When Toyota introduced the first RAV4 a decade ago, it was revolutionary. As the first SUV that was based on a car chassis, it was more comfortable to drive, and gave people the high driving position and offroad ability they wanted, in a tidier package.
In 2006, concerns over gas prices have driven sales of the big rigs down precipitously, and a wide selection of small SUVs are filling the bill. The RAV offers mileage figures of up to 24 City, 30 Highway, which doesn't approach the exquisite economy of Toyota's own Prius, but it still ain't too shabby.
The second generation RAV4 turned out to be about the smallest SUV on the market, so with increased competition on all sides, Toyota decided to upsize the new one. The 2006 RAV4 is more than 14 inches longer than its ancestor. The extra length lets you order a third row seat, a RAV4 exclusive at the moment. The second row seat slides, reclines, and folds flat, so the storage and passenger hauling options are plentiful.
While the last RAV4 tended towards cuteness, this new one is a tougher guy. Toyota's styling has become more exuberant in the last few years. This new design has rear side windows that taper up to a point, leaving a fat rear pillar, almost like a Gremlin. While looking unmistakably like an SUV, the new RAV4's sheetmetal has more character.
The newly spacious interior offers a two-layer dash with a boldly jutting center section. The metallic finish on the left side of this easy-to-use panel kept catching the corner of my eye as I was driving. The dual-layer dash generated a pair of gloveboxes; the top one features an unusual one-touch sliding door. There is storage aplenty, in the doors, center console, front seatbacks, and even some under the cargo area. Keeping to the two-layer theme, my Barcelona Red tester came with a two-tiered rear cargo net with support poles, part of an option package.
As usual, Toyota offers three trim levels, each with two- or four-wheel drive. The menu starts with the Base model and moves up to the Sport and Limited versions. My Sport tester added 18-inch alloy wheels and tires (the base car gets 16s), a sport tuned suspension, and a variety of little things like fender flares, fog lamps, roof rails, and smoked headlamp trim. The seats wear a unique black fabric. The Limited, naturally, gets fancy 17-inch alloy wheels, automatic climate control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and the option of leather-trimmed seats.
Regardless of the level you choose, the RAV4 is loaded with things like air conditioning, a six-speaker sound system with CD, cruise control, remote keyless entry, an outside temperature gauge, and even a tire pressure monitoring system.
There are two engine choices. The standard 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder has been bumped by five horsepower to 166 hp, which puts it in the top tier of four-cylinder-equipped small SUVs. My tester had this engine, and it felt fine-even spunky-except when driving on long uphill grades, when it was merely OK. The 3.5-liter V6 generates a remarkable 269 horsepower and 246 lb.-ft. of torque, which is as good as it gets in the small SUV world. Fuel economy suffers by only a mile or two per gallon for the privilege of hitting 60 mph from a dead stop in less than seven seconds.
Interestingly, you can't get a RAV4 with a manual transmission. The four-cylinder engine comes with a four-speed automatic, while the V6 gets five forward speeds. This development isn't really surprising, considering the target buyer-young couples and small families. Interestingly, Honda offers a manual transmission on its small SUV, but it's an option, and only available on one uplevel model. How things have changed.
The new RAV4 bristles with high technology. The STAR SAFETY SYSTEM includes vehicle stability control, traction control, antilock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, and brake assist. What this means, in essence, is that computers are watching out for you and making adjustments to keep you safe. And they do it faster than you can. Every RAV4 has it.
Electronic Power Steering is new this year. It eliminates the engine-driven power steering pump, thereby improving fuel economy and endowing the steering assist with more precision. The four-wheel-drive system is also electronic, and lets the RAV4 switch from two-wheel drive to four-wheel drive at any moment. It's always ready when you need it but doesn't put a drag on the drivetrain when you don't. You can lock the four-wheel-drive at low speeds for extra offroad traction.
Prices begin at $20,905 for the base model with two-wheel-drive and the four-cylinder engine. The Sport starts at $22,480, while the Limited goes for $23,160. If you add the V6 and four-wheel-drive, you'll find yourself at $26,475, and pile on a few options and it goes even higher. My Sport level tester, with the four-cylinder, four-wheel drive, and a few choice options, came to $26,753.
Toyota has an almost perfect knack for offering the right car for the times. This could be a great time to step out of your gas guzzling SUV and into a more economical ride, without making any great sacrifice.