapped up in the perceived image of its customer base.
This was, very dismissively, a “girl’s car” — making me wonder why I went out and bought one myself for a between-cars period a few years back — and Toyota wanted to change that considerably when the new model appeared.
And provided you don’t go out and attempt to destructively test-drive one on an incredibly rocky summertime trail (some of my car-writing friends did, and the optional, awfully low-mounted plastic running boards literally dragged on said rocks), the all-new, fourth-generation RAV4 is indeed a beefier and more contemporary vehicle. Suited for moms, and hipsters, and everyone in between. And marketed by Kaley Cuoco, for whatever reason.
RAV has increased its pleasant, yet innocuous character and is now a remarkably large-feeling CUV, 3,585 pounds in the AWD build I drove. The rebirth, which has turned the RAV in a way into an upstanding, baby-sized version of the larger Highlander, has rendered a solid but not mind-blowing machine, thoroughly futuristic in its design.
That includes a lot of butch-looking touches including a super-wide hood, broad headlamps with Zorro-inspired chrome slashes and a powerful looking bumper with a faux skidplate to connote that aforementioned, somewhat overstated 4x4ness.
RAV’s optional AWD system, which includes an electronically locking center differential and dynamic torque control for improved cornering on all surfaces, will be enough to help the car pound gracefully through the snow.
And there’s integrated roof rails so the committed can add a Thule rack, though RAV now offers more interior cargo room (73.4 cubic feet) than the last version — even with that ungainly rear-mounted spare tire now hidden beneath the cargo deck. The peculiar swing-to-the-side door has also been replaced with a more standard liftgate, optionally power-equipped.
Engine choices have been simplified — the cool but way-too-peppy V6 option was dropped and RAV is now only available with a 176-HP 2.5-liter four-cylinder, connected to a much-improved six-speed automatic transmission. That will get the RAV as much as 29 mpg on the highway: I found that the vehicle consistently defaulted to the takeoff-power-sapping Eco mode, which I did not appreciate. I was happier with the Sport mode, which bumps up the throttle and even blips the revs, for a peculiar effect.
On the whole, it’s better suited and set up for use on steep passes than the old four-cylinder AWD model, whose underpowered nature I personally cursed each time I tried to make it up to the tunnel.
The interior is indeed a light-year or so from the black plastic, plain Jane story of the last RAV: you get much improved, better-bolstered seats, either fabric-trimmed or optionally available in more of the faux-leather SofTex synthetic that’s included on every RAV’s dash.
It’s still a bit of a hodge-podge stylistically, with carbon-fiber-ish trim competing with the pillowy, stitched dash work, plus shiny trim and both round and square AC vent outlets — kind of a six-tone theme at work.
A week with the car gave me the impression that those cushier seats are a little deeply set and somewhat broadly bolstered on the side, making it a slight challenge to get in, but planting you firmly when in place.
The rear seats fold nicely, thanks to the duck-and-point-down headrests, and there’s even an under-the-deck spot for the tonneau cargo cover.
For the 2014 model released this fall, the newest options include a technology package with blind spot, cross-traffic and lane-departure alerts, plus four different levels of the smartphone-integrated Entune audio system.