• May 14th 2009 at 11:58AM
  • 42
2009 Toyota RAV4 Sport - Click above for high-res image gallery

The small crossover segment, where the neo-sorta-trucks live, is one of the hottest battlegrounds for consumer dollars. Small skirmishes go on in the border regions; confused vehicles don't know whether to be mud-slingers with brash attitudes or optioned-up urban sophisticates. Toyota's RAV4 certainly brings sophistication, and though it can venture off road a bit, it's not a jumbled, mixed-up mess. The RAV's classification-straddling lets it serve the whims of a broad array of potential buyers.

Wanting to cover all the bases, the RAV4 can be had in a variety of configurations, from a basic front-driver with four-cylinder power up to a leather-lined, four-wheel-drive Limited with a silly-powerful V6. A Sport version seeds right in between the base and Limited, carrying a satisfying level of equipment. There's an allure to the big horsepower delivered by the six – especially when it costs as little on EPA ratings as the RAV's 3.5-liter – but these days, "adequate" is riding a wave of newfound popularity as Americans struggle to pinch more pennies. In keeping with that spirit, when it came time to test a RAV4, we decided to try life with a four-cylinder 4WD Sport.

Photos Copyright ©2009 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.

All grown up in its third generation, the RAV4 has swelled significantly since the model launched back in the 1990s. The Highlander's newfound gigantism left room for the RAV to expand beyond its Corolla roots. The CUV's styling has shed its old stubbiness and is now far from the weird of the original. There's a strong face, a slight hint of gaping maw suggested by the trapezoidal grille, but the overall design is generally restrained and safe. Nowhere do you find a hint of cladding or overly fussy detailing, making this not-so-small small CUV a cleanly-styled contender.

The Sport trim level gets body colored fender flare appliques, as well as painted door handles, fog lamps, and sharp looking 18-inch alloy wheels. Sport badges taped to the doors are backed up by sharpened suspension reflexes; check out those blue painted struts. The Sport manages to differentiate itself from a base RAV4 the same way a Z06 looks more special than the standard Chevrolet Corvette. No version looks bad, but there's a little extra zoot to the step-up model, differences that are most noticeable when parked side by side. Unlike the Corvette, though, absolutely nobody is going to gawk at your RAV4, not even with that tumor of a spare tire on the back door.

The Sport has its own interior scheme called Dark Charcoal, which teams with the deeply tinted rear glass to lend a dour atmosphere to the interior. Lighter interior colors, like in other versions of the RAV, feel friendlier. New ground is not broken with the RAV4 inside or out, but Toyota has taken a file and rasped off any rough edges, so the execution is all but flawless. Even without the niceties of leather and oodles of tech, the RAV4's cabin sets the standard for its class. Others come close to Toyota's combination of good materials and attentive ergonomics, but the RAV4 manages to be a smidge better. Surfaces that look luxuriant are surprisingly hard to the touch, just like everyone else, and there are other spots where the plastics can easily collect scuffs. Tolerances are tighter than you'll find elsewhere, though, and the easy nature of all the controls gives the RAV4 an edge.

HVAC controls are three foolproof knobs. No fiddly rockers or digital displays here, just elegant, functional simplicity. There's no hunting around for anything in the RAV, with the exception of the miniscule fuel door release on the floor. The seats are the same story. Nothing exceptional, maybe not even the best, but when taken together with the rest of the vehicle, the whole still adds up to a sum that wins the day. Ferrying people? The second row slides and adjusts for rake, too. There's plenty of legroom for those passengers who didn't draw a long enough straw to sit up front. Child seat fitment, however, can be a little tricky if you're using the LATCH system. The top tether secures to a loop way down low on the seatback, a location that's very difficult to reach as it's blocked by the cargo organizer directly behind the seat.

If the RAV will be dragging your amazing collection of JEM paraphernalia from the 1980s, your entire stock should fit behind the rear seats. With the spare tire on the back door, lots of space is freed up. Remove the normal cargo area floor panel and you'll also find a deep well. There's even a cargo organizer at the base of the second row seatbacks. If more space is needed, folding the seats is accomplished by pulling a lever on either side of the cargo area. For really big merchandisers, the V6 RAVs can be ordered with a trailer-prep package.

The rear door, hinged at one side, is less practical and studied than we've come to expect from a star student like Toyota. Tight parking situations can sometimes make swinging the door a challenge, and the weight of an 18-inch wheel and tire bolted to the other side doesn't help matters. Surely, a full size spare is welcome when you blow a tire, but if you're parked on a hill, it can be beastly to yank open the cargo hold, and if gravity gives an assist, you could inadvertently be whisked into next week. Besides, externally mounted spares don't always allow the bumper to do the...well, bumping, so a routine slow-speed back-up oopsie can end up costing many thousands in sheetmetal and broken glass. We think the RAV4 would be better with a top-hinged hatch, but at least Toyota paid attention to the fact that people will actually want to load things into the vehicle. There's a deep cut into the rear bumper that makes liftover height reasonable, and the door has a welcome "hold-open" feature.

2009 marks the arrival of Toyota's 2AR four-cylinder in the RAV4's engine room. The AR series engine is used in the Camry, Highlander and Venza, though the larger 2.7-liter 1AZ is in the larger vehicles, leaving the 2.5-liter 2AR for the RAV and Camry. The new engine features an aluminum block with cast-in iron liners, dual balance shafts, variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust camshafts, and employs a low friction design. Other techniques like tumble control valves and newly designed fuel injectors are also employed to ensure clean, efficient running. The result of the impressive spec sheet is a 2.5-liter engine that delivers 179 horsepower and 172 lb-ft of torque while returning miles-per-gallon in the mid-20s. Even with a four-speed automatic transmission crying out for updating, the powertrain returned 25 mpg in our driving. Unfortunately for Toyota, that's not nearly efficient enough to beat newcomers like the redesigned 2010 Chevy Equinox, which is expected to achieve 32 mpg on the highway compared to this Toyota's best effort of 28 mpg.

The RAV4's transmission is a demerit, making performance feel soft when merging or passing. Once the tachometer needle swings past 4,000 rpm, the pleasantly powerful engine puts its shoulder into it and moves things along smartly. The four-cylinder RAV is not down on gumption, but it would be more pleasing and lively with either a modern automatic with more ratios, or a manual.

The sport-tuned suspension of our Sport model was well behaved, but it felt slightly stiff-kneed, something that non-enthusiasts might find objectionable. Tightly snubbed body control is good, but there's more bobbing and head toss than we'd have liked. That said, if we had to pick, we'd take stiff over floaty. The electrically-assisted power steering surprisingly manages to avoid being shot up with Novocain, too. Thus, cruising down the road is relaxed in the RAV4 Sport. Overall, there's a Lexus-like sheen about its demeanor, and the attention to detail and care that's been taken with its design let it get away with some demerits. The RAV4 goes down the road in a calm, relaxed and muted fashion, and opting out of the V6 doesn't put you in an underpowered penalty box. Pricing in the mid-$20,000 range is competitive, and when compared with other small SUVs on the market, the RAV feels like a bargain that offers a level of sophistication that's head and shoulders above most.

Photos Copyright ©2009 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 6 Years Ago
      What an ugly POS.
      Iv'e seen better looking polished turds.
      • 6 Years Ago
      What the hell does a blue painted strut have to do with sportiness? LMAO
      • 6 Years Ago
      The reviewer gives Toyota a pass on an interior that is substandard even when compared to that found in the Dodge Caliber. Toyota has just as much hard plastic as the Dodge, but without the nifty drink coolers of the Caliber.
      • 6 Years Ago
      interior looks like its from 1995, serioulsy what they hell are they thinking...

      also, some of the photos look like they were taken on a cell phone!

      Nice review tho
        • 6 Years Ago
        My gf has the previous gen RAV4. 4 cylinder. Surprisingly peppy off the line when unladed. (I drive a V8 dodge dakota. good pull even when hauling gear).

        The interior space is roomy and usable *EXCEPT* the cup holders.
        1) if you have a cellphone charger plugged into the front socket you can't get your drink in there.
        2) they need to be deeper. your coffee travel mug is very likely to tip over.

        And that little storage compartment above the glove box has a chintzy door & latch. It's going to break sometime.

        Pleasant seats. (I think my Dakotas are better). Good stereo. Sun roof. Usable & functional cargo. Good visibility. Wish the steering wheel were more telescoped since I am tall.

        BUT OVERALL: Very good choice for a real world vehicle.
        • 6 Years Ago
        That interior is very poor. If this was a GM or something it would have been criticized in this area. But since it's a Toyota...

        Honestly it's worse than the Honda Pilot.
        • 6 Years Ago
        I actually love the interior of the Prius, and the new one is even better. It's unlike anything else on the road.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I have the 2008 Rav4 Sport V6 4WD -- same colors and wheels as the one in this article -- and I love it as long as I don't have to drive it. The functionality and roominess make for a comfortable vehicle. However, once I get behind the wheel, I hate the thing with a passion.

      The transmission is definitely the weak link (a 5-sp. in the V6s). It's so slow to react that it borders on dangerous. It first refuses to put any power to the pavement, especially if steering wheel is anywhere other than center. Then it downshifts dramatically to make up for lost momentum which induces muscle-straining torque steer and sends the Rav all over the road. This started happening after ~5k miles and has been progressively getting worse. I now have ~16k miles on the odometer.

      Twice I've complained to the dealer and Toyota Corp. about this and was told that this is how it was designed - they recognize it's not ideal but it's a characteristic that is inherent to Toyota truck powertrains.

      In the next couple months, I will be trading this in for a Honda Fit with a M/T. Only slightly less cargo capacity, better MPG, no worries of torque steer (ha!) and I can control downshifts. Never again will I buy a Toyota truck product.*

      *Toyota cars with auto transmissions don't have this issue. While my Rav was at the dealer for investigation, I drove an 07 Corolla which had a very intuitive transmission.

      I would love to hear from any other Rav owners experiencing this issue.
      • 6 Years Ago
      That thing has certainly come a long way.
        • 6 Years Ago
        It has. It's also beefed up quite a lot.

        While I like the RAV4, I think it's laughable that this is supposed to be a "small crossover." This thing is larger than the first Explorers. My sister had a 1st generation RAV4 for many years (back when people called things what they were -- car-based SUVs). She treated it horribly, but it never had a single mechanical problem. She would never drive this thing though. Much too large!
      • 6 Years Ago
      Funny...we get ~1 MPG less on the V6, and yes it has more power than a little appliance SUV deserved (which is OK with me).
      • 6 Years Ago
      These are awful little cars. Cheap plastic left and right, atrocious seats, and an overall poor interior. Did anyone notice that the dimmer switch for the IP is not illuminated? Ironic considering it is only used at night. Nor are the PL or PW. So much for the controls being easy to use.

      Furthermore, I logged about 800 miles on a 4-cyl, and I never broke 21 mpg.

      If this were a GM vehicle, it would be lambasted left and right.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I had an 01 and 04 RAV4 and when the new model came out I was sorely disappointed. It was one of the best options combining urban runabout, with 4WD and a manual transmission. Plus, it easily fit into tight parking spaces, could fit my bike with wheels on it with one seat removed, and was relatively fun to drive with a manual. Also, what better to soak up Boston potholes than extra long suspension travel.

      What did Toyota do in 2006? Make it MUCH larger and remove the manual option. It was a bad move by Toyota, especially considering they get two versions in Europe - the bloated RAV4 and the smaller version. They should've kept the smaller version for the US.

      Anyway, now I drive a BMW 328xi and am happy, but my bike does not fit and I hate potholes more than ever.
        • 6 Years Ago
        The Scion xB is the new Rav-4. Small, manual transmission, tons of space, good mileage. I can see why they went larger with the Rav-4 because the xB now fills that space.

        BUT if they gave the Rav-4 a 6spd manual and a lowered sport suspension, that would truely make it a great package.

        But considering it is as fast as a base Cayenne, gets 27mpg on the hwy, costs under $30k, and does not require premium... it is the closest you can get to having a do it all car.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Element gets lousy mileage! 23mpg hwy is attrocious. Its mileage puts it far outside what people want when they shop for economical cars. You can drive a Rav-4 v6 4wd and still get 26mpg on the hwy.

        And i agree that an xB is not a replacement for the old Rav4 if you need 4wd. What i really really really want is a Rav-4 with the v6, 6spd manual, and 4wd! That would be perfect and would likely price under $22k while getting 28mpg! sweet!
        • 6 Years Ago
        >>What i really really really want is a Rav-4 with the v6, 6spd manual, and 4wd! That would be perfect and would likely price under $22k while getting 28mpg! sweet!

        Correction, meant to type xB v6 manual
        • 6 Years Ago
        The xB lacks the 4wd. I considered that as alternative, but it's not really. Nothing beats the combination of value in the 01-05 RAV4s. The closest today is the Element.
        • 6 Years Ago
        The Element might be good and versatile, but I think it doesn't look very good.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I think the most redeeming value for my RAV4 is the amazing interior space. I love that the spare (full-size!) is on the outside, freeing up a hidden cargo compartment in the rear where the spare would have been. Add that extra space (almost equivalent to a large Thule or Yakima cargo carrior!) to the already class-leading interior room and nothing else in its class compares.

      I drove 3,000 miles moving cross-country from NY to NV last year with everything I needed stuffed into my RAV4. Didn't have to spend extra money on a U-Haul trailer or Roof-top Cargo Carrier because of the amazing cargo volume inside. Hope peope who need that type of utility consider the RAV4.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I really like the look of this vehicle (which is rare with Toyota), and given my three kids and the optional-yet-small third row, I figured this would be a fun runabout even during the winter. I was dismayed, however, to discover there was no manual transmission available. It was immediately scratched from my list. I suppose I'll go with the Mazda5, sans 4wd.

      And as a footnote, NOTHING with a Sport label should be offered with anything BUT a manual transmission. "Sport automatic" is an oxymoron.
      • 6 Years Ago
      For the 1 mpg, I'd rather have the 268-hp....

      Plus when you kill the VSC, The V6 is seriously quick. We used to toy around in the V6 sports while I was still selling them.

      PS. To Disable VSC in a RAV4

      1. Make sure the car is in Park and the parking brake is disengaged before you start the car.
      2. Start the engine.
      3. Engage the parking brake.
      4. Fully depress the brake pedal and then release.
      5. Fully depress the brake pedal and then release.
      6. Disengage the parking brake.
      7. Fully depress and hold down the brake pedal.
      8. Engage the parking brake, then disengage it (while holding down the brake pedal).
      9. Engage the parking brake, then disengage it (while holding down the brake pedal).
      10. Release the brake pedal.
      11. Engage the parking brake.
      12. Fully depress the brake pedal and then release.
      13. Fully depress the brake pedal and then release.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Don't use regular, use mid-grade gasoline.
        Check air filter.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Make sure to print it to bring it with you. If you miss a step does it blow up? :)
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