Several years ago, when product planners were given the task of designing the third-generation RAV4, they knew what had to be done. Although the current model had sold well, the vast majority of buyers, not surprisingly, turned out to be women. Likewise, RAV4 styling was typically described as "cute" and "toylike." For others, the RAV4 was just plain small. Slightly larger models like the Escape and CR-V began hitting the sweet spot in the segment, selling two and three times as many vehicles. The solution: Make the new RAV4 bigger and more muscular and offer several features no one else has in the segment.

On a completely new unit-body platform, the 'ute has a wheelbase almost seven inches longer than the one it replaces, an overall length almost 15 inches longer, and is more than three inches wider. The result, along with some clever seating and packaging options, is a total cargo volume increase of almost six cubic feet. Exterior styling is vastly improved, moving closer to the bigger Toyota Highlander than anything else. The added width gives the RAV4 a squattier, more locked-down look and, when combined with the reshaped hood design and headlight arrangement, becomes more conventional SUV than cute 'ute.

The new RAV4 is available with two wheelbases, but only the longer version comes to the U.S. Inside, the center stack and dash were completely rede-signed, offering a three-tier layout, similar to a tower of audio components. Radio and vents sit on top, three A/C and fan dials hold the middle, and storage and the transmission shiftgate act as the underpinning. The gauge cluster is easily readable and sits comfortably behind the steering wheel. Dual gloveboxes offer plenty of storage space.

However, the two biggest surprises for the new RAV4 are at opposite ends of the vehicle. First, the biggest engine in its class (by far), a 269-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6, is a new option that makes the RAV4 seem more like a Six Flags theme-park ride than a mode of transportation. Said to offer sub-seven-second 0-to-60-mph times, the new engine (also used in the much heavier Avalon sedan) makes the compact launch in ways no competitor will be able to match. And all this comes with a reported 20 city/27 highway fuel economy, due in large part to the five-speed automatic and a tall overdrive.