Toyota RAV4 — from cute-ute to brute-ute

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The Toyota RAV4 has grown up in 2006 and added a solid layer of muscle.

More than a decade ago, the adorable little RAV entered the marketplace igniting a new segment of small car-based fuel-efficient sport utility vehicles. Journalist pundits quickly labeled the RAV4 and a handful of other like-minded vehicles “cute-utes.”

But in today’s industry, bigger is better and more is more – even at 3-bucks a gallon and then some. To that end for 2006, the charter member of the cute-ute brigade has graduated into brute-ute status gaining 6.7 inches in wheelbase, 14.5 inches in length, about 500 pounds in heft, an optional third-row seat and more than 100 horsepower.

Egad! The RAV4’s growth is more than normal — even for an industry on steroids — it’s phenomenal.

The prodigious increase in engine muscle comes from the addition of a 3.5-liter V-6 generating 269 horsepower. In fact, it’s the same engine that propels the Avalon, Toyota’s flagship sedan.

This gives the RAV4 bragging rights as the fastest in its SUV segment.

And perhaps on a more practical note, it gives the RAV4 a towing capacity of 3,500 pounds when outfitted with the tow package. That’s 2,000 more than last year.

As interesting as the V-6 is to us horsepower fanatics, Toyota predicts that 70 percent of sales will be for the RAV4 equipped with the carryover 4-cylinder engine, which up until now was the only engine available.

The 2.4-liter now makes 166 hard-working horses, five more than last year. Performance, which is adequate for all occasions, is about the same as 2005 because of the weight gain.

We drove the 4-cylinder version in well-equipped Sport trim level with all-wheel drive and found it up to the task for the chores we instructed it to perform. We can understand why people who don’t need the towing and hauling capability offered with the bigger engine would opt for the 4-cylinder.

The selling price is about two grand less and the gas mileage rated at 24-miles to the gallon in city driving and 30-mpg out on the highway in 2-wheel drive format and 23/28 with all-wheel, bests the V-6 (20/27).

But the V-6 gives the RAV4 the kind of urgency that is worth a couple thousand dollars as pointed up by such numbers as 0-to-60 in 6.3 seconds according to statistics from a major automobile publication. After all, the race between stop lights can never be minimized.

The new RAV4 has cleaner lines than the previous iteration, leaning toward the Volkswagen Touareg school of SUV design. The beltline flows up from the front as the roofline slopes down giving the vehicle the look of forward motion. The recognizable Toyota trapezoidal-shaped grille is still there but in a more rugged rendition. The rear haunches are bulked up with taillights that wrap over the corners.

Besides the prodigious engine upgrade, the biggest news is a gigantic increase in interior room. For the first time, Toyota has given the RAV4 a third-seat option. But if you plan on using it for adult passengers, pass it up and move on to a bigger vehicle. When the third seat is not in use it will fold flat into the floor and won’t rob cubic feet from the cargo area.

Second-row passengers will welcome the extra space. There’s stretch-out room and the rear seats can be moved fore and aft a few inches to increase leg room or cargo room, whatever is needed. And the seatbacks can be reclined for additional comfort.

When the second row is not in use a simple pull of two handles in the cargo area will tumble the seats into a flat load floor. We welcomed this ease-of-use feature during a week when hauling yard sale stuff was our number one priority.

The cargo area is vast. There are only 12 cubic feet behind the third seat, but there are 37 behind the second-row seats and when all seats are stowed, the RAV4 has a considerable cargo area of 73 cubic feet.

The RAV4 has always been a wonderful little machine for around-town errands. It was extremely maneuverable whether in a tight mall parking lot or in stop-and-go city driving.

Remarkable as it may sound, the much larger RAV4 has lost none of this maneuverability. It is still a delight to jump in and buzz a mile down to the convenience store.

The driver will find the behind-the-wheel surroundings rewarding. The dashboard is a work of art, the center control panel an automotive sculpture that lends a classy look to the cabin. Yet art has not trumped practicality. Switchgear is intuitive and easy to use.

The RAV4 comes in three trim levels — base, Sport and Limited — starting at $20,300. Standard features are many including four-wheel antilock brakes, stability and traction control, air conditioning, power windows and locks, stereo with CD player and MP3 capability and tilt and telescoping steering wheel.

The least expensive V-6-equipped RAV4 in 2-wheel drive format is $22,985, including destination charges.

A couple of desirable options on our all-wheel drive Sport test vehicle were an upgraded JBL sound system with 6-disc changer and nine speakers that included a subwoofer for $590 and side-mounted airbags and side-curtain airbags for $650. The bottom line of our test vehicle was $25,786.

Other available options include a power moonroof, leather seating and a rear DVD entertainment system. Leather seating and the DVD package can only be obtained with the Limited model.

Toyota has managed to move the RAV4 up in size — and horsepower if desired — without losing its easy-to-drive, likable personality. It’s an excellent demonstration on how to dramatically improve a vehicle without losing any of the model’s strong points. Measurably smart.