Toyota RAV4 — Return to prominence

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The optional V-6 engine is gone. The third-row seat is history. The iconic spare tire enclosure and the side-hinged rear door have been scrapped. What remains with the 2013 Toyota RAV4 is a modern compact crossover with an adequate, fuel-efficient four-cylinder engine, updated styling and a roomy passenger-friendly interior.

The new RAV4 has a sculptured rear that now carries the familial look of the Toyota brand. On upscale models the more traditional liftgate comes with a power-up feature with height adjustment. In addition to the restyled rear, the RAV4 has aggressively styled front and rear fenders, a character line that flows up from front to back and into boldly proportioned wrap-around taillights, and a sweptback roofline arc that imparts an athletic presence.

The redesign comes in the nick of time for Toyota as more buyers are moving into the compact crossover segment now populated by new, upscale vehicles such as the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe Sport and Mazda CX-5. These vehicles offer family-style passenger and cargo hauling capabilities combined with improved gas mileage.

While we were only modestly impressed with the RAV4 when we drove it last winter in Arizona, our initial perception changed when we spent more time with it on home turf this summer. We found it to be conservatively handsome with a quiet, refined and comfortable ride and with enough performance to handle the everyday chores of driving.

Owners of recent-model RAV4s will be familiar with the 2.5-liter four-cylinder dispensing 176 horsepower and 172 pound-feet of torque. It's basically the same engine as found in the 2009-2012 models. The big difference is that the old four-speed automatic has been discarded in favor of a six-speed. In instrument testing, the RAV4 with all-wheel drive completed a 0-to-60 run in 9.1 seconds, about average for the segment.

There are two driving modes: Eco and Sport. Eco helps you drive more efficiently, but at the expense of needed performance. Our advice – pretend it doesn’t exist. The Sport mode is the setting that gives the RAV4 a more fun-to-drive demeanor, making the handling noticeably more spirited and offering better road feel.

All-wheel drive is a $1,400 option across the lineup. We think it's worth the expense because it not only aids motorists in bad weather situations, but on dry surfaces as well. The system anticipates when it will be needed and this includes during hard acceleration and higher speed cornering on dry pavement. It doesn't wait for the front wheels to slip before going to work enhancing cornering feel and eliminating the nose-heavy persona the vehicle otherwise would have.

The only performance downside we encountered was occasional gear hunting on hilly roads, which we found annoying. That malady is perhaps the result of drivetrain tuning for better mileage which is rated at 24 city/31 highway for the front-drive model and 22/29 for all-wheel drive.

The RAV4 is loaded with safety, starting with class-leading eight standard airbags, Toyota’s Star Safety System that includes traction control, enhanced vehicle stability control, and anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist. In instrument testing, the RAV4 stopped from 60 mph in 127 feet, about average for the segment. The top trim level has an available backup camera and blind spot monitoring system with rear cross traffic alert — one of the best safety devices now offered at any price.

Inside the crossover, upscale materials are used throughout with soft, stitched leather available. The instrument cluster is handsomely housed and the gauges and controls are all highly intuitive. The optional navigation system includes Toyota's Entune technology, a suite of smartphone-connected services that includes the Bing search engine, Pandora streaming radio, real-time traffic, and stock information.

The rear seats have a rather rare commodity, comfort and legroom usually not seen in this segment. When the seatbacks are folded for weekend hauling duties, there’s 73.4 cubic feet of cargo space available. The RAV4 is not meant for towing weekend toys, however, with a maximum towing capacity of just 1,500 pounds.

The RAV4 comes in three trim levels starting with the LE trim at $24,145. Standard equipment across the lineup includes full power accessories, air conditioning, cruise control, a six-speaker sound system with six-inch touchscreen, and a rearview camera. The mid-level XLE (which we also drove) starting at $25,185 will probably be the most popular model and it adds 17-inch alloy wheels, heated side mirrors, dual-zone climate control and a sunroof. The Limited model with even more goodies begins at $27,905. Our well-equipped Limited test vehicle with all-wheel drive carried a bottom line of $31,415.

Base price: $24,145; as driven, $31,415
Engine: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 176 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 172 foot-pounds @ 4,100 rpm
Drive: all-wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 104.7 inches
Length: 179.9 inches
Curb weight: 3,600 pounds
Turning circle: 36.7 feet
Towing capacity: 1,500 pounds
Luggage capacity: 38.4 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 73.4 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 15.9 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 29 highway, 22 city
0-60: 9.1 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe Sport

The Good
• Roomy interior
• Quiet and comfortable
• Fuel efficient

The Bad
• Entune system setup difficult

The Ugly
• No engine upgrade