A Nicer View Than Ever Of Middle Of The Road

2013 Toyota RAV4 - front three-quarter view, red

When we had our first shot behind the wheel of the 2013 Toyota RAV4, the overall judgment from Managing Editor Jeremy Korzeniewski could be summed up in a sentence along the lines of, "Eh, not bad." The truth is that the compact crossover segment, now filled with not-so-compact offerings, is as cutthroat as any in the industry these days. When a heavyweight player like the RAV4 comes to market with a new generation, it is not at liberty to start from a clean sheet, lest it throw cold water on a vehicle that sells tens of thousands of units globally every month. Like De La Soul says, "Stakes is high."

If the choices in the marketplace were still largely limited to the Honda CR-V, as was the case when this market niche was green, the Toyota offering might actually seem like the exciting choice. But with new players offering better dynamic thrills (Mazda CX-5), cool turbo motors and fancy technology (Ford Escape), or even crunchy cred (Subaru Forester), the small crossover shopper is really spoiled for choice in 2013.

With Mr. Korzeniewski's excellent First Drive review covering the granularity of the RAV4 specification so well, we chose to focus our notes this time around on living with the Toyota in its natural suburban habitat for a longer stretch. What's more, we'll try to mark out where the CUV wins, loses or draws with the rest of the strident segment.
Related Gallery2013 Toyota RAV4: Review
2013 Toyota RAV42013 Toyota RAV42013 Toyota RAV42013 Toyota RAV42013 Toyota RAV42013 Toyota RAV42013 Toyota RAV42013 Toyota RAV4

2013 Toyota RAV4 side view2013 Toyota RAV4 front view2013 Toyota RAV4 rear view

We were a little surprised to see not so much as an eyebrow raised at the 2013 RAV4.

In terms of exterior styling, we'll reiterate our first assessment of the RAV4 by saying that the 2013 version is better looking than ever before. Nearly everyone agrees that the black cladding around the body sides and front and rear fascias does just enough to butch up the delicate-nosed CUV without going off the deep-end into gritty SUV territory. We like the way the body sits primed on the 17-inch alloy wheels, too, with just enough space between the tire and the wheel well to offer a vague notion of ground clearance, yet with ride height low enough to make the RAV4 seem planted. (Be honest, CUV Driver – you only go off-road by accident.) Still, park the RAV4 next to any Sportage, CX-5 or even the smaller Subaru XV Crosstrek, and it starts to look a little dull.

We rarely get stopped by questioning members of the public when driving small crossovers of any kind (well, except for the Range Rover Evoque), but we were still a little surprised to see not so much as an eyebrow raised at the 2013 RAV4. Older versions of the Toyota are all over the place, and yet not a head was turned all week while we drove some 200+ miles. That's hardly scientific, but anecdotally, we must admit that this brand-new Toyota design blends right into the background.

2013 Toyota RAV4 headlight2013 Toyota RAV4 grille2013 Toyota RAV4 wheel2013 Toyota RAV4 taillight

We do have some worries about the longevity of the cabin materials.

With around 5,000 miles on the odometer when we grabbed the keys, our RAV4 XLE was still an infant in terms of the 200k+ mile Toyota life expectancy. We've got no reason to believe that this vehicle will be anything less than mechanically bulletproof as the years roll on, but we do have some worries about the longevity of the cabin materials. While your writer took slightly less offense to the milieu of textures and surfaces in the RAV4 cockpit than have other reviewers (I quite liked the cloth seat fabric, and the leather-clad swathe of dash), there's no question that there are already some wear issues.

In particular, the brittle-feeling and inappropriate-looking 'carbon fiber'-style trim was badly scratched up. In the high touch area around the gear lever, presumably swiped by keys in hand fairly often, we found a mass of fine scratches and gouges. Plastic on the steering column and on the door controls was scratched up as well. Should the damage have been confined to just one area, we would have overlooked it, but as abrasions seemed to be part and parcel to the hard plastics throughout the cabin, we're guessing that they'll just be a fact of life for normal owners.



Another set of real-world gripes cropped up while using the Display Audio system with Toyota's Entune software. For one, the lack of a dedicated button to reach the navigation or map screen is annoying. You've got to press the hard button labeled "Apps" on the console, and then use the touchscreen to get into the map/navigation menus. This strikes us as an odd interface path, and different than most systems we've used, though it is admittedly something that won't take long to learn.

Worse was our experience with the Bluetooth connection, however. After going through the simple process of linking our iPhone to the Toyota system (for phone and audio), we expected to be able to stow the phone safely in our pocket and forget it. Unfortunately, three or four times over the course of the week, Entune somehow completely lost the connection with the phone (for the record, this happened both with the iPhone in our pocket, and with it placed in the cubby in front of the gear lever). This dropping also prompted the whole system to shut down and then restart, a process that took a few minutes in total. Again, these aren't life-altering issues, but they do detract from the straightforward, easy-to-use ethos that Toyota has built its reputation on.

2013 Toyota RAV4 interior2013 Toyota RAV4 front seats2013 Toyota RAV4 rear seats2013 Toyota RAV4 rear cargo area

When driven in Sport, the four-cylinder and six-speed work really nicely together.

The less-than-premium feeling extended to the driving experience, too, at least in part. While the vehicle's 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine was well matched to the task, revving the engine over 4,000 rpm or so resulted in a kind of thrashy exhaust note. What's more, wind and tire noise on the freeway were, at best, equal to what CUVs like the CX-5 and Crosstrek deliver. We honestly expected the Toyota to be a class leader in terms of in-cabin quiet, and were surprised to find that it's more like "just as good."

It wasn't all bad news for the noisy powertrain though. As our earlier report pointed out, when driven in Sport mode, the four-cylinder and six-speed transmission work really nicely together to make use of every one of those 176 horsepower. Throttle tip-in was well managed in this mode, too, with good starts resulting from an extra couple degrees of boot. Eco mode does kill a lot of that buzz – the drivetrain feels oddly rubbery and sluggish thusly configured – but it also helped return fuel economy close to the EPA estimates. On the highway, even without Eco mode, we scooted along at or above the expected 29 miles per gallon (for the all-wheel-drive RAV4). The city rating was a bit harder to match; our heavy-footed driving style got us closer to 19 or 20 mpg most of the time. But with the magically dull Eco button pushed, 22 and 23 mpg was no problem. You won't like it, but it's good for you.

2013 Toyota RAV4 engine

The ride and handling suite of the RAV4 is middle of the road, save for the grippier-than-expected cornering of the all-wheel-drive version. Benign steering couples with a fairly stiff body structure and softly sprung chassis to blandly and competently execute maneuvers that fall within the 95th-percentile kind of driving. Considering that even the sharpest member of the compact CUV class (again, this is probably the CX-5) is only about as precise as a normal midsize sedan, this is no great loss. We'd need a comparative drive to suss out the subtleties in handling between the vehicles that compete with the RAV4, and honestly, it's a characteristic that typical buyers will have well down on their list of must-haves.

With practical considerations leaving the RAV4 on more-or-less even footing with its competitors, the question becomes, "What do I get, and for how much?" Our RAV4 XLE AWD is the mid-level trim of the lineup and, with the $1,030 navigation/Entune/touchscreen added, has a final sticker price of $27,585. The CX-5 in Touring trim is just $25,865 before destination; but adding navi to the Mazda necessitates adding a sunroof and Bose Audio, bringing the final price to $29,275. Honda's pricing looks very similar on the surface ($26,145 for and CR-V EX AWD), but again asks that you jump into a much more expensive model to get navigation. In the CR-V's case, that means you end up with a fully loaded, leather-trimmed crossover for $31,125. Kia's attractive Sportage, meanwhile, offers attractive value, too. $26,800 gets you a Sportage LX with 17-inch wheels, UVO infotainment with navigation and a backup camera. A Ford Escape AWD with the 1.6-liter EcoBoost and comparable equipment is $28,930. A 2014 Subaru Forester 2.5i Limited with leather, CVT and a power liftgate starts at $27,995, but you have to jump up a few rungs to get navigation. You could make a legitimate argument for Subaru's slightly smaller XV Crosstrek as an interesting alternative – just $24,990 will get you similar equipment levels and all-wheel drive – but you'll have to accept a substantially less powerful engine, and a smaller amount of cargo space (interior volume for humans is surprisingly close to the larger RAV4, however).

2013 Toyota RAV4 rear 3/4 view

It's not the prettiest, strongest, biggest, smallest, most or least fuel efficient, cheapest or most expensive small crossover you can buy.

Long-term value may very well be a shining attribute for the RAV4, but that's a bit hard to calculate at this stage in the game. Running costs, including fuel economy, will all be very tight, too, unless you can make do with one of the smaller engine options like the Subaru or the CX-5 with its less-powerful 2.0-liter engine option. Just to throw it out there, the RAV4 is near the bottom of the group in terms of towing, with a 1,500-pound maximum rating not stacking up well against Kia's 2,000 lbs. or Ford's 3,500 lbs.

In short, the RAV4 is middle of the pack, all the way around. It's not the prettiest, strongest, biggest, smallest, most or least fuel efficient, cheapest or most expensive small crossover you can buy. It will be seen as highly acceptable to buyers who have always liked Toyotas, or those who don't shop around very much. Honestly, if you told us we had only this and the Honda CR-V to choose from, we'd flip a coin. Extend the question out to the full, excellent segment as it exists today, and our answers would likely be as individual as our editors.

Being close to the rest of the pack is no bad thing in a field this crowded and competitive. But just because this Toyota has a cute new nose, don't expect that it'll win our hearts by one.