SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- El Camino Cielo -- The Sky Road -- is a rutty trace of sand and stone that tracks along a spiny ridge half a mile high above the California Coast and a few miles to the west of Santa Barbara.
We're bumping and bounding along this lofty ridge to test the off-road traction capability of the RAV4, Toyota's compact-class CUV (crossover utility vehicle).
This treatment of RAV4 in Toyota's 2009 lineup reveals mid-generation refreshments inside and out.
There are three trim grades for RAV4 of 2009 with a new four-cylinder engine aboard or an optional V6.
Trims include the base RAV4, a tautly-tuned Sport and premium Limited -- and each may be outfitted with the four-cylinder or the V6, and with either front-oriented two-wheel-drive (2WD) traction or a four-wheel-drive (4WD) rig.
The RAV4 Sport we're steering along sandy El Camino Cielo, rigged with the muscular six-pack and Toyota's electronically controlled on-demand 4WD mechanism, switches continuously and automatically between front-wheel 2WD and 4WD for sure-footed traction, with a 4WD manual locking switch added to maximize torque distribution to rear wheels for slow-go momentum in dicey traction situations, plus extra electronic assistance from the optional hill-start assist control (HAC) and downhill assist control (DAC) mechanisms.
Also, the suspension -- MacPherson struts in front and a double wishbone design in the rear -- scores a tighter tune (stiffer spring rates and stronger shock damping) on the Sport with big 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels and P235/55R18 rubber rounders.
The name of this wagon denotes a Recreational Active Vehicle with 4WD.
Toyota introduced RAV4 to the home market of Japan in 1994, then shipped it to North America in 1996.
The original RAV4 was a novel concept that defied traditional body-on-frame organization of a sport utility vehicle constructed on a truck chassis by instead using the unified structure of a front-wheel-drive (FWD) car.
It also employed the suspension of a car. Instead of the solid rear axle of a typical truckish SUV, the original RAV4 bore independent suspension elements at every wheel. This brought more control over the vehicle for a driver and, when venturing away from pavement, more comfortable ride sensations for riders.
With the car-like suspension and quick-to-respond rack and pinion steering installed, that initial RAV4 seemed to eliminate all the effort required to drive a rugged sport-ute, and in urban traffic it was easy to maneuver and behaved like a small sedan rather than a truck.
Imitators followed Toyota's lead with RAV4, and some of the crossover competitors brought refinements plus luxury features absent on the original RAV4.
A second-generation version of RAV4 in 2001 addressed shortcomings of the original, although for the third design of 2006 Toyota's designers virtually started from scratch and reinvented the CUV.
RAV4 of 2006, which is the basis for all 2009 editions, grew up -- longer and broader in scale with a stiffer chassis, a bigger cabin and more comfortable accommodations.
It packed larger powertrains and high-tech electronic controls like electric power steering (EPS) and standard safety gear such as vehicle stability control (VSC), traction control (TRAC), the anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD) and brake assist (BA).
The wheelbase length stretched substantially -- some six inches longer -- and the overall length extended by more than 14 inches longer, which set up a larger platform not only to enhance the vehicle's stability and ride quality but create a greatly expanded passenger compartment.
RAV4's refined cabin with four passenger doors applied adds flexible seating for five or seven inside and cargo space in the back bay with access through a rear swing gate.
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.
The optional third-row split bench for two tykes also folds flat.
Cargo space is significant. With second-row and third-row seatbacks folded down, there's 73 cubic feet of room rising from a flat floor.
And small stow spots dot the compartment -- bins on front doors, the front console box, a two-tier glove compartment in the dash, netted cubby cradles on backs of front buckets, and several hidden storage areas recessed below deck in the cargo bay.
For the editions of 2009, the body of RAV4 sports a fresh face and tail treatment with revised front grille and improved fascia foglamps, and restyled taillamps plus a new rear step bumper clad with protective black molding.
RAV4 base and Limited trim grades roll on new 17-inch alloy wheels, with the Limited sprouting side mirrors with integrated turn signals plus chrome on the front grille, and RAV4 Sport flashing a new spoiler on the trailing edge of the roof.
For the 4WD V6 RAV4 an optional Sport Appearance Package installs run-flat tires, a revamped tailgate with no spare tire attached, and a stainless steel tip on the exhaust tailpipe.
Standard powertrain for RAV4 of 2009 is a new 2.5-liter in-line-four with dual overhead cams (DOHC) and Toyota's intelligent variable valve timing (VVT-i) coupled to a four-speed electronic automatic transmission with gated shifter.
The plant produces 179 hp at 6000 rpm and torque of 172 lb-ft at 4000 rpm.
RAV4's optional powertrain is a dual-cam 3.5-liter V6 with VVT-i and a five-speed electronic automatic.
The V6 romps with 269 hp at 6200 rpm and 246 lb-ft of torque at 4700 rpm.
Even the base grade of RAV4 totes a lot of gear -- power controls for operating windows and door locks and mirrors, a remote keyless entry device, cool Optitron meters in the instrument panel, cruise control and air conditioning, a tilt and telescopic steering wheel, six-way manual adjustments for the driver's seat, up to 10 cupholders scattered around the cabin plus three 12-volt auxiliary power outlets, a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS), and a six-speaker audio kit with AM/FM/CD plus a jack for MP3/WMA playback.
The MSRP chart for RAV4 ranges from $21,500 to $27,810.