Back in 1996, Toyota was first into a then-novel automotive segment, the cross-over. Or was it the mini-ute? Oddball car monikers aside, the RAV4 added up to a hit, attracting buyers who liked the idea of having a capable car-based off-roader with ample cargo room without the growing gas penalty that came with owning a full-size SUV. Sales were swift out of the gate, around 50,000 annually for the first years then doubling and tripling in short order. Last year, 170,000 drivers bought RAV4s, and the Japanese automaker is hoping to hit the 200,000 mark soon.
That lofty sales goal rests on the shoulders of the fourth generation of that Japanese trailblazer, whose re-design comes not a moment too soon. The small-ute market has mushroomed over the past decade, and now includes perennial favorites such as the Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-5 and Ford Escape. Now add to that mix more upmarket options including Audi’s Q5 and BMW’s new X1, and soon enough Porsche’s mini-Cayenne, the Macan.
So what’s Toyota got up its sleeve to stave off such formidable competition? For 2013, the RAV4 does a two-step, at once succumbing to the demographic reality of its consumer base while at the same time adding enough whiz-bang goodies so that its affordable package (from $23,300) attracts new buyers.
In the new model year’s out-with-the-old category is the disappearance of the V6 engine option, which fewer than 10% of RAV4 buyers ordered. Now there’s only one engine choice, a 2.5-liter four-cylinder good for 176 hp and 24/31 mpg city/highway for the front-wheel-drive version (all-wheel-drive drops mileage by about 2 mpg, and adds $1,400 to your window sticker). The ute’s long-standing side-hinge rear door is being replace by a more traditional liftgate with a new power option (that move puts the car’s outboard spare tire beneath the rear cargo area). And lastly, a third-row seat is no longer available, though that’s not a tremendous loss (let’s be honest, third-row seating is practical in a Toyota Land Cruiser or GMC Denali, but in anything smaller you better be carting around Hobbitts).
That’s it for deletions. Added to the mix are a six-speed transmission that replaces a tired four-speed slushbox. New Sport and Eco mode options toggle between snappy computer-controlled shifts and a more fuel-efficient operation. There’s also a standard back-up camera across the LE, XLE and Limited line-up. On the XLE and up, RAV4 comes with dual-zone climate control, a moonroof, navigation, heated mirrors and Toyota’s smartphone-savvy Entune entertainment system. The Limited adds the power liftgate, some leather and an uprated JBL 11-speaker, 576-watt stereo for those post-kid-drop-off rides home alone.
It’s worth noting here that Toyota will soon unveil an all-electric RAV4 EV, made with help from Tesla. This version will reel off 100 miles on one electric charge, has a top speed of 100 mph, and will noiselessly hustle to 60 mph in 7 seconds in Sport mode. If it has even a shred of the impressive functionality of Tesla’s award-hogging Model S, this new EV SUV could prove a hit, although its $50,000 price tag will certainly be a barrier to many.
Inside the far more affordable base RAV4, the look is pure entry-level Toyota, with a mix of plastic, cloth and leather surfaces that while uninspiring also won’t drive you to madness trying to keep them tidy. Ergonomics are thoughtful and intuitive. Outside, there’s not much to shout about, but that’s really the point. RAV4 buyers aren’t shopping for sheetmetal fashion statements or reliable people and cargo carriers that double as road rockets. If Toyota reaches the 200,000 sales mark this year with the redesigned RAV4, it will be because the venerable mini-ute’s sensible fans were once again taken with a very familiar, if pleasantly updated, automotive package.