Pros: World-class optional V6; carlike ride and handling; serious cargo space; good fuel economy; available small third-row seat for the kids

Cons: Plasticky interior; outdated 4-speed automatic transmission with base 4-cylinder engine

The 2012 Toyota RAV4 is like a champion nearing retirement: it's showing its age, but it won't go down without a fight. That's because this current RAV4 just got so much fundamentally right from the time of its debut in 2006. The tough yet restrained styling has become a fixture on our highways, and those crisp, simple lines continue to inspire contemporary crossover designs. The available 3.5-liter V6 engine gives the RAV4 the acceleration of a sports sedan, yet it still delivers solid fuel economy. You can even get a third-row jump seat in case extra children come along for the ride. In these respects and more, the RAV4 continues to be a compelling choice.

Inevitably, though, some chinks have appeared in the RAV4's armor. The base 4-cylinder engine isn't bad by itself, but you can only get it with a 4-speed automatic, which is an archaic piece by current standards. Also, this class has seen dramatically improved interior quality, leaving the RAV4's blocky, hard-plastic dashboard by the wayside. Toyota has done a good job of keeping the RAV4 up to date technologically, but there's only so much an automaker can do with a product entering its seventh year on the market.

But we're still big fans of the 2012 RAV4, and we bet you'll be able to get a great deal on one when the next-generation model starts turning up at dealerships. The RAV4 is a tried-and-true crossover that has remained surprisingly fresh. That's a formula we'll always endorse.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Toyota RAV4 comes in three trim levels: base, Sport and Limited. The base model keeps it simple for the most part, rocking 16-inch steel wheels (17-inch alloys with the V6), air conditioning, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, power accessories and intermittent windshield wipers - but there's a pleasant surprise in the form of the standard six-speaker audio system, which boasts iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity.

The Sport adds 18-inch alloy wheels, a sport-tuned suspension, a larger rear spoiler, foglamps and special charcoal interior fabric. The Limited has 17-inch alloys but also gets a roof rack, dual-zone automatic climate control and keyless entry with push-button start. A fold-flat third-row seat is available on every RAV4, while other notable options, depending on trim level, include a sunroof, leather upholstery and a power driver's seat. Only the Limited is eligible for the optional navigation system, which includes advanced conversational voice-recognition software, a 6.1-inch touchscreen interface and the smartphone-based Entune mobile app system.

No two ways about it, sitting in the driver's seat of the RAV4 feels like being in a time warp. On the bright side, outward visibility from the commanding, if a little flat, front chairs is better than today's norm, since the RAV hails from a simpler time when good sight lines were considered a safety feature. But the dashboard - aside from the crisp Optitron gauges - looks like someone's decade-old idea of "rugged and outdoorsy" - it's all blocky shapes and hard plastics.

Don't get us wrong: Toyota's been building this thing for a long time, so we're confident everything is screwed together fairly well. It's just not the cabin of a cutting-edge crossover.

The RAV4's second row is mounted lower than the front seats. In fact, it's low enough that passengers with long legs might find thigh support lacking. Space is otherwise adequate, however, and the seat also reclines and slides fore and aft. The optional third-row seat is strictly for kids or unusually small and limber adults, but we're not complaining. In this class, it's unusual for a crossover to have a third-row seat at all, and there's no doubt that this one adds versatility to the RAV4's already appealing bio.

Cargo space is another strength at 12.3 cubic feet behind the third row, up to 37.2 cubic feet behind the second row and 73 cubic feet with all the rear seats folded down. That's some serious hauling ability for a smallish crossover.

However, the RAV4's cargo door is hinged on the passenger's side rather than in hatchback style at the top, so it swings out to that side when you're loading stuff. If you're parked on the right side of a street, you'll have to walk around the open door to access the cargo bay, and in a tight parallel-parking situation, that could be dicey.

Technology

We were ready to ding the RAV4 for being behind the times in tech, but Toyota beat us to the punch. Even the most basic RAV4 now comes with a standard high-content audio system, including iPod/USB and Bluetooth integration. Impressive. We are disappointed in Toyota's decision to limit the new Entune system - and the navigation system it comes bundled with - to the expensive Limited model, as opposed to making it available across the lineup. For those willing to pay for it, Entune will likely satisfy with its ability to integrate mobile apps like Pandora and OpenTable into the 6.1-inch touchscreen display. Just make sure your smartphone plan can handle all the data usage.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The RAV4 comes with either front- or all-wheel drive and either a 2.5-liter inline-4 or a 3.5-liter V6 engine. The 4-cylinder sends its 179 horsepower and 172 lb-ft of torque through a 4-speed automatic transmission, while the V6 cranks out its 269 hp and 246 lb-ft via a 5-speed automatic. We really don't mind the base engine at all, as it's peppy enough and respectably smooth; it's just the clunky old 4-speed automatic that we have a problem with. To be fair, we can't argue with the fuel economy, which checks in at 22 mpg city/28 mpg highway with FWD and 21/27 mpg with AWD. But the V6 is so much better in every other respect, ripping through its 5 gears with equal parts haste and refinement - and its fuel economy actually isn't far off the 4-cylinder's pace, at 19/27 mpg with FWD and 19/26 mpg with AWD.

Safety

The RAV4 comes standard with stability control, six airbags, active front head rests, and four-wheel ABS. The government hasn't crash tested the RAV4 since adopting its new methodology in 2010, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the RAV4 its highest mark of "Good" in every category except the roof strength test, in which the RAV4 was deemed "Acceptable."

Driving Impressions

Thanks to carlike dynamics and the excellent outward visibility we mentioned earlier, the RAV4 is a pleasure to drive. It's a great size, big enough for three rows of seats but small enough to feel maneuverable in urban areas. The steering is fairly sharp, and we didn't think twice about rolling over big potholes or even pesky curbs if necessary. If we needed a crossover for the city, the RAV4 would be near the top of our list - and if we lived in a suburban or rural setting, we'd grab a RAV4 V6 and enjoy some of the best reasonably priced SUV acceleration on the market.

Other Cars to Consider 

Honda CR-V - The newly redesigned CR-V hasn't exactly leapt forward, as it's still only available with two rows of seats and a nondescript 4-cylinder engine. It's always a popular choice, though, and the interior is larger and nicer than ever.

Kia Sorento - Probably the RAV4's most direct competitor, the Sorento also offers three rows of seats and a choice between 4- and 6-cylinder power. It's a very competitive vehicle; we'd advise driving both before deciding.

Chevrolet Equinox - Another two-row affordable crossover, the Equinox has a huge back seat, and it offers 4- or 6-cylinder power as well. Its V6 is relatively weak and thirsty, however, so we'd focus on the cheaper, more efficient 4-cylinder model.

AutoTrader Recommends

The RAV4 Sport still looks pretty sweet at the curb with its monochromatic exterior and shiny alloy wheels. Give us a black Sport with the V6, and we'd happily live with that blocky interior.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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