A few weeks back I drove the Toyota Highlander. While it’s not the sort of vehicle that inspires feelings of passion, it represents everything that Toyota does well. Unfortunately, I moved from the Highlander to the RAV4. And the RAV4, I discovered, is a living, breathing example of some of Toyota’s worst qualities.
Still, no matter how long its litany of sins, the RAV4 is still a Toyota, which means it is at least a very practical way to move the people and things you can convince to ride in it.
The thrill is gone
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t think to spend more than a couple of minutes on performance when it comes to small crossovers. It is not a class of vehicles where fun is a tent-pole of the design process, but fun is precisely what the RAV4 used to be. The third generation possessed an optional and hilariously overpowered 3.5-liter V6 capable of stunning feats of straight-line speed.
Sadly, practicality has won out and the RAV4 now wades into battle with decidedly damp power. Now, the only engine offered is a 2.5-liter 176-horsepower four-cylinder.
Sadly, practicality has won out and the RAV4 now wades into battle with decidedly damp power.
As uninspiring as this sounds, the reality underwhelms even more. The RAV4 may manage a 0 to 60 sprint in around 8.0 seconds, but it does so in buzzy and lifeless style. Activating Sport mode helps the matter a little and highlights the cars one performance bright spot: a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic.
As for handling, let’s just say that the RAV4 doesn’t. Oh, it turns and changes direction just fine. However, thanks to completely lifeless electric power steering, the driver’s only clue about what’s happening is whatever they can see out the windows.
It’s not like Toyota has compromised performance to produce a quiet, smooth ride. The RAV4’s suspension isn’t terrible but the ride is surprisingly rough on bad pavement. Road noise is also an issue; on the highway it’s loud enough that people on the other end of the hands-free phone system can’t understand the driver’s voice.
The best box on wheels
Even if the RAV4 is lifeless and joyless as a driver’ car it is at least a supremely practical box. Toyota made this car’s name on being the most efficient use of space possible and that is still true.
Other crossovers shudder at the RAV4’s packaging and load space. With the backseats down, there is a simply huge amount of load space. So much so that the load floor of my editor’s GMC Yukon press demonstrator looked small by comparison.
With the rear seats up in the RAV4, there is room for three actual adults in the back row, something that can’t be said of essentially any of the RAV4’s competitors.
Toyota’s design department has not extended the same courtesy to the front row passenger, as a stylish lip protruding from the dash cuts into front seat legroom.
On the top of the line Limited edition I tested, the seats weren’t just large, but also very comfortable. The leather was of a surprisingly high quality, considering the RAV4’s modest $32,000 price tag. They provided excellent support to boot.
The Limited model also comes with the top-end Entune infotainment system. Though, it unfortunately makes due with a frustrating 6.1-inch screen.
The same cannot be said for all of the trim. The base RAV4 starts at just $23,550 and some of that budget mindedness is present in the interior. For instance, the plastic shift gate is flimsy enough that it can be depressed a full inch with one finger.
Still, despite the cheapness, the RAV4 probably has the best laid out, most practical interior in the segment.
A mixed bag
Ultimately, I found the RAV4 very frustrating. Then again I am not the car’s target customer. Its lifeless driving experience just isn’t that relevant to the people buying a small crossover. So while it is difficult for me to overlook what feels like a lazy effort on that front, it isn’t what defines the RAV4.
Looking past the driving experience to the practical side of things, the RAV4 does have a lot to offer. It offers massive interior room and an unbeatable amount of cargo space. If, like most drivers, you have large dogs or kids or both, these things matter far more than an exhilarating sprint to 60 mph.
For those of us who don’t hate fun, but still need something with a whiff of practicality there is always the Subaru Forester XT.
- Comfortable seating
- Massive cargo space
- Large back seat
- Lackluster performance
- Uneven interior quality
- Uncomfortable and load ride