Lifestyle

Toyota's Prince of Practicality


Rav4_2006
Editor's Rating: star rating

Ten years after its introduction the Rav4 gets an overhaul. It may be jack of all trades, master of none, but it offers a good value

Toyota has pulled off quite a coup with its redesigned Rav4 sport utility vehicle. The latest incarnation of the Rav4, which first hit the market in January, 1996, and has been completely redesigned for 2006, is a practical, well-designed compact SUV that is now big enough (14 inches longer than the previous model) and powerful enough (with an optional 269-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine) to really appeal to American tastes.

The Rav4's soaring sales numbers tell the story. In the first two months of this year, Rav4 sales are up 117% to 20,450, while sales of the Honda CR-V, probably its most direct competitor, have fallen 8% to 19,646. If the trend continues, that's a big reversal. Last year, Honda sold more than 150,000 CR-Vs, more than double the Rav4's sales of 70,000 units for the year. In fact, one of the few negatives about the Rav4 is that you may have to wait awhile to get one with the features you want.

PLAY DRESS UP.

One reason the new Rav4 is popular is that it offers such good value for your money. The base model Rav4 starts out at just $20,905 with front-wheel drive and $22,305 with four-wheel drive. The fancier Limited version -- which comes with dual-zone climate control, a roof rack, a power driver's seat, and a six-CD changer -- starts at $23,160 with front-wheel drive and $24,560 with all-wheel drive. Add about $1,500 for the sport version of the car with a stiffer suspension system and big 18-inch wheels, plus another $2,000 or so for the bigger six-cylinder engine.

What this means in plain language is that you can get the Rav4 in versions to suit just about every taste. The base model is an inexpensive small SUV that can be had with four-wheel drive if you live in the snowbelt and without if you don't. Opt for the six-cylinder engine and sports suspension and it's a speedy performance car that can jump from 0 to 60 in less than seven seconds.

Throw in the optional third-row seat ($810) and it becomes a carpooling vehicle for suburban soccer parents. The Rav4 isn't meant to be luxurious, but you can also opt for a fair number of creature comforts and safety features if you want them, including leather seats ($1,050), heated seats ($440), a moonroof ($900), and side and side-curtain airbags ($610).

The big question you face right off the bat is whether to pay the extra two grand for the V-6 engine. If you do a lot of highway driving, I'd say go for it because it probably won't affect your fuel consumption all that much.

CHOOSE POWER.

With the standard 166-horsepower four-cylinder engine engine, the Rav4 is rated to get 23 mpg in the city and 29 on the highway (or 23 and 28 with four-wheel drive), only slightly better than the 20 in the city and 28 on the highway it's rated to get with the bigger engine (or 20 and 27 with four-wheel drive). In 425 miles of mainly highway driving of my test car with the four-cylinder engine and four-wheel drive, I got 24.7 miles per gallon.

If you're into fast driving, the bigger engine will dramatically add to the fun of driving the Rav4. As Leo, a reader of my review of the Subaru WRX noted, the V-6-powered Rav4 is one of the few small SUVs that can compete with the little Subaru station wagon's speediness.

The four-cylinder engine should be adequate for most people, but it's not especially exciting to drive. In town, it's sprightly without being particularly sporty, though there's a surprising amount of oomph when you pull out into the passing lane at highway speed. The ride is very smooth, but with enough road feel so you know it when you go over a bump. The steering is tight but a little heavy. I felt like I was working a little harder than in most compact cars.

WISHFUL SHIFTING.

Unfortunately, the Rav4 only comes with an automatic transmission, and the four-speed automatic that's paired with the smaller engine is a little loud. The Subaru WRX, which can be had with a stick shift and has a lower center of gravity, handles better. For that matter, so does the Toyota-made Scion tC , which has the same standard four-cylinder engine as the Rav4 and also can be ordered with a stick shift.

The Rav4 isn't by any means a rough and ready off-road vehicle, but it handles winter driving conditions quite well. It has an intelligent four-wheel-drive system that automatically distributes power based on road conditions -- so much of the time it's actually in front-wheel drive only. But you can push a button to keep the four-wheel drive permanently on when you need to power out of a snowdrift.

There's also "hill start assist" to keep you from rolling backward when you take off from a standing start on an incline and "downhill assist control" that intervenes to keep your speed steady when you're driving down a steep slope.

IN ITS PLACE.

What really stands out about the Rav4 is its practicality. The third seat is probably too tight for adults, but it's a great option for those who regularly travel with small children. The Rav4 has numerous cupholders, and there are handy storage bins and niches everywhere.

These include a small separate compartment above the glove compartment, a small flat space for papers over the CD bin between the front seats, and an underfloor cargo area in the back where the spare normally would be (the Rav4's full-size spare tire rides on its rear-end, outside the passenger compartment).

There are also bins for maps, purses, and magazines in the doors, nets on the backs of the front seats for stowing magazines and papers, and another net behind the second row of seats.

JUST FINE.

In terms of looks, the interior is nothing special. The black cloth upholstery in the base model is functional and looks quite durable, but it's but not very attractive. The center stack looks like an implant made out of R2D2 robot parts, which is fine if you're a Star Wars fan but out of place in such a functional vehicle. The big chrome Toyota logo on the steering wheel looks a little tacky.

Still, the Rav4 gives you tons of features and technology for your money, as well as many thoughtful design touches. It isn't perfect, but if you're looking for a practical, versatile set of wheels at a reasonable price, you'll want one.


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