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Toyota RAV4 review (2006 onwards)
Toyota hasn’t reinvented the wheel with the latest RAV4. But it has redesigned what drives them. No centre differentials, permanent-split four-wheel drive or diff locks here. Just electronics and a brainiac ECU. How delightfully Japanese!
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All this is clad beneath bodywork that’s smoother, slightly larger but still very much RAV4. Appearances deceive, but it really is all-new, and the company is, rightly, particularly proud of the 4wd gubbins. The first phase is ‘Active Torque Control’, which replaces the centre diff with a raft of electronic sensors to constantly monitor and adjust drive – from normal front-drive to a 45 per cent rear split, automatically. You can feel this in action, and can only marvel at how seamless it is. A favourite real-world situation is countering understeer in corners with a booted throttle, which sends more torque to the rear and makes the front stick once again. Rather as you’d do in a BMW X3.
But more expensive variants receive Toyota’s 'Active Drive System', a sector-first system that’s seriously advanced. Combining 4WD, stability control and electric power steering, it monitors almost every aspect of the vehicle in real time. Should any parameter 'spike', corrective action is instantly applied – it’s far quicker to react than traditional stability systems. Toyota showed a working example; a slalom set upon a soaking plastic mat that you’d struggle to walk upon. In the old car, oversteer was always there, but was all-but impossible to provoke in the new one – it had countered it almost before the driver was aware of any problem. And, through the steering, it even offers 'hints' of which way to turn; the 'right' way is lighter than the 'wrong' action. Very clever, very effective.
That the company has made such great effort to improve on-road safety and performance, yet does not offer a low-range gearbox, tells you that this is a four-wheel-drive that’s not so much of an off-roader. It’s hard to fault on squeamish forest paths, but is no Ssangyong Rexton – and how on-road performance benefits because of this. What immediately impresses you is the RAV4’s much-improved ride quality, that’s notably more settled than before. It absorbs bumps well, is not sickly and deals with tortuous roads well. Handling is also more intuitive, with the steering in particular proving sharper, if still not awash with feel. There is body roll and it’s not difficult to upset passengers by tipping it quickly into corners, but the driver has more confidence to do so.
But it’s the evolution in quality that sets the RAV4 apart .As we’ve said, it hasn’t been reinvented, but honed over what went before, with the benefit of a completely new bin of parts. Styling, while still very RAV4, is more mature, hinting at VW’s Touareg, with clever panel gaps and flawless paint adding a jewel-like look. And the dashboard is fantastic. All low-sheen, quality plastics and stand-out double-decker design, it’s classier than anything else in the class, and that includes BMW’s X3, by some degree. Details such as the instrument pack and climate control switches ooze class and even when off-roading, not a creak was heard.
The seats don’t quite match this 'large car' feel, though. That’s because the RAV4, while bigger, is still not a ‘large’ compact SUV. At 4,395mm long, it’s shorter than the soon-to-be-replaced Freelander, shorter than the X3, shorter than the X-Trail and CR-V. This doesn’t seem to affect boot space that, thanks to cleverly-designed rear suspension, is a massive 586 litres, though the side-hinged door isn’t ideal. The rear also doesn’t lead the class for accommodation or comfort, though by most standards it’s fine. Furthermore, how the dividends of such compactness are found on twisty roads and in the city, where good visibility and light controls make it a cinch to drive. And ignore environmentalists; the best-selling 136bhp 2.2-litre D-4D diesel averages nearly 43mpg on the combined cycle.
It’s a smooth, crisp engine too, with lots of torque and easy-going manners. Noise insulation could be better but it’s rarely too objectionable. Even better is the 175bhp version found in the T180, which offers a massive 295lb/ft of torque for surging, effortless mid-range pull and 60mph in 9.3 seconds. Not bad, considering its 40.4mpg average and D-CAT air-cleaning particulate filter system. T180 models also carry sportier styling, darkened rear glass, loads of kit and larger wheels with run-flat tyres – allowing the deletion of the tailgate-mounted rear wheel. However, they also cost £27k, so they won’t be best-sellers. Neither will the 2.0-litre petrol, which lacks torque and is noisy when pressed as hard as it needs to be. Motorway inclines are an unacceptable struggle.
Affording any RAV4 shouldn’t be though, even if prices starting at £18,995 do seem to have take taken quite a jump. But that’s because there will be no three-door models, due to demand slimming to under 20 per cent in its final years. In reality, XT3 and XT4 five-door petrol models rise by £245, and that’s with all the new model’s kit included. The diesel costs £300 extra on top of this difference, but the improvements over the workmanlike old unit are certainly worth it. All cars also have clever one-stage fold-flat rear seats, alloys, CD player and a treat of a sportily-small three-spoke steering wheel.
The smoother, smarter, more soothing RAV4 is a much more mature machine that’s also easier and more engaging to drive. The running gear is ultra-clever and refinement, roadholding and economy are all good enough to shut the anti-4x4ists up. It should jump straight to the top of the compact SUV class, we reckon, and will certainly give the (larger) new Freelander something to think about!
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