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First Drive: 2013 Toyota RAV4

March 5th, 2013

The Crossover that Created the Segment Enters 2013 Better than Ever

If you’re not a fan of the crossovers that today fill every soccer field parking lot and school unloading zone, you can direct your displeasure squarely at Toyota. The company created the segment back in the mid-90’s when the car-based RAV4 burst onto the scene with a spare tire hanging off the back and a promise to ride and drive more civilized than any other SUV of the time. Since then, the little people mover has expanded to dealerships in more than 150 countries and found more than 171,000 buyers in the US last year. But competition in the segment is relentless with major players releasing all-new or significantly improved offerings in the last year, including the Ford Escape, Mazda CX-5 and Honda CR-V. While developing its all-new 2013 model Toyota is also taking the opportunity to bring this 4th Generation RAV4 back to its roots after watching the model expand away from its core to offer a third row of seats and a V6 engine option that clearly trespassed on the Highlander’s turf. We recently flew to Arizona to drive the new RAV4 and came away impressed with the value Toyota is offering in the crossover that started it all.

Body styling has gone from frumpy to frisky and now falls in line with the rest of the class that has to walk a fine line to attract male buyers while not alienating the female demographic that has historically provided the majority of sales. We like three out of four sides with a strong dose of Mazda CX-5 in the greenhouse (a good thing) and a sharp front end with just the right amount of butch faux-SUV attitude to win over male buyers not satisfied elsewhere. The rear end smartly drops the swing-mounted spare tire in favor of one under the rear cargo floor, but the resulting look is unfortunately unoriginal and our only point of exterior disappointment. Attractive 17” wheels are standard and the Limited model bumps that up to a unique 18” design. Small vortex generators on the side mirrors and molded into the rear lamps result in reduced wind noise and improved aerodynamics aiding in an additional 3 mpg on the highway EPA rating that now stands at 31 for front wheel drive models. You’ll give back 2 mpg for a 29 rating if you add the $1,400 all-wheel drive option to any trim level.

Of course, the engine deserves some credit too. The 2.5-liter I4 isn’t new but it is refined and sounds better than most of the competition. The 176 hp and 172 lb-ft of torque motivate this new RAV4 much better than we remember because Toyota finally retired its ancient 4-speed automatic and installed a smart 6-speed auto that moves crisply through the gears and features an ECO and Sport mode for drivers looking to tailor their experience even further. Sport mode also adjusts throttle response and the electric steering characteristics for the better. Zero to 60 mph takes 8.9 seconds, not fast by any standards but more than a second quicker than the outgoing RAV4 and it feels perfectly adequate on the road.

Larger rear disc brakes are fitted to all trims and mid-level XLE and top-of-the-line Limited models feature larger front brakes for improved stopping performance. The ride is well on the soft side and nobody will confuse the handling with the class-leading dynamics of the Mazda CX-5, but the RAV4 does offer up a very refined driving demeanor that matches up well with the other elephant in the room, Honda’s CR-V.

From behind the wheel we were most impressed with the quiet interior that so effectively seals out the world that we honestly couldn’t hear the engine running when idling at a stop light. While at the light we realized the 2013 RAV4 now has the best looking interior in its class. We like the “Color Block” interior design that breaks up the monotonous gray interior that Toyota was starting to be known for and splashes color along the dash, doors and even on the seats. The comfortable and surprisingly pronounced bolstering of the seats in our Limited tester was our favorite interior feature. It should be noted that real leather is a thing of the past as Limited models feature Softex coverings that mimic leather but look pretty convincing with French stitching and heating included. We’d have to drive the competition back to back but we suspect these are the best seats in the class. The cargo area is now 2 cubic feet larger than before—Toyota claims it’s the largest in the class with the second row folded—and the back seats have generous legroom and recline to provide a very comfortable passenger environment. The ergonomics are top notch up front with simple climate controls with large knobs and buttons and all RAV4s use an easy-to-understand 6.1” touch screen Display Audio system with Limited models upgrading further to 11 JBL speakers. The screen also allows for a standard backup camera to be included on every trim level. Navigation is optional on both XLE and Limited and we are glad Toyota is among the first to offer the touch screen control system without forcing owners to pay for navigation since so many people would rather use Google Maps that is already included on their smartphone.

For all the included goodies we think Toyota continues to be a bit stingy on a few basic items that all customers would likely appreciate. One is the sliding center console lid offered on the Limited but apparently denied to shorter drivers of the bottom two trims and the second being a leather steering wheel and shift knob that you’ll only find on the Limited model. It’s not even an option on lesser trims. We’re probably being picky now. The bottom line is that the interior materials are strong, the switchgear is polished and the included technology is a competitive advantage.

Toyota says the RAV4 comes with 2 years of Toyota Care which is the company’s free scheduled maintenance program and the LE will start at just $23,300. We feel the strongest value in the lineup is the mid-level XLE which adds about $2,000 of equipment but only sells for $24,290. Limited models sticker for $27,010 but Toyota expects the XLE will prove the volume leader. The company says crossover sales have tripled since 2000 and they believe there is more growth coming. After sampling the entire lineup, we’re confident more than a few of those customers will find themselves happily joining the RAV4 family.

Photos courtesy of Toyota

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