Toyota RAV4 Elegance 2.0L D-4D 4×2 – SUV looks, crossover at the drive shaft

It’s been a long time since the largest automaker in the world, also the biggest company in Japan, had introduced the first RAV4 compact SUV – if it were a human the model would have the legal age to go into a bar all around the world.

It may have become ubiquitous by now but back in 1994 – a whopping 22 years ago – there were no such things such as compact crossover sport utility vehicles. It may be a history lesson everyone knows but I feel the need to remind it sometimes. That’s because chances are drivers of the current generation of the RAV4 weren’t yet around when the Japanese company first introduced the model. It was unheard of back then of a compact vehicle that delivered in a sensible package things like big cargo space, high riding visibility and full time four wheel drive while also providing the dynamics and comfort of a regular compact hatchback.

And I’m telling all of us that because the RAV4 we drove right now didn’t even have full time all wheel drive, or even the all wheel drive system at all. But we have grown so accustomed to the SUVs being all around us that we are understandably sometimes looking for the SUV package without even needing the 4×4 capabilities. And this is all owed to the global expansion of the crossover segment which has gained such massive traction that sometimes automakers have eschewed providing models into regular passenger car segments – just remember that Nissan offered the Qashqai and no other compact hatchback between the Almera and Pulsar in certain markets. I feel this is important for the understanding of Toyota’s deliberate choice to offer the diesel engined version in a regular front wheel drive version and the gasoline in a full-blown 4×4 guise. And if we want to keep it simple, they essentially divided the market – if clients want the SUV capabilities they need to go to the gasoline and if they want the diesel they will need to contend to a crossover model. This is also a ploy to derive the diesel aficionados towards the HSD hybrid version actually – because of course that one will have both a 4×2 and a 4×4 version. The judgment on this call – if it’s wrong or write, practical or not – will though be reserved to the moment when we have the RAV4 HSD reviewed, so stay tuned.

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More importantly, the RAV4 is also one of the representatives of the Toyota family that never fell down the “righteous” path of delivering all the Japanese car amenities (comfort, reliability, functionality, quality) in a boring package – as it has been the case for years with other models. From the first generation onwards, the RAV4 has remained quirky (ok, I’ll give you that, the third generation was at the edge of tipping in the negative zone) and kept its own unmistakable personality.

Design, Interior and Gadgets
Today the whole Toyota family is on the verge of becoming as quirky as possible – just look at the C-HR crossover which is a clear reference to the way of doing things in the Nissan Juke department (that’s the love/hate scenario). The main tipping point was actually one that Toyota would want everyone to forget – the sudden acceleration scandal that started back in 2009. That’s when Akio Toyoda – the current chief executive officer and president – was only coming to power and fell the entire brunt of the scandal weigh on his shoulders. We can attest to his qualities – since Toyota not only recovered but also recaptured the briefly lost No.1 global sales position. But I would say the main benefit of his leadership is the current direction of the company – models such as the Mirai and latest generation Prius are in a league of their own in terms of design (the controversy is big here, since such stylistic choices are not everyone’s cup of tea). And a lover of fast cars (he even raced under a pseudonym – Morizo Kinoshita), Toyoda has been a fan of impressive projects such as the Lexus IS F or the recently introduced LC 500 / LC 500 h.

The natural progression from having hero cars – for Toyota I really believe the halo cars are the Prius and now also the Mirai – is that elements from them will be lingering in the minds of the development teams. That’s why the facelift of the RAV4 – which has been presented last year during the New York Auto Show – has retuned the model to bring certain ideas in a diluted form from the green pack. For example the theme of the triangular bumper intakes from the Mirai was rehashed as the triangular fog light casing on the Prius or Prius Prime. And in a way less controversial form is also found on the RAV4 as well – unlike other models in the European roster such as the Auris or Avensis who don’t have it. Other modifications that set the refreshed model apart from the predecessor were mostly subtle: new front end with a sleeker grille, a tad smaller headlights and a more angular lower grille, as well as modified rocker panels, new rear bumper and upgraded liftgate. Versions such as the one we tested also got faux silver skid plates for example.

Toyota RAV4 diesel (12)

The changes were minor – you’ll see the same goes for the interior – but brought the RAV4 even more in line with the current Toyota design philosophy. There’s no chance you’ll see the RAV4 as controversial as the Prius or Mirai but there’s also no chance to ever consider the current roster of Toyota models boring. One of the main advantages of treating the RAV4 as a global model is that it has been fashioned to cater for tastes of European, Asian and American owners – which back in the day was not a great idea due to the blend of different ideas. But today in the XXI century globalization has taken hold and at least in the automotive industry there’s no other way around (even the Chinese want to sell their cars in America). In Toyota’s case that’s not really a bad thing.

For starters, this new design language has elements that are usable across the board without any problem – there won’t be too many owners in America to complain the SUV is too European or vice-versa because the new styling is enticing enough to have no regional approach. Also, the Toyota line is still a tad more tempered than Lexus, with the luxury unit really making a mark for itself with the crafted diamond-cut shapes that again might not be to the liking of everyone.

Going inside the cabin we can see how the RAV4 has advanced to its fourth generation – compact SUVs now have a lengthier wheelbase and roomier dimensions: the first RAV4 had a 2,410 mm wheelbase (5-door) and the current model stands at 2,660 mm. This equates to a spaced interior that will accommodate five adults and their luggage or have room enough for two full-sized child seats on the backrest. It’s important to note such things because the RAV4 in this version – 4×2 – acts as a true crossover and the segment has been growing tremendously specifically due to families upgrading from the classic station wagon. The tested version also has an interesting material choice – the classic leatherette/cloth combination is enhanced with areas that mimic suede fabrics for a more upscale feel. The drivers and front passenger seats are well defined and while they’re not offering the best lateral support during fast turn maneuvers they are generous and comfortable on long hauls. One more detail that is equally considerate and slips the mind of many automakers – the RAV4 comes with enhanced protection for the side sills (the doors have a protruding cover) which keeps your clothes tidy after a rainy day or after an off-road visit in case of the all-wheel drive versions.

The dashboard is yet another example of quirkiness – auto producers today tend to go to extremes – you have the instrument cluster and the central stack undivided in separate zones and it looks like the factory produced the whole assembly in one piece. Here we have clearly defined zones: instrument cluster area, infotainment sector and climate control, the lower section with some buttons and switches that you don’t use on a daily basis (the auto start/stop engine cutoff, heated seats, auxiliary heating, heated windshield and AUX, USB and power plugs). The design here is still respecting the same usable areas as any carmaker, but at least you get your own styling domain in the RAV4. While the input is commendable, the handling is not though – the touchscreen display should be at least angled towards the driver because it easily reflects sunlight and the lower section is too concealed. The Toyota Touch 2 system is only average in terms of usability as well, because many sub-menus are hidden, but at least you get all the usual amenities – AUX, USB, Bluetooth and navigation.

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Engine, Transmission and Handling
The powertrain of the diesel equipped RAV4 consists of a very traditional 2-liter diesel packing 143 hp and mated to a six-speed manual gearbox that will direct the power and 320 Nm of maximum torque to the front wheels only. The RAV4 diesel is obviously the family version – not the adventurous one – as signaled by the multitude of accessories that can be found in the trunk (see in the gallery). I would have of course loved to have the RAV4 using the regular all-wheel drive system because after all it takes away one of the most important SUV traits – but the RAV4 can still pass as one because it hasn’t been differentiated in any way from the versions that do come with 4×4. It’s a shame they did this because the strong torque is exactly what you need in off-road situations, and the RAV4 diesel has been thus essentially relegated to hauling duties.

These are handled very well – the crossover is comfortable and quiet. Having a two-liter diesel is not going to bode well when you pay your taxes but at least the vehicle never felt underpowered. That’s even as the usual two liter diesel has way more than 150 hp – but the performance inside the RAV4 was still satisfactory. Because of the perceived image of Toyota vehicles and the way they position themselves as an upscale mass-market producer, I looked up at the performances of two possible rivals – the Volkswagen Tiguan 2.0 TDI with manual gearbox and 150 hp and the Volvo XC60 D3, again with 150 hp and a six-speed manual. All three models have front wheel drive so the comparison is equitable – with the RAV4 smack in the middle in terms of dynamic performance: the sprint to 100 km/h (62 mph) is handled in 9,6 seconds, better than the XC 60 with its 10 seconds but worse than the Tiguan which posted a 9,3 seconds score. The top speed is also at 195 km/h, compared to the 190 km/h obtained by the XC60 and the 204 km/h of the German contender. The same situation goes for the average fuel consumption: 4,7 liters per 100 km/h for the Japanese crossover, 4,5 L/100 km for the Swede and 4,8 L/100 km for the German.

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As such, taking home one or the other might be a matter of taste or even financial options which are market dependant. But the RAV4 attracts with its quiet ride, interior comfort thanks to low NVH levels and general quality – which is just as good as the one found in the German or Swedish rivals, the latter being a fully fledged luxury option. What the RAV4 offers in terms of handling is entirely validating the family-oriented crossover premise: no sporting events will be won while driving this vehicle because the lack of AWD will give way to quick understeering reactions – easy to correct but annoying enough to make you lose interest in being the sporty man. While the suspension absorbs all bumps in the road well and doesn’t give in too much during fast turns, the steering is not really inviting you to knit the turns. So, there are no revelations here as well – most crossovers will act this way – and this is maybe the most obvious concession to the American public – they still love comfortable vehicles. The other concession to the US feeling is the gearbox handle – which is taller than we got used to on European-flavored cars. By the way, there’s another interesting trait to be mentioned – the grunt of the diesel reminded me of six-cylinder German diesels, which combined with the high gearbox lever brings a sense of clockwork mechanism that might attract the drivers who enjoy engineering a bit.

Likes/ Dislikes
Pro: roomy interior, good for families with kids – even the trunk has more than the usual set of amenities. Low NVH levels and comfortable ride with big, comfy front seats.
Against: driver focused elements need a more careful implementation, such as the handling and positioning of the Toyota Touch 2 infotainment system. Average performance from the diesel. Lack of 4×4 option with the engine.


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