So last Friday we had our first winter storm with significant snow and icing here is SW Ohio and I had the chance to see how the RAV4 behaves in winter conditions. To note, this is not my first AWD vehicle, the other two being a 4WD Highlander and an FJ Cruiser (manual, with full-time 4WD). The FJ has one of the best 4WD systems money can buy and an excellent benchmark. Also, both are equipped with substantially better tires than the RAV4's OEM Yokohamas.
I can report that, compared to the other two vehicles, the RAV4 performed very well. Here are my observations:
- The transition from FWD to AWD is very fast, smooth and barely noticeable. It takes less than half second for the car to realize that that front wheel are spinning and engage the rear axle. It is actually so quick and smooth that most people probably won't even notice and think that they are still in FWD. The only time when you can feel a perceptible "kick" when the rear axle engages is if you start on a steep incline, with the front wheel on a slippery spot, and rear wheels on clean pavement. My driveway is somewhat steep and impossible to climb with two-wheel drive only. The RAV4 did equally well as the other two 4WD cars. A friend's FWD Escape was dead-in-the-tracks. Even with substantial momentum, it could only make it half-way up the driveway, and once stopped would not start, but only slide backwards.
- The VSC performance is quick, predictable and effective. RAV4's VSC acts both to correct understeer and oversteer. In the FJ, VSC only corrects oversteer, but does not detect or correct understeer. In the HL is acts on both. That said, the RAV4 has substantially higher tendency to understeer than the other two vehicles. I am not sure if this is because of the lousy tires, or the fact that under normal driving conditions the RAV4 is basically FWD. Both the HL and the FJ are full-time 4WD and essentially understeer-free (unless you push them really hard). Unlike the FJ and the HL, RAV4's VSC is "silent", i.e. does not give you an audible warning that the system is active and the only way to detect it is through faint noise / vibration from the wheels. You actually need to know what you are looking for to detect that it is working. But it works nicely, and if you loose control, it's not because VSC is not doing its job, but because you are trying to defy the laws of physics (and remember, physics always wins). Overall, I would rate the RAV4's VSC to be the best of the three - it's the quickest to act, kicks-in even at the slightest skid, does exactly what it should to bring you back on the intended track, and is very "subtle" unlike some other systems I have experienced which can be quite disconcerting. Again, most people in a RAV4 probably won't even notice that the VSC has just saved their butt, it is so "gentle" and unobtrusive.
- The ABS is quick to act and performs as expected, withing the constraints of the car (stiff, long travel suspension, high center of gravity). It won't "hug the road" like a BWM Series-5, but you can't take an BMW5 off-road - the suspensions are designed for very different performance.
- Traction control also works as intended, minimizing slippage without "killing" engine traction completely. It does a very good job when starting on icy spots, when you want the tires to remain in "static" friction regime. I tested starting with traction control ON and OFF on the same inclined road several times, and traction control ON always resulted in more controlled start with less lateral "wobbling", with no loss in effective acceleration.
Net, I am very positively impressed by the new RAV4's snow performance. I am sure that once I upgrade to better tires, it will be my vehicle of choice for winter driving. It is more nimble than the HL and handles much better than the FJ.