Back in 1996 the RAV4 ignited the fire that is now the compact crossover SUV segment. For 2008 the RAV4, solidly in its third generation, marches forward with a high level of refinement and versatility at its side. The scope of the RAV4’s amenities, fit and finish, and inventive design touches make it a beacon to singles and families alike.
During the RAV4’s 2006 redesign it was profoundly transformed with a seven-inch jump in wheelbase and an additional two feet of overall length. The current "super-sized" RAV4 is a traditional SUV silhouette with five doors and an external, rear-door-mounted spare tire.
Available in three distinct trims (Base, Sport and Limited), all RAV4s can be configured with any combination of two- or four-wheel drive and four- or six-cylinder engines.
The Base trim includes 17-inch wheels, air conditioning and a CD stereo, but is shut out of many upscale options such as a sunroof, upgraded JBL sound system and color-keyed exterior. The Sport has more option boxes to check and includes an exclusive sport suspension and aggressive 18-inch wheels with performance tires. The Limited provides more standard-issue goods and more luxury options, such as leather seats, a wireless-headphone DVD system and seat heaters.
Under the Hood
There is no base engine in the traditional sense. You can order a 2.4-liter inline four cylinder or a big-block 3.5-liter V6 in any of the three trims.
The four is a 16-valve DOHC design with Toyota’s VVT-i variable cam timing system that is rated at 166 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 165 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. The 2.4-liter puts up 21/27 city/highway fuel economy numbers in 2WD trim and 20/25 in 4WD guise. Four-cylinder versions feature four-speed automatic gearboxes.
The big motor provides 269 horsepower at 6200 rpm and 246 lb-ft of torque at 4700 rpm. The V6 uses a four-valve-per-cylinder design and Toyota’s Dual VVT-i that phases both intake and exhaust cams for optimum performance and economy. When it comes to fuel mileage the V6 compromises little, posting 19/27 in 2WD trim and 19/26 in 4WD. RAV4s with V6 engines feature five-speed automatic transmissions.
Two-wheel-drive versions are front-wheel drive, while 4WD RAV4s feature Toyota’s On Demand 4WD system, which defaults to front drive unless it senses slippage and then sends traction where needed. There is a manual lock button that sets the front/rear power-split at 50/50 for decidedly slippery conditions.
Versatility and practicality reign inside the RAV4. The dash layout is straightforward with an easy-to-read tri-nocular cluster flanked by a functional center dash and console. A dual glove box highlights the convenience designed into the interior, which includes 10 cupholders, fully illuminated entry and reclining second-row seats. The rear seats can be moved forward to open up cargo space or folded flat for maximum capacity.
The RAV4 can also be equipped with third-row seating for seven-passenger occupancy. The third row folds into the floor when not in use, and even Toyota describes it as meant for children, so it must be small. Nevertheless, a family of four will certainly appreciate this option when grandparents visit.
On the Road
We flogged a Limited 4WD fitted with the 3.5-liter V6. Optional equipment on our rig consisted of the rear-seat DVD system ($1,705), the JBL audio system ($640—and a pre-requisite for the DVD setup), leather seats ($1,050), seat heaters ($440), a tow hitch ($750) and a number of other items that brought the bottom line to $33,398 including destination charges.
The first impression was the surge of power from the V6 when we jumped on the gas. From a standstill or at speed, the RAV4’s 269-horsepower V6 is ready to run. Coupled with crisp steering and a communicative suspension, and the RAV4 V6 is more thrill ride than family truckster.
On a charge from Long Beach, California, to Lake Arrowhead, the RAV4 took the high ground with enthusiasm, carving its way to more than 6,000 feet in the San Bernardino Mountains. The Toyota really stuck in the turns with relatively little body roll, making us wonder how much fun the Sport model and its performance suspension would have been.
The leather seats in the RAV4 Limited are comfortable and the DVD system a godsend on longer trips, keeping kids entertained. We would have liked more legroom around the knees to open up the feeling of the cabin a bit. A captain’s chair armrest would be helpful when rolling up big miles.
Right for You?
With three trims and numerous engine/drivetrain options, Toyota’s lottery-like pricing hierarchy produces no less than 12 price points, ranging from $21,250 to $26,820 — which ensures there’s a RAV4 to fit many lifestyles and budgets.
Evan Griffey served as an editor of Turbo & High Tech Performance, a pioneering publication about sport-compact tuning. Today Griffey freelances for Import Tuner, Sport Compact Car, Car Audio and Siphon.