2013 Toyota RAV4 XLE First Test
New! Safer, More Effective Formula
February 11, 2013
By Edward A. Sanchez
The previous-generation Toyota RAV4 had a lot of fans on the Truck Trend staff. When most of the other compact SUV models had gone soft with safe, anonymous styling, four-cylinder engines and conventional packaging, the RAV4 offered rugged, truck-like styling, a swing-out rear tailgate with an outside-mounted spare, and an optional V-6. The desire for these vestiges of a traditional SUV largely went away in the last few years and following the arrival of the 2013 RAV4, so too have the vestiges themselves.
Caracterizing the predominant theme of the new model, an efficiency-minded six-speed automatic replaces the badly-dated four-speed that was previously bolted to the four cylinder. The engine itself, Toyota's proven 176-hp, 172-lb-ft, 2.5-liter four-cylinder, is largely carryover, but optimized for greater fuel economy. With 30 mpg being the new, practically mandatory benchmark for highway fuel economy in the compact SUV class, the 2013 RAV4 delivers 24 city and 31 highway EPA figures for the front-drive model. Under our admittedly heavy right feet for a week and a half, the new RAV averaged 22.5 mpg.
At 8.4 seconds, 0-60 mph acceleration is not brisk but is class-appropriate. The same goes for its quarter-mile performance of 16.4 seconds at 85.8 mph. For comparison, the RAV4's 0-60 time is identical to the last Honda CR-V we tested, and its quarter-mile time is a mere one-tenth slower but with a 0.2 mph faster trap speed.
Though we lament the passing of some of the features that gave the last RAV4 character and differentiation, there are some clear steps forward with the new design. The interior, and especially the dashboard, is an undeniable improvement over the hard, plasticky cockpit of its predecessor. Although we wouldn't quite go so far as to call it sumptuous, the stitched, soft-touch, center horizontal accent trim definitely lends a more upscale feel to the cabin. Buttons and knobs are large, intuitive, and clearly-marked. The audio head unit is easy-to-understand, displays Bluetooth music metadata, and on our model, included navigation, HD Radio, and a rear-view camera, the latter being standard on all 2013 RAV4 models.
Exterior styling is definitely fresher and more modern than the last RAV4, but also less unique. The rear three-quarter angle looks very similar to many other vehicles in the class, including the Ford Escape, and the slightly larger Hyundai Santa Fe. The new horizontal taillight design also supposedly doubles as an aerodynamic enhancement, with a nearly flat horizontal plane that looks large enough to hold a tall latte, although we weren't brave enough to test our hypothesis.
The nose supposedly reflects the "new" face of Toyota and is very similar to the newest Euro-spec Toyota Auris hatchback. Crisp, modern, and non-offensive, it will likely show up on the coming redesign of the Corolla and other future Toyota models. The only somewhat questionable exterior feature is the unpainted plastic cladding on the lower parts of the front and rear bumpers and lower rocker panels. While it wouldn't be unexpected or objectionable on a base model, it slightly cheapened the RAV4's otherwise upscale appearance. However, functionally, we could see how it would likely stand up to road debris and normal wear-and-tear better than painted pieces.
The driving experience is typical Toyota. The 2.5-liter four starts with the familiar thrum of Toyota's larger-displacement four cylinders and settles into an unobtrusive hum once warm. The electric power-assist steering gives light effort at slow speeds, but sometimes gets caught off-guard and can fight the driver when making quick turns. Gear spacing on the six-speed automatic works well, with short, closely-spaced lower ratios and an extra-tall sixth gear for relaxed, economical highway cruising. Although it may seem gratuitous on a vehicle aimed at young mothers and empty nesters, Sport mode keeps the RAV4 from constantly seeking the tallest gear all the time, holding gears when cruising and on inclines longer, and making the transmission quicker to kick down for passing.
We won't deny we miss the V-6, but the 2013 RAV4 is an marked improvement over its predecessor in all the ways that matter to its target audience -- namely, improved fuel economy, more attractive styling, and a much-improved interior -- while retaining the generous passenger space and cargo utility that characterized its predecessor. A more focused, narrower model lineup has paid off for Honda, and it's clear Toyota had the CR-V squarely in its sights when developing the new RAV4. The question now is whether the RAV4's new formula will deliver the same sales results as the CR-V has for Honda.