Slow cars are back.
More precisely, slow crossover SUVs are here — and people seem to be okay with it.
Maybe because they are only slow in relative terms, relative to the performance other cars (and some — usually expensive — crossovers) offer.
Picture a continuum, with “slowest” on the left and “quickest” on the right. The slowest new car (or crossover) takes about 11-12 seconds to reach 60. The quickest new cars do it in the high threes.
Now, dial back the clock to say 1979. Back then, the “slowest” cars took 15-20 or so seconds to achieve 60 while the quickest (like an L-82 Corvette, for instance) were only in the 6-7 second range.
The new Toyota RAV4 — subject of this review — gets to 60 in the high eights. It is very slow compared to a new Corvette. But compared to a 1979 Corvette, it is impressively speedy.
Same goes for the RAV’s rivals — models like the Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester and Mazda CX-5. None of them are speedy — relative to the speed that’s available. Several of them — including the Toyota — don’t even offer a more powerful optional engine — because what they’ve got is apparently good enough.
Because, of course, speed is not the primary consideration here. What matters more are things like utility and value — and all of them offer both.
But which of them offers more?
WHAT IT IS
The RAV4 is Toyota’s very popular compact crossover SUV. It was first to market and inspired the ones that followed — like its bigger (and much pricier) Lexus-badged relation, the original RX300.
Like most of the models it competes with, it offers a light-duty all-wheel-drive system (FWD is standard) a bit more ground clearance than a car and lot more cargo capacity/versatility than an otherwise comparably sized car.
Or even a larger car.
The compact-sized RAV has about the same first and second row legroom as the mid-sized Camry sedan — and about five times the cargo capacity: 73.3 cubic feet vs. 15.4 cubic feet. This is part of the reason for the popularity of crossovers… while sedans (even Camrys) are not selling nearly as well as they used to.
Base price is $24,350 for an LE trim with FWD. With the optional AWD system, the LE’s sticker price is $25,750.
The most expensive RAV4 is the Limited trim with AWD, which stickers for $32,910.
Cross-shops include the RAV’s main rival, the very similar, slightly larger on the outside (but slightly less roomy inside) Honda CR-V ($23,745 to start with FWD; $25,045 with AWD) and the significantly less expensive Mazda CX-5 (base price $21,795 with FWD; $24,895 with AWD).
But the real pebble in the Toyota’s shoe is the Subaru Forester — which is just as roomy inside, comes standard with AWD and starts at just $22,595 — less than the FWD versions of either the RAV4 or the CR-V.
For 2016, the RAV gets a redesigned front clip and there’s a new SE trim that’s ostensibly “sportier” but shares the same engine/transmission as found in all other RAV trims. The main difference is a more aggressive wheel/tire package, firmer suspension tuning and trim details, including standard LED headlights.
Top-of-the-line Limited trims come with a Safety Sense package that includes adaptive cruise control and automated braking/collision avoidance technology. There is also a new hybrid version of the RAV, with a Lexus RX-like pair of electric motors.
A bit more cargo room (73.4 cubic feet) than CR-V (70.9 cubic feet) and a lot more cargo room than CX-5 (64.8 cubic feet).
Much tighter turning circle (34.8 feet) than CR-V (37.5 feet) and CX-5 (36.7 feet).
Straightforward (knob and button) controls. They’re also larger than typical, which makes them easier to use than is typical.
High resale value/strong reputation for being durable and hassle-free.
The Safe Bet.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Gas mileage isn’t great: 24 city, 31 highway for the FWD version — vs. 26 city, 35 highway for the FWD Mazda CX-5 and 26 city, 33 MPG for the FWD Honda CR-V.
No engine (or transmission) options. Mazda CX-5 and Subaru Forester offer both.
Subaru Forester is roomier (including 74.7 cubic feet of cargo capacity), costs almost $1,800 less to start and comes standard with AWD.
UNDER THE HOOD
Well, this part is easy.
Regardless of trim, every RAV4 except the hybrid — which will be reviewed separately — comes only with a 2.5 liter four cylinder engine making 176 hp and 172 ft-lbs. of torque, paired with a six-speed automatic transmission (conventional, hydraulic).
It is basically the same engine — and transmission — used in the mid-sized Camry sedan, although the RAV4 shares a platform (its underlying chassis) with the compact-sized Corolla sedan (which uses a smaller, 1.8 liter four).
The RAV is heavier than the Camry — but not by much (3,455 lbs. for the FWD version vs. 3,240 for the Camry sedan) so the acceleration — and mileage — stats are similar.
High eights to 60 and 21 city, 31 highway with FWD; 22 city, 29 highway with the optional AWD system.
The RAV’s most direct competitor, the Honda CR-V, also comes with just the one drivetrain: a 2.4 liter four making 185 hp paired with a continuously variable (CVT) automatic. The combo gets the Honda to 60 in about the same high eights, but gives you somewhat better gas mileage: 26 city, 33 highway. This is almost certainly due to the more efficient (vs. a conventional hydraulic automatic with fixed gears and a torque converter) CVT transmission, which is always in the right range as opposed to shopping around for the next gear — of which it has none.
The downside being the CVT’s tendency to magnify the marginal reserves of a not-too-powerful engine when said engine is asked to deliver the goods. More on this below.
The Subaru Forester — as mentioned earlier- comes standard with AWD (the only such model in this class) and it offers a standard manual transmission, too. This adds a little bit of fun, but if you prefer less of that (and don’t mind a bit more time to get to 60) there is also a CVT automatic. But this version of the Forester is the bottom of the bunch, well into the nines to 60 and (because of the added weight/drag of the standard AWD) the gas mileage — 26 city, 32 highway — isn’t Great Shakes, either.
But, you can shake things up a bit — and end up with what amounts to a WRX in mufti — by ordering the Forester with its optional 2.0 turbo engine (250 hp, by far the strongest in this class) and get to 60 in just over six seconds — which is by far the quickest run in this class.
There’s also the Mazda CX-5 to ponder. You can go with the base engine: 2.0 liters, 150 hp and really good — class-best — gas mileage (26 city, 35 highway) or opt for the available 2.5 liter engine (not turbocharged, but still making 184 hp) and get to 60 in the high sevens — for much less than the pushing $30k ($29,295) WRX’d version of the Forester.
What’s tragic — for Toyota and for us — is that the 2.2 liter diesel engine you can buy overseas (Europe and Asia) is — sigh — not available here, because of the EPA’s emissions rigmarole. It’s not that the diesels are “dirty.” Nothing new — gas or diesel — built within the past 20 years is “dirty.” It’s that the diesels emit fractionally higher levels of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) than the EPA decrees acceptable. We are talking minute amounts that have caused no tangible harm to any actual person. Is Paris or London enveloped in haze? Are Europeans dropping dead of COPD?
No — and people wouldn’t be dropping dead (or even feeling sniffly) here, either.
It is truly Stupid Policy given the diesel achieves 49-plus MPG, almost 20 MPG superior to the gas-sucking gas engine that’s the only engine American buyers are allowed to have.
Think about it. It’s not just that the diesel uses so much less fuel. Because it uses less fuel, it produces less exhaust gas by volume overall. So while that euro-diesel might emit fractionally more NOx in a given volume of exhaust gas, the fact it produces less total volume of gasses than a gas-burning engine that burns 25 percent more fuel tells you what…?
ON THE ROAD
You may have seen those “boring” ads Toyota put out for the RAV — implying that it’s not.
Trust me, it is.
And that is not a bad thing.
Not for this type of vehicle, which is an appliance. Most people who buy toasters don’t want it to do anything other than do a really good job of toasting their bread. Anything that detracts from that is a problem.
No such problems here.
It has enough power.
No more and — even more important — no less.
Not enough to alarm your mother-in-law; but enough that it doesn’t alarm you when you pull into the opposite lane of traffic to pass a slowpoke ahead of you.
Toyota could have gone with a turbo — or a CVT. More power — and better gas mileage. But it would have added unwanted elements (including higher cost) and to what end? The Camry’s swapped-in drivetrain is hugely popular in the Camry, which is the longtime best-selling family car in the country.
And the RAV is just as popular, no doubt because it feels and drives a lot like the Camry- just with more room. And the Camry is the best toaster on wheels ever made, in this writer’s opinion. And in the opinion of the millions of people who’ve bought one over the years.
Like the Camry, the RAV’s appeal goes deeper than its drivetrain. For instance, the simple controls — especially the larger-than-usual buttons and physical knobs, most of them mounted on a kind of tray that is naturally more hand-friendly than the usual vertical mount system in other cars. They may not be as techno-glitzy as the touch/swipe iPad-style interfaces becoming common in new cars, but they are functionally superior and much less aggravating. Probably, they will not stop working just after the warranty expires, either.
A pull-up parking brake lever rather than an electromagnetic bumblepuppy “automatic” parking brake button. A gear shifter that feels like it’s connected to something.
The new-for-2016 SE trim comes with larger 18 inch wheels and lower profile (shorter/stiffer sidewall) tires, which impart quicker steering feel but all RAVs come with a tight (34.7 feet) turning circle, which means easier U turns (without having to stop, back up a little and then complete the turn) and superior close-in maneuverability.
The shorter overall (179.4 inches vs. 181.1 for the RAV) Honda CR-V has an appallingly wide-load (for a small crossover SUV) turning circle: 37.5 feet. That is a difference of nearly three feet — and that’s a difference you’ll notice on the street.
Even the otherwise sportier Mazda CX-5 has a much wider turning circle: 36.7 feet.
Only the Soobie matches the RAV, with a 34.8 foot turning circle.
The main problem with all these things is they are pretty piggy. I averaged 21.3 MPG during my week in the RAV.
If gas prices ever go back up to $4 a gallon, there is going to be Trouble.
Not just for the RAV, either.
AT THE CURB
The RAV gets a little more rakish for the new model year, but not at the expense of the practicality that has made it one of the most popular vehicles in its class over the years.
For a relatively small vehicle (the mid-sized Camry is just shy of a foot longer, overall) it has big room inside — both for people and for cargo. Up-front, there’s 42.6 inches of legroom; in the second row, 38.9 inches. The CR-V has less of both (41.3 inches and 38.3 inches, respectively) as well as less room for cargo behind its second row (37.2 cubic feet) and with the second row folded down (70.9 cubic feet) vs. 38.4 cubic feet and 73.3 for the Toyota.
The Mazda CX-5 has a bit more second row legroom (39.3 inches) but its cargo capacity behind the second row (34.1 cubic feet) and with its second row folded (64.8 cubes) is also less than the RAV’s.
It’s the Soobie that presents the biggest threat to the RAV as the Practical Player of the bunch. It has the roomiest first row in the class (43 inches of legroom) a solid second row (38 inches of legroom) and 74.7 cubic feet of cargo space.
Plus standard AWD.
However — and this gets back to the Toaster Thing — the Subaru has a god-awful tap/swipe LCD touchscreen interface that makes you want to put your fist through the dashboard. The RAV lacks this “feature” — thank the Motor Gods. Also, the Subaru — with its standard engine — is a turtle on Ambien when it comes to acceleration.
But stay away from the RAV’s optional power liftgate. You might as well go for a cup of coffee while you wait. Standing there with a bag of whatever waiting for what seems like an eternity for the thing to oh-so-gradually creep itself open and then wait again as it just as gradually creeps itself closed (sssaaaaafety first!) will make you want to smash things, too. The worst part is you can’t use Muscle Over-ride as in some other cars, whose automatic liftgates can be physically slammed closed or pulled up if you can’t abide The Slows… and the electric nanny motor doesn’t fight you.
The RAV’s does.
Because of Uncle, the 49 MPG diesel engine that’s available everywhere else isn’t available here. Instead, Toyota offers a hybrid version, which achieves 34 MPG (in city driving; on the highway, the number drops to 31 — the same as the non-hybrid RAV).
The hybrid RAV’s “city” number is 13 MPG higher than the gas-engined/non-hybrid RAV4’s 21 MPG number. But for this, you must spend $28,370 — which is a $4,020 premium over the base price of the non-hybrid RAV. That’s about $310 per MPG. Not cheap, chief. It is very dicey making any kind sane argument in favor of the hybrid on economic grounds.
The diesel, on the other hand, makes all kinds of sense. But Uncle won’t allow it to be sold here.
Which makes no sense at all.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The RAV isn’t exciting, but that’s probably why Toyota sells so many of them. Others do this or that with more verve — or offer something the RAV doesn’t (and maybe don’t even charge extra for it). But the RAV is good at everything people expect it to be good at — and bad at nothing.
If Uncle would let us buy the diesel, that would be even better.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos