Popular for Good Reasons

2009, Toyota, RAV4

Since the mid 1990s, Toyota's compact SUV has delivered a carlike driving experience with SUV practicality and style. With some modest upgrades, the 2009 model keeps the successful formula going.

While walking my dog, I noticed that the people down at the corner own two of the latest generation RAV4s. Leilani Robinson and her daughter-in-law, Mona, have a set-Leilani's 2006 and Mona's 2007 model. Toyotas are a Robinson family tradition, going back to their distinguished green-and-white 1976 Land Cruiser.

"There's great pickup on the freeway, and it's very comfortable," says Leilani. The women enjoy the practicality and style of their cars, which are identical except for color and that Mona opted for four-wheel drive.

I saw two previous-generation RAV4s within half a block of the Robinson's, and then realized that my neighbor, Mike, owns a RAV4 too. They're everywhere!

The RAV4 will haul 73 cubic feet of cargo when you drop the 2nd row seats, or will carry a family of 5 (or 7, with optional third row seat) if you need to.

RAV4s are plenty strong but are also easy on fuel. My Pacific Blue Metallic tester's new 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine pulled the 3,360-pound car along nicely with 179 horsepower and 172 lb.-ft. of torque. That's a nice boost from last year's 2.4-liter, which offered 166/165 respectively. Fuel economy with the four and the standard four-speed automatic is 22 City, 28 Highway-I averaged 24.3 mpg with my two-wheel-drive test car. With four-wheel drive, the numbers drop by 1 mpg.

The EPA Green numbers tell another happy tale-7 out of 10 for both Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gas scores-which places the RAV4 in the exclusive "Smartway" category.

Toyota is happy to provide a potent 3.5-liter V6 as an option. Power leaps to 269 horsepower and 246 lb.-ft. of torque, putting it at the head of the compact SUV segment. With its five-speed automatic, it earns 19 City/27 Highway with two-wheel-drive and 19/26 with four-wheel drive.

The RAV4's handsome interior looks slightly upscale with a brushed-metal look trim. Everything feels immediately comfortable and is easy to use. The second-row seats slide forward or backward to maximize people or cargo space.

You can choose from three levels-Base, Sport and Limited. The latter two offer upgrades towards performance (or the look of it) and luxury. My Base tester was well equipped, with air conditioning, tilt/telescope steering wheel, power windows, power locks, foldable power mirrors, an AM/FM/CD six-speaker audio system, remote keyless entry and even a handy outside temperature gauge and rear privacy glass.

Because all RAV4s use the same engine and drive train, the Sport makes its main impression with exterior upgrades, such as a 18-inch alloys (replacing the standard 16-inch steel wheels), color-keyed door handles and fender flares, fog lights, roof rails and crossbars, smoked headlamp trim and a sport-tuned suspension.

The Limited upgrades the interior with dual-zone automatic climate control, nicer seat fabric, upgraded audio with six-disc in-dash changer and integrated satellite radio, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and a few other niceties. You can add some of these as separate options on the Base models.

Storage is amazing. I noted two gloveboxes, front door compartments, a center console box, front seatback pockets, a rear door storage pocket and a rear storage compartment. There's hidden storage in back if you don't order the third-row seats.

Intended for families, the car's loaded with safety features. The reinforced cabin is surrounded by front and rear crumple zones. New for 2009, neck-saving active headrests pop up if the car senses an impending rear-end collision. There are plenty of airbags; the front passenger airbag senses if the seat is occupied and the person's weight to determine whether to fire the airbag in a crash.

U.S. Government safety ratings give the RAV4 high marks: Five stars (driver) and four stars (passenger) in frontal crashes, five stars for front and rear seat side crashes, and four stars for rollover.

The RAV4's STAR Safety System includes Enhanced Vehicle Stability Control, Traction Control and antilock brakes with Electronic Brake-force Distribution and Brake Assist. These electronic marvels maximize your safety by stepping in when needed to keep the car going where you intend and help it stop as quickly and safely as possible in an emergency.

Prices range from $21,500 for the Base to $24,490 for the Limited, plus $745 delivery. My tester added a few extras, such as the unnecessary tube steps along the sides ($450) and the Extra Value Package. The total came to $23,642, quite reasonable in today's market.

If you want an attractive, affordable, reliable vehicle that handles just about anything, the RAV4 is a popular way to take care of it. Just ask your neighbors.

By Steve Schaefer

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Images of the 2009, Toyota RAV4

2009 Toyota RAV4 front shot
2009 Toyota RAV4 front shot
2009 Toyota RAV4 dashboard
2009 Toyota RAV4 dashboard
2009 Toyota RAV4 center console
2009 Toyota RAV4 center console
2009 Toyota RAV4 from the back
2009 Toyota RAV4 from the back