2013 Toyota RAV4, un-rocking the boat: Motoramic Drives

December 18, 2012

It’s hard to fault Toyota for producing vehicles that lack emotion and appeal mostly to those who view cars as a means of transportation and nothing else. After all, it’s Toyotas like the Camry, Corolla and RAV4 that continuously outsell their competition despite being inferior in many measures.

What Toyota does well is connect with people who just want a reliable set of wheels. The customer who doesn’t care about horsepower, Fusion-like styling and the latest and greatest interior technologies. The only reason you would buy a Camry over the Ford Fusion, or a new 2013 Toyota RAV4 over the Mazda CX-5, is because you value practicality over performance, and function over form.

The fact is, most buyers don’t care whether their car has fully independent suspension, a V-6 or four-cylinder engine, or a dual clutch versus a single-clutch transmission. All they care about is whether it can comfortably handle their day-to-day activities, be cheap to run and let them drive off the dealer's lot without feeling had. The RAV4 has traditionally been bland and boring, and yet Toyota will sell around 170,000 this year — despite the current third generation RAV4 being introduced seven years ago.

With that said, Toyota engineers rarely deign to fix what's not broken, regardless of how much pressure media and enthusiasts may impose. They do know they need to deliver more emotion in their machines, but without alienating their core customers, a delicate balance to uphold.

The design of the new RAV4 shows Toyota is sticking to its proven strategy. It’s quietly more refined – losing the tailgate-mounted spare tire and placing it under the cargo floor. The rear end with a conventional liftgate sports a more chiseled demeanor, but despite this, it still appears dull and uninspiring. From the side angle, the bulbous front lip looks remarkably like Bubba Gump.

True to fashion, the interior is comfortable, efficient and average. The good points include the horizontal SofTex (faux leather) band that runs from the instrument panel, across the center console to the passenger side door, and the backup camera on the 6.1-inch touchscreen that comes as standard. Rear seat legroom is good and trunk space (with the rear seats folded) is a class leading 73.4 cu. ft. On the negative side, the third row seating is no more, the plastic utilized is distinctly low-grade, and I never realized you could buy sun visors from Wal-Mart.

The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine producing 176 hp and 172 ft.-lbs. of torque remains, but the optional (more powerful) V-6 from the previous-generation RAV4 has been ditched, with Toyota claiming they sat stagnant in dealers’ lots, as customers preferred the more efficient 2.5-liter motor. Enthusiasts care not what V-6 powers a small SUV, and I doubt people who actually buy Toyotas will even notice.

Replacing the outgoing RAV4’s aged four-speed gearbox is a six-speed automatic transmission, with the additional two cogs being used as overdrive gears for better fuel economy. The new RAV4 boasts improved mileage, with a city/highway/combined rating of 24/31/26 mpg for the front-wheel-drive machine and 22/29/25 for the AWD model. A new Eco mode promotes efficiency, while Sport mode sharpens shift timing, throttle response, and dials back the electric steering by 20 percent to provide the RAV4’s most engaging driving experience possible.

It is without question a sizeable improvement over the last-generation RAV4 – although admittedly, that's a low bar. The compact SUV feels more nimble and planted, and body roll has been curbed. I wouldn’t call it fun to drive, however, but it certainly isn’t as soft, unbalanced and tiresome as the old car.

Despite using the same 2.5-liter engine as the outgoing model, acceleration feels a touch less responsive – perhaps due to an adjusted first and second gear ratio to optimize fuel economy for city driving. Braking, however, is good and the pedal maintains the right amount of bite and feel. Steering is weightier in Sport mode, but the sensation feels rubbery and disconnected, like stretching a taught rubber band.

On our drive route through Scottsdale, Ariz.,we were presented with a short off-road section, basically a glorified dirt road, that proved to be a poor decision by Toyota, as the RAV4 is useless on a bumpy gravel surface. It’s like being on a skit from Tom and Jerry, getting pushed down a flight of stairs after enduring a beating from a steel mallet, that leaves you with all your teeth shattered. Fortunately, no RAV4 driver has ever attempted serious off-roading on purpose.

The RAV4 is available in three different models: LE ($23,300), XLE ($24,290) and Limited ($27,010). If you want AWD then expect to add $1,400, and Toyota anticipates around two-thirds of all sales will tick this box.

The new RAV4 is without question better than the old. It looks better, both inside and out, and handles better too. But these improvements were conservative, and don't go far enough to outhustle the superior Mazda CX-5.

But here’s the thing: The Toyota buyer won’t care if the CX-5 looks sportier and handles better. To them, the new RAV4 is simply an improved RAV4. A functional, practical machine that remains a competent means of transportation – making Toyota’s goal of selling 200,000 units in 2013 highly probable. While the 2013 RAV4 might not be what the enthusiasts want, it's exactly what the buyers want.