IAIN ROBERTSON 

As one of the world’s best-selling ‘sporty-utes’, Iain Robertson underscores the value of Toyota’s RAV4 to an already over-crowded sector of the new car scene, while ensuring that its role is strengthened in line with the firm’s energetic stance.

Before launching into a story about its much-revised RAV4 model, I want to dwell (if you will allow) for a few moments on the more than apparent spark of vitality that has entered the hallowed halls of Toyota. From having been the doyen of dismal for the best part of 25 years, while Toyota buyers were myriad worldwide, a factor that kept the company at its frequently assailed top-spot, before the enlarged VW Group assumed the post, Toyota has sorely lacked any visceral excitement.

There has been absolutely nothing intrinsically wrong with its various models. In fact, they set consistent standards in terms of reliability and durability that were the envy of the entire motor industry…they just lacked any sparkle. Even the firm’s design stance was biased significantly more towards conservative subtlety, than outrageous polarisation. It was as though Toyota did not wish to upset its own apple-cart and it tried studiously to avoid confrontation of any sort.

However, ‘sex’ sells. Following almost three decades of stolidity, a fresh enthusiasm, thanks to major senior management changes, entered the frame. The company’s new President is also an enthusiast. He loves cars. He loves motorsport. Eventually, his desires would filter down to the mainstream models produced by Toyota. We have already witnessed many of those changes, which include a positive recognition of both race and rally successes, with commemorative models. However, there is more to the transition than that.

Launched originally in 1994 and now five generations old, it is worth reflecting on how innovative and inspiring was the RAV4’s first iteration. Toyota can be blamed fairly for creating an entirely new market niche, in which the majority of mainstream and high-volume manufacturers now play with undoubted successes. They owe a debt of gratitude to Toyota. The RAV4 epitomised the Sport angle for a growing new SUV sector and buyers took it to their hearts.

It was the combination of a rugged, off-road type appearance, complete with loftier ride height allied to the on-road eagerness of a sporty hatchback that early adopters found so engaging. The car became an overnight success story and led every other carmaker into producing competitive replicas. However, Toyota has never finished developing its market innovator and, in response to environmental demands, the previous hybrid generation of RAV4 set another benchmark, unique in the class.

While justifying the car is largely unnecessary, the latest version is not just more attractive, thanks to pertinent styling cues that are also used by the company’s CH-R and Lexus UX models (squarer wheel-arches and more dynamic design details), but is also significantly more rigid than before (torsional strength of the body is increased by a remarkable 57%), a factor that aids its on-road driveability and raises driver satisfaction levels to new peaks. Powering it is an enlarged and revised version of the company’s petrol-electric hybrid engine combination.

Displacing 2.5-litres, its four-cylinder motor develops a wholesome 215bhp in front-drive form, while the AWD-i four-wheel drive system gains an extra 4bhp and emits from a remarkably low 102g/km of CO2. Sticking resolutely to Nickel-Metal-hydride for its self-charging battery system, even though some rivals are popping down the Lithium-ion route, Toyota is taking a longer view about dwindling lithium resources. The battery and fuel tank packaging is now more compact and better located within the car’s platform, with the sole intention of creating more beneficial balance both fore and aft and laterally, which aids the car’s overall driveability.

Driving through an electronically managed, constantly variable transmission (CVT), with various step-off/shift-points within its programmed profile that are enhanced further in 4WD form, the car proceeds in an elegant and jolt-free manner from initial tickling to flooring of the throttle pedal. The results felt by the driver are more linear, with improved efficiency at higher speeds and more control during deceleration.

The vital performance figures show a decrease in the 0-60mph benchmark time to a zesty 8.1s (7.8s for the AWD-i), while the car’s maximum speed is pitched at 112mph. Top speed is not the criterion for hybrids, although brisk acceleration is important. Even rated under the latest WTLP rules, its official fuel economy rating is given as around 49-52mpg (wheel diameter dependent; 17.0-inch standard; 18.0-inch options). Three-position selectable driving modes can vary between Normal, Eco, or Sport, with the addition of Trail mode enhancing off-road traction. Face it, RAV4 is not a dyed-in-the-wool off-roader but it is tough enough to tolerate consistent use on gravel and loose surfaces.

Tipping the scales at around 1.6-tonnes, it is not exactly a lightweight, but its MacPherson strut front and double-wishbone rear suspension, allied to reactive rack and pinion power steering, make the best use of the immensely sturdy body shell. All-round disc brakes provide assured stopping power and incorporate a brake energy recovery system that recharges the on-board NiMh battery pack.

The new RAV4 is a bigger proposition, at 4.6m in length, but it is also aerodynamically efficient (0.32Cd) and offers a class-leading 580-litres of load deck space, within its practical and exceptionally well-detailed interior. It is also a very roomy car, with a multi-adjustable driving position and flexible rear seats. Pre-discount prices start from £29,635 (Icon trim), rising to £36,640 (Dynamic). A total of four equipment grades (Icon, Design, Dynamic and Excel) are available, with Icon being strictly front-wheel drive; the AWD-i system is an option on the other three levels.

Needless to say, as the latest addition to Toyota’s continually improving range, the RAV4 is packed with the latest semi-autonomous driver and safety aids that supplement a comprehensive specification for the model line-up.

Conclusion:    Much-loved by Toyota customers and much-mimicked by Toyota’s rivals, the latest RAV4 brings a fresh automotive recipe to the table that will prove to be most palatable.