On the Road Review: Toyota RAV4 XLE

It was 1995 and the important car wars were the battle between Ford’s Taurus and Honda’s Accord for top-selling honors, plus the excitement surrounding Ford’s hot-selling Explorer. In the corner of the marketplace, Toyota was introducing a small “crossover” wagon called RAV4 — recreational active vehicle (with four-wheel drive). Based on the compact Corolla platform, the RAV4 afforded greater interior room, a higher seating position, plus that option for four-wheel traction. It came in both three-door and five-door models, with the spare tire mounted on the swing-away rear tailgate. Sales were modest at first, but steady.

The following year, the midsize Lexus RX300 crossover debuted with similar attributes. Based on the popular Camry, the Lexus opened new opportunities for Lexus dealers and swiftly became the brand’s best selling vehicle — which it remains today. The market was shifting, but few observers understood what was occurring.

Twenty years later, we have the fourth-generation RAV4. America gets only the long wheelbase five-door model that now features a conventional rear liftgate (height adjustable), while Toyota has elected to drop the former V-6 engine and only offer a 2.5-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine. Some markets get a turbo-diesel engine option; we will get a RAV4 hybrid powertrain later this year, one of a very small, select group of vehicles that offer soft off-roading ability with an electric motor package that improves power and economy. Think Prius with big snow tires, more space and real winter prowess.

Along the RAV4’s maturation, Toyota has kept pricing realistic and content level competitive but unpretentious. There are some spartan surfaces still apparent inside, yet the intuitive controls and switches are user-friendly and most welcome. The front seats are supportive — in grippy cloth here in XLE trim. Rear seating is spacious — and comfortable — while expanding to improve cargo versatility. Visibility is very good, road manners composed, and the cabin is quieter than several rivals are. There are more pluses than minuses for sure when you fill out your score sheet against the Honda CR-V, Ford Escape and others.

In a series of weeks with multiple small crossovers in a row, the RAV4 earned high marks for having a more balanced ride while delivering the same crisp responses that the other smaller wagons rendered — with crisp being a relative term for a station wagon with AWD. The Toyota’s 176-hp engine and smooth-shifting six-speed automatic also outperformed the CVT’s and other powertrains in acceleration, passing quickness and general responsiveness. Fuel economy for our 800 miles together was exactly at the projected EPA combined number; 22/29/25 mpg, with a single tank high of 28.7 mpg.

Toyota has narrowed RAV4 spec sheets to just three trim levels (excluding the pending Hybrid model); LE starts at $23,680 with front drive, XLE begins at $25,240, while top Limited is $28,450 before options. AWD adds $1,400. There are no more manual transmissions; a six-speed automatic handles all shifting chores, admirably. Rear back-up cameras are standard across the lineup.

The popular XLE trim gets you dual-zone automatic climate controls, a power sunroof, rear privacy glass, roof rails, 17-inch alloy wheels, heated power mirrors, fold-flat split rear seats, steering wheel audio controls, plus the usual selection of safety components. Toyota’s Entune entertainment is available, $585, plus some electronic driving aids that come on Limited trim.

Last year was the best sales year ever for the RAV4. With the American market still expanding, RAV4 sales have increased another 10 percent so far in 2015, and the small Toyota is on pace to outsell the Ford Escape and chase the number one selling Honda CR-V. The RAV4 is the best-selling “truck” from Toyota in America. Chevy’s high-flying Equinox crossover, enjoying a record year, too, is filling the rear-view mirror.

To further illustrate the popularity of the crossover market, with every significant automaker crafting new crossovers as you sleep, Hyundai just fired a shot across the bow of everyone with its sleek new Tucson debuting. Just tiny increments smaller than the RAV4, look for the latest Tucson to make a sudden impact in this segment with typical fiscal thriftiness and extensive feature content.

Buyers have great choices here, and they are gravitating to crossovers from midsize sedans in record numbers. Thank Toyota for opening the door to this class many years ago, and staying true to a vision for a versatile vehicle that now accounts for so many sales.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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