Test Drive: 2015 Toyota RAV4 - NY Daily News
With the RAV4, Toyota has built a reputation for producing a useful, reliable, and affordable 4-wheeled equivalent to a Leatherman multi-purpose tool. The latest version continues this tradition in its ongoing sales battle against rivals like the Honda CR-V, Ford Escape, and Mazda CX-5. It’s hugely popular but, as we’d discover, the RAV4 has room for improvement.
Subaru can lay claim to building the original crossover SUV*, but Toyota had a big hand in popularizing the concept when the first RAV4 debuted for the 1996 model year. Wearing an acronym for Recreational Active Vehicle with 4-Wheel Drive, the RAV4 was small, affordable, practical, and as it turned out, damn near bulletproof. Plus, its polarizing looks likely helped more than hurt. That first RAV4 stood out in a market that was still brand new.
Toyota has redesigned the RAV4 three times in the past two decades, with the latest edition debuting for the 2013 model year. It is a hugely popular small crossover SUV, thanks to a reputation for dependability, a roomy and practical interior, impressive fuel economy ratings, and affordable prices. Having now spent a week using one to shuttle my own family around the ‘burbs of Los Angeles, the question is whether the RAV4 deserves so much adoration? I’m skeptical.
Painted silver and equipped with a black cloth interior, my RAV4 XLE was about as average as it gets. At least it had the optional all-wheel-drive system, lending accuracy to its nameplate. At $27,625, it came in well below what people are spending for a new car, on average, pegging the affordability meter with a big, yellow smiley face. In addition to AWD system, this example also included Toyota’s Entune App Suite technology and a navigation system.
This year, the XLE models get a new finish for the standard aluminum wheels. This change to a Superchrome treatment might be a small thing, but it makes this crossover SUV look better. Design is always a personal preference, but I don’t find the latest edition of the RAV4 all that appealing. From the bushy gray plastic moustache on its face, to its billboard-sized tailgate and grinning back bumper, the RAV4 looks cartoonish. Give me a previous-generation model in Sport trim with a V-6 engine, please. That version was fun all day long and, in my opinion, it also looked better.
Inside, I’ve got a different story to tell. Architectural and stylish, yet elemental and functional, today’s RAV4 interior represents a leap forward in terms of the quality of materials, the level of technical sophistication, and the amount of practicality and utility. Aside from noting that the plastics used to trim the lower half of the interior are too glossy, my only gripes pertain to how much lint the black cloth seats collect, and how small the virtual buttons on the Entune infotainment system’s touch-sensing screen are.
Screen glare is also an issue with this version of Entune, especially in low winter sunlight. While I find it almost ridiculously easy to pair an iPhone to this system, I can’t figure out why Toyota restricts its Safety Connect service to the upper trim levels of its more expensive vehicles.
Safety Connect is a subscription service, but for a parent of a teenager like I am, the Automatic Collision Notification and Roadside Assistance features are invaluable. Plus, with Safety Connect, a driver can summon help with a push of a button. Great stuff, right? But no matter how much I’m willing to spend, I can’t get this on any version of the RAV4, while some competitors provide it as standard equipment. That’s a major oversight considering how important the RAV4 is in terms of Toyota’s image, along with the brand’s U.S. sales.
Back to the RAV4’s cabin, there’s plenty of room for people and cargo. The front seats are firm and supportive, and my test vehicle included a manual seat height adjuster for the front passenger, getting a big thumbs up from my wife, who likes to sit up nice and high in a vehicle. Toyota could improve comfort levels by adding a leather-wrapped steering wheel and soft upper door panel materials to the XLE model, but otherwise the front seat occupants have few complaints.
Roomy and inviting, the back seat’s bottom cushion is mounted low, so that when the seatback is folded down the resulting cargo load floor is as flat as is possible. While I understand this approach, especially in a vehicle such as this, which is sold, in part, on the strength of its utility, the result is a splay-legged posture for the longer-limbed members of the species. Kids are happy, though.
Among the biggest of the small crossovers when it comes to cargo space, the RAV4 can hold up to 38.4 cu.-ft. of cargo behind its rear seat. Loading is easy, too, thanks to a low lift over height and a rear lift-gate that rises high and out of the way. Fold the rear seats and the RAV4 swallows a generous 73.4 cu.-ft. of whatever you toss in there, or more than the cargo space of some midsize SUVs.
Don’t worry too much about loading a RAV4 with people and stuff, because the 2.5-liter engine is peppy, refined, and fuel-efficient. It makes a competitive 176-horsepower, and while the Sport driving mode makes the RAV4 feel genuinely energetic, I’m not gonna lie: I really miss the 3.5-liter V-6 engine that Toyota used to offer in the RAV4. In exchange for a small fuel economy penalty, the V-6 delivered a big improvement in acceleration.
Toyota has done a good job of calibrating the RAV4’s electric steering, though the driver can detect occasional traces of artifice. The brakes are excellent as this crossover comes to a smooth, clean stop every time. Suspension tuning is taut, giving the RAV4 a connected and athletic feel from behind the wheel. Ultimately, what reigns in the fun are the P225/65R17 Michelin Latitude tires, which provide relatively low cornering grip. Combined with more body roll than might be expected, this choice in rubber prevents the RAV4 from demonstrating the kind of tossability that puts a smile on a driver’s face.
Despite its name and available AWD, you won’t want to go very far off pavement in a RAV4. Just 6.3 inches of ground clearance exists, compared to 8.7 inches for a Subaru Outback, or the RAV4’s more direct competitor from that automaker, the versatile Forester. Those Subarus will get you farther off the beaten path, and through deeper snow than the RAV4. The Forester also offers more overall cargo room than the Toyota.
Another notch in Subaru’s belt pertains to safety. In crash tests conducted by the Federal government, the Forester and the Outback earn 5-star overall ratings, while the RAV4 gets a 4-star rating. Plus, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the Forester and Outback a “Top Safety Pick” laurel combined with a Superior crash-prevention rating. Meanwhile, last year’s RAV4 earned a “Poor” rating in the small overlap frontal-impact test, and is ineligible for a crash-prevention rating.
While it is possible that Toyota has made unannounced changes to improve its IIHS crash-test performance – official ratings for the 2015 model are forthcoming as this review is written – it’s clear that the automaker has some work to do in this regard. Right now, this Toyota appears to be selling in big numbers based on the strength of its historical reputation for durability and economy.
* The 1975 Subaru 4x4 station wagon, which had a raised suspension, became the official car of the U.S. Ski Team in 1976 and, ultimately, became the modern Subaru Outback.