Pros: Updated styling both inside and out; peppy and fuel-efficient engine; advanced audio options; improved driving feel; Toyota resale and reliability

Cons: Interior space still a bit narrow; no V6 engine or third row seat option; busy ride with 18-in wheels; towing ability limited to 1,500 pounds

What's New: The 2013 Toyota RAV4 has been completely remade, with more interior room, a sportier look and more practical design.

Toyota knows that the compact SUV segment is one of the fasted growing in the industry. So, when it came time to overhaul its standard bearer -- the RAV4 -- the company went all out to ensure its little road warrior would remain king of the hill. While the new RAV4 isn't much bigger or more powerful than the outgoing model, Toyota has made a number of improvements to the RAV4's aesthetics and functionality. The biggest improvements can be found in the rear, where a proper flip-up liftgate replaces the previous model's swing-out style rear door. The old model's rear-mounted full-size spare has been moved below the cargo floor, and the once optional (and not very useful) third row seat option has been axed.

Up front, Toyota equips the new RAV4 with a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder good for 176 horsepower. A 6-speed automatic with an Eco/Sport mode is the only transmission choice. While we found this engine to be more than adequate, we should point out that newer competitors such as Ford's Escape, Hyundai's Santa Fe and Subaru's Forester all offer turbocharged engines, while the Subaru Outback and Chevrolet Equinox keep a 6-cylinder option on the table. Still, we think the RAV4's combination of pricing, style, features and fuel economy will sit well with most buyers, as will the vehicle's predicted high resale and reliability ratings.

Comfort & Utility

The RAV4's new interior is a vast improvement over the previous model, with more organic lines, better materials and more color. The XLE and Limited trims feature contoured front seats, with the Limited's being covered in faux-leather and including 2-stage front seat heaters and driver's power-adjustable lumbar. Legroom, both front and rear, is quite good -- on par with Subaru Outback and Honda CR-V. The new RAV4 has a revised cargo area that is deeper and more easily accessible than the previous model. The cargo area measures 38.4 cu-ft with the second row seat up, and a class-leading 73.4 with it folded flat. Best of all, the rear liftgate is now hinged at the roof making it much easier to access and unload the cargo area. Limited models have the added advantage of a power-operated rear liftgate.

Toyota has also taken pains to quiet the RAV4's interior, including heavier gauge steel, more insulation and a double laminated windshield. The controls for the audio and ventilation are placed high up on the instrument panel for easy view and access, and are backlit in Toyota's "Clear Blue" illumination that is easily viewed in most ambient light conditions. The new Display Audio touchscreen radio is easy to use and can display audio, iPod and Bluetooth data, as well as display heating and ventilation settings. Standard on all RAV4's is a rear backup camera that displays its image on the 6.1-in Display Audio screen.

The RAV4 is offered in three well-equipped trims. The base LE includes a tilt/telescopic steering wheel, 6-speaker Display Audio with AM/FM/CD, Satellite Radio and USB/auxiliary inputs, rear backup camera, air conditioning, cruise control, 17-in steel wheels, power windows and door locks and keyless entry. The XLE adds 17-in alloy wheels, premium front bucket seats, a power moonroof, heated power outside mirrors, fog lamps, auto up/down power windows, automatic climate control and a cargo cover. The top of the line Limited adds 18-in wheels and tires, auto on/off headlamps, a power rear liftgate, SofTex faux-leather seating, 8-way power adjustable driver's seat with power lumbar and sport bolsters, heated front seats, Smart Key keyless entry with push-button start and a leather-trimmed steering wheel.

Technology

Highlighting the RAV4's numerous technological innovations is the Entune audio system available on the XLE and Limited trims. With Entune, the Display Audio 6.1-in touchscreen can be used to control the navigation, select music from an iPod or stream popular apps such as Pandora, Bing and Open Table from a Bluetooth enabled smartphone. The Entune system also features advanced voice recognition software allowing the driver to speak many commands which control the navigation, music or cell phone functions. This is helpful as many of the touchscreen functions are locked out when the vehicle is in motion. Toss in the optional XM satellite radio and you can upgrade with apps including nav/traffic, weather and sports.

Limited owners can upgrade the standard audio with an 11-speaker 576-watt JBL GreenEdge system, which includes a 3.1-in "Unity" speaker atop the dash. This speaker combines tweeter and midrange frequencies into a single housing. A powered 8-in subwoofer completes the setup. Also available on the Limited is a blind spot monitoring system that warns of objects in the driver's blind spots and a rear cross path detection system that beeps to warn of approaching side traffic when backing out of a parking space.

Performance & Fuel Economy

Power for the 2013 Toyota RAV4 comes from a 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine good for 176 hp and 172 lb-ft of torque. This is the only engine offered on the RAV4 and it is teamed to a new 6-speed automatic transmission with Eco/Sport mode. In Eco mode, the transmission downshifts to a lower gear to help improve fuel economy. In Sport mode, the transmission holds the gear longer, avoiding the move to sixth gear thus giving a more spirited performance without much detriment to fuel economy. The RAV4 is powered by its front wheels and includes an automatic limited-slip differential that can be manually engaged by the driver. Unlike traction control, the limited-slip differential allows a certain amount of wheel spin to help pull the vehicle from difficult situations, such as a snow covered driveway. Fuel economy figures for the front drive RAV4 are 24 miles per gallon in the city and 31 mpg highway.

The available Dynamic Torque Control all-wheel drive (AWD) system allows the RAV4 to better handle winter and off-road conditions. The system has the ability to send power to the rear wheels as needed, and can even control power side to side. Unlike most on-demand AWD systems, the RAV4's AWD will activate when it senses that driving conditions require more traction, including sporty driving on dry pavement. For those times when it becomes necessary to go off-road, the center differential can be locked via a push-button control. When engaged, the system holds a perfect 50/50 front to rear torque distribution, but only at speeds under 25 miles per hour. Push beyond 25 mph and the system automatically reverts back to auto mode. The AWD system doesn't add much to the RAV4's bottom line, but it does add substantial peace of mind, especially for those who live in mountainous regions or north of the Mason/Dixon line. And despite its added weight, fuel economy figures of 22 mpg city/29 mpg hwy are not really much worse than the front drive model.

Safety

In addition to the government mandated safety features (front and side airbags, LATCH child safety seat anchors, traction and stability control), the RAV4 includes additional occupant protection by adding a driver's front knee airbag.

Driving Impressions

Overall, the RAV4 rides and handles very well, especially considering its tall ride height and 6.3-in ground clearance. The electric power steering doesn't feel numb or disconnected, providing good feedback in tight turns. Likewise, the suspension soaks up most road distortions and bumps, yet it doesn't allow the car to lean or bob about uncontrollably when pushed hard. One area that could use improvement is the somewhat busy ride encountered driving with the Limited trim. The Limited's larger 18-in wheels don't allow for much tire sidewall, resulting in a harsher ride with somewhat rude jolts transmitted to the interior when encountering bumps and potholes. We think the 17-in tire and wheel package found on the LE and XLE strike just the right compromise between comfort and performance.

As for performance, the 2.5-liter is more than sufficient in most circumstances, although we found that when left in Eco mode the 6-speed transmission delivered a rather sluggish and unresponsive feel. Leave it in Sport mode and you'll be much happier, with almost no real difference in fuel economy.

Other Cars to Consider

Ford Escape - The Escape offers a choice of two different turbocharged engines, has better fuel economy and a more modern interior than the RAV4. But, the RAV4 has more interior room and costs a bit less when comparably equipped.

Honda CR-V - The CR-V has slightly better fuel economy than the RAV4 (AWD model) and has more hp -- plus it offers the option of genuine leather seating. But, the CR-V doesn't have as much legroom or cargo space as the RAV4, and it doesn't offer anything to match Toyota's Entune infotainment system.

Hyundai Santa Fe - The Santa Fe's base engine makes more hp than the RAV4's 2.5-liter, and it offers an optional 265-hp turbocharged engine as well. The RAV4 matches the Santa Fe for interior space but gets better fuel economy. However, the Santa Fe has a much better standard warranty (10/100,000 vs. 3/36,000).

Subaru Outback - The Outback is more wagon-like than the RAV4 and it offers the option of 6-cylinder engine. Subaru's Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive is standard on every car and is permanently engaged. But, the Outback does not offer a locking center differential, and its radio and navigation choices are downright primitive when compared to the RAV4.

AutoTrader Recommends

For the money, we'd have to go with the RAV4 in an AWD XLE trim with the Entune and navigation option. If you don't regularly encounter snow or twisting roads, the front drive version will do just fine and will save you about $1,500. If you truly desire things like the JBL audio, power rear liftgate and heated front seats, the Limited is still affordable -- although we might be tempted to throw on a set of aftermarket 17-in wheels and tires, just to smooth out the ride.

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Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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