EVANSTON, Wyo. -- A rutty trace of sand and stone shoots up Hank's Hill in mile-high Wasatch foothills of southwestern Wyoming, and we're bumping and bouncing along this lofty back road to test the off-road traction capability of Toyota's 2015 RAV4 crossover utility vehicle for the compact class.
This all-wheel-drive (AWD) rendition of RAV4 applies the torque from a gutsy 4-cylinder engine to all wheels through a mechanism that operates automatically.
RAV4 with AWD begins with a front-wheel-drive (FWD) model but gains a rear differential with an integrated electromagnetic coupling and dynamic torque control (DTC) unit. The DTC device engages the rear wheels automatically when various sensors (vehicle speed, throttle input, steering wheel angle) determine that more torque should be sent to the rear wheels to prevent vehicle skidding. Torque distribution front-to-rear may vary from 100 percent front to 50 percent front and 50 percent rear. For off-pavement driving, a manual locking switch holds torque distribution at 50:50 to maximize tire grip at slow speeds.
RAV4 with FWD comes with an automatic limited slip differential (A-LSD), which is activated by the driver at low speeds. Through pulses to each front brake, the A-LSD system distributes the engine's power across the front axle.
The RAV4 nameplate signifies a Recreational Active Vehicle with 4-wheel-drive traction.
The first-generation RAV4 of 1996 defied traditional body-on-frame organization of a rear-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle constructed on a truck chassis by instead using the unified structure of a FWD car.
RAV4 of 2015 in fourth-generation design still employs the rigid unibody structure of a car with FWD and AWD traction choices and a fuel-efficient in-line-4 engine.
RAV4's 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine carries dual overhead cams (DOHC) and Toyota's intelligent variable valve timing (VVT-i) unit. The plant produces 176 hp at 6000 rpm with torque of 172 lb-ft at 4100 rpm.
Transaxle is an electronically controlled 6-speed automatic with first and second gear ratios optimized for in-town driving and fifth and sixth gears rigged as overdrives to enhance highway fuel mileage.
The 2015 RAV4 earns EPA fuel economy figures of 24 mpg city and 31 mpg highway for FWD versions and 22 mpg city and 29 mpg highway for AWD versions.
RAV4's suspension consists of independent MacPherson struts in front with a stabilizer bar and rear double wishbone with coil springs and stabilizer bar.
The rack and pinion steering mechanism uses vehicle-speed-sensitive electric power steering (EPS). It adds driver-select Sport mode for a firmer feel and quicker response to steering input.
Toyota maxes hardware for safety on RAV4, with the cabin surrounded by hidden air bags -- up-front inflators for front seats plus seat-mounted side air bags and one more to shield the driver's knee and a seat-cushion air bag for the front passenger, then curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners above side windows.
Standard on all RAV4 editions is Toyota's Star Safety System with an anti-lock brake system (ABS) and electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) plus brake assist (BA), and a vehicle stability control (VSC) device with traction control (TRAC).
RAV4's refined cabin with four passenger doors adds flexible seating for five and cargo space in the back bay with access through a top-hinged liftgate. Up front there are two bucket seats with height-adjustable headrests and a floor-mounted center console. The second-row bench for three splits and seatbacks fold down flat. And cargo space expands from 38.4 cubic feet with second-row seatbacks up to 73.4 cubic feet of room with second-row seatbacks down.
RAV4 2015 presents three trim levels -- price-leader LE, well-equipped XLE and deluxe Limited -- with extensive standard gear and optional packages for add-on equipment.
The Technology Package installs a Blind Spot Monitor, Rear Cross Traffic Alert and Lane Departure Warning plus Auto High Beam lamps.
A new Blizzard Pearl Premium Package brings a special Blizzard Pearl paint job and 18-inch alloy wheels capped by 235/55R18 all-season blackwall tires.
Toyota sets the MSRP map for RAV4 2015 from $23,680 for the entry-model LE/FWD to $29,850 for top-dog Limited/AWD.