2009 Toyota RAV4 Expert Review:Autoblog

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.

Fresh look, better mileage, more options.


The Toyota RAV4 offers seating for seven and cargo capacity comparable to mid-size SUVs in a compact package. It's quick, relatively easy to maneuver, and comes with a choice of front-wheel drive or four-wheel drive. 

For 2009, the RAV4 sports freshened styling with a new grille, new front and rear bumpers, and new wheels. A new four-cylinder engine comes standard on 2009 RAV4 models that delivers more performance and better gas mileage. The new 2.5-liter four-cylinder is rated at 179 horsepower and gets an EPA-estimate 22/28 mpg City/Highway. 

Among the best of the compact SUVs, the current-generation RAV4 was introduced as a 2006 model. The RAV4 excels at convenience and ease of use. Getting in and out of the driver's seat is easy. It can move lots of people or lots of gear on a moment's notice. And it comes standard with a long list of safety equipment. Ordered with the optional V6, the RAV4 is a regular hot rod, scooting around with 269 horsepower. We prefer the five-passenger configuration. 

2009 Toyota RAV4 models get new options including a reverse monitor and touch-screen navigation, and all models come with integrated satellite radio. Also new for 2009 are active headrests for the front seats. 2009 RAV4 Limited models come with a new Smart Entry feature that unlocks the doors for anyone carrying the key fob. 


The 2009 Toyota RAV4 comes in three trim levels: base ($21,500), Sport ($23,200) and Limited ($24,490). All come standard with front-wheel drive, a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, and a four-speed automatic transmission. 

A 269-hp, 3.5-liter V6, and five-speed automatic transmission is available on all three trim levels: base ($23,535), Sport ($25,130), and Limited ($26,410). All RAV4s with V6 power and/or third-row seating come with Downhill Assist Control (DAC) and Hill-start Assist Control (HAC). 

All are available with full-time all-wheel drive ($1,400). 

Standard features for all RAV4s include air conditioning; cruise control; AM/FM/CD stereo with six speakers, MP3/WMA capability, integrated satellite radio, and auxiliary input jack; power windows; power foldable mirrors; keyless-remote locking; 60/40 split second-row seats with manual recline and for-and-aft adjustment; tilt-and-telescope steering wheel; three 12-volt power outlets; and auto-off headlights. The base four-cylinder RAV4 has P215/70R16 tires on steel wheels with hubcaps. The V6 is upgraded with P225/65R17 tires on styled steel wheels. All models come with a full-size spare tire. 

Options at the base level include a third-row seat ($840-940); six-CD changer ($260); a selection of 17-inch wheels, both styled steel ($120) and aluminum ($440-560); a roof rack with crossbars ($220); rear privacy glass ($310); a cargo cover ($140); daytime running lights ($40); and a towing package for the V6 ($160) that includes a heavy-duty radiator fan coupling, transmission oil cooler, and 150-amp alternator. The tow package increases the RAV4's pulling capacity from 2,000 to 3,500 pounds. 

The RAV4 Sport adds a handling-tuned suspension and P235/55R18 tires on alloy wheels, plus fog lamps, rear privacy glass, color-keyed trim outside, and unique charcoal fabric inside. Also standard for 2009 is a new rear spoiler. Options expand to include a power tilt-and-slide glass sunroof ($900), navigation ($1,550), leather upholstery with eight-way power driver's seat ($1,930), a back-up monitor ($475), and auto on/off headlights ($70). An Extra Value Package ($470) combines the sunroof with a roof rack, daytime running lights, and six-CD changer. But the third-row seat is not offered on the Sport. The new Sport Appearance Package ($577), available only on Sport models with the V6 and 4WD, takes the spare wheel off the rear door and substitutes run-flat tires. It also adds power heated side mirrors with integrated turn signals, a stainless steel exhaust tip, and additional interior brightwork. 

The Limited model upgrades with dual-zone automatic climate control, six-CD changer, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, leather-wrapped shift knob, cargo net and tonneau cover, heated and foldable power outside mirrors with new integrated turn signals, roof rails, engine immobilizer, the new Smart Entry system, and other amenities. Outside, the Limited is distinguished by a unique grille and front bumper, P225/65R17 tires on six-spoke alloy wheels, and a full hard-shell spare tire cover. Options include the third-row seat ($700-800), eight-way power driver's seat without leather ($440), and a premium JBL stereo with Bluetooth phone connectivity ($490), plus most of the options from the Sport level, mostly for the same prices. Two Extra Value Packages bundle the JBL stereo, Bluetooth, sunroof, power adjustable heated seats, and daytime running lamps; one adds navigation, too ($2,110), the other doesn't ($1,360)

Safety features on all RAV4s include dual-stage frontal airbags, side-impact airbags, and side curtain airbags. New for 2009, active headrests on the driver and front passenger seats move up and forward in certain rear-end collisions to help reduce the distance between the occupant's head and the headrest. Front seatbelts incorporate pre-tensioners and force limiters. Also standard are LATCH child safety seat anchors, antilock brakes (ABS) with brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), electronic stability control (VSC), traction control (TRAC), and a tire pressure monitor. 


The RAV4 looks like other contemporary Toyotas, featuring an aerodynamically efficient ovoid profile strategically relieved by sharp character lines. A coefficient of drag (Cd) of 0.33 is among the best in its segment and a major factor in minimizing wind noise and maximizing fuel economy. 

The RAV4's truck-like front end is tautly composed. Visually, the fenders are separate elements from the engine bay, a situation emphasized by a tight rectangular grille that seems to sit comfortably atop the wider bumper slits below. Headlights are compact and focused. 

Grille, bumpers, and fog light surrounds are all new for 2009. Most noticeable are the new, vertical brake scoops, lined with black ribs, that bite into the bumper beneath the headlights, where the fog lights used to be. (Fog lights nestle into these scoops on Sport models.) More subtle is the way the main grille now integrates better with the cooling slit just beneath it, while the formerly full-width slit beneath that has been replaced by three smaller slots. 

Limiteds have a look all their own, with a single, deep, trapezoidal grille opening bolding bisected by a body-color horizontal bar with a large, chrome Toyota World-T badge at its center. A pseudo-skid plate wraps up from the bottom, leaving no room for additional lower air intakes. Tubular nacelles supporting the fog lights replace the brake scoops of base and Sport models. None of these changes, fortunately, has affected the RAV4's low coefficient of drag. 

Alloy wheels have five spokes on Sport, six on Limited. A wide track gives the RAV4 a solid stance visually, while resisting rollovers in emergency maneuvers. 

The side view is oblong, a mix of boxy and oval, the better to accommodate that third-row seat. The fat, triangular C-pillar with the taillight at its base reminds us of the Subaru Tribeca, a larger, seven-passenger SUV priced a notch or two above the RAV4. An understated indent runs along the bottom of the RAV4's doors, softening the visual impression of bulk. Wheel arches blend smoothly into the fenders. 

In back, a single-piece rear bumper cradles the swing-open tailgate, which, sadly, still opens from the left side, so you have to walk around it when unloading curbside here in America. The taillights are new for 2009, as is the bumper itself, but the changes here are more subtle than at the front. Taillights are positioned high on the rear fenders. The spare tire bolts into a recess offset to the right in the swing-gate, and doesn't dip below the bumper line. The rear license plate, sunk into the lower left side of the swing-gate below the handle, visually balances the spare. The Sport model's spoiler hangs conspicuously off the top edge of the roof. 

The new Sport Appearance Package for 2009 eliminates the spare entirely, and centers the license plate up high beneath a bright metal strip that's just beneath another World-T badge that is just under the window. A bulge low down on the tailgate fills in the step in the standard bumper when the tailgate is closed. A handle on the left side still betrays the gate's swing-open design, but in spite of this the overall look with the Sport Appearance Package is remarkably more car-like, more station wagon than SUV. 


Inside, the 2009 RAV4 is as good as ever, which is to say functional if a bit eccentric in style. 

Placement of the gauges will be familiar to anyone who has owned a previous RAV4. The position and function of the controls populating the center stack is virtually the same as it has always been, which means very good; that also applies to the arrangement of the hand brake and the shift lever. The current dash is sharply split by a horizontal gash running the width of the car. About the only plus we found in this garish feature is a bi-level glove box, with an upper bin covered by a retracting lid and a lower bin fitted with a traditional, bottom-hinged cover. 

Materials are high quality. The standard seat fabric has been upgraded for 2009. Fit and finish is Toyota grade, which means excellent. All three trim levels share the same motif, with contrasting but complementary colors and brushed metallic trim elements around the stereo and climate controls, surrounding the shift gate and swooping around the door handles. The standard side-curtain airbags still allow a passenger assist grip, which folds down from the headliner over each door. 

The front seats are supportive but not overly firm, with modest bolsters and decent thigh support. The tilt-and-telescope steering wheel and height-adjustable driver's seat enables almost any size driver to find a comfortable fit, and without the added complexity (and cost) of adjustable pedals. The relatively high seating position, low cowl and sloping hood make for good visibility to the front. The lengthy side windows ease lane checking. Fully retracting head restraints in the second row and optional third row seats improve the viewing range through the inside mirror. 

The second-row seats are less padded than the front seats, without bolsters. It's no surprise, really, seeing as how that seat has to fit three people in a pinch. 

The optional third row seats barely qualify as such, with flat bottoms and equally featureless backs and head restraints. Access to that back row, by folding and tilting the outboard second-row seats, is not especially easy, but it isn't as much of a strain or as awkward as in some larger, full-sized sport utilities. 

The Honda CR-V, the RAV4's closest competitor, was redesigned for 2007, but the Toyota still either leads significantly, or trails by a mere fraction, in headroom and legroom, both front and rear. The Honda offers more than 2 inches more hip room, both front and rear, than the RAV4. But the CR-V does not offer a third-row seat. Maximum cargo volume (with all seats stowed) is nearly identical: 73.0 cubic feet for the Toyota, 72.9 for the Honda. 

The Suzuki XL7 provides more headroom than the RAV4, particularly in the third row (by a significant 1.6 inches). In legroom, the XL7 gives up half an inch to the RAV4 up front, but gets that half inch back in the second row, and betters the Toyota by almost a full inch in the third row. But in hip room, it's the XL7 that loses by 1.6 inches up front, gains a scant 0.7 inch in the middle, and then loses to the Toyota by a whopping 5.1 inches in the third row. 

Storage areas are plentiful. Beyond the glove box, the doors have fixed plastic map pockets, the backs of the front seatbacks wear net pouches, a total of 10 cup/bottle holders are situated about the cabin. When the third-row seats aren't ordered, a deep cargo area awaits beneath a water-repellant, foldable deck board. 

Driving Impression

The current-generation Toyota RAV4 offers improved stability (from its wider track) and a smoother ride (from its longer wheelbase) when compared with pre-2006 RAV4s. 

In the Sport variant, the suspension is tuned toward handling over smoothness. Steering response is confident, although understeer (where the car wants to go straight while the driver wants it to turn) is the RAV4's dominant posture during aggressive turns. There's moderate body lean in corners, but dive under braking and squat when accelerating are well controlled. The brake pedal feels firm. 

Depending on the engine ordered, response to the gas pedal is either prompt or borderline overwhelming. The new four-cylinder engine produces 179 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 172 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm (versus 166 horsepower and 165 pound-feet for the previous 2.4-liter engine on 2008 models). Designed specifically for low internal friction and high fuel efficiency, the new 2.5-liter engine applies Toyota's Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVT-i) to both intake and exhaust valves, rather than the intakes only. 

This redesigned four-cylinder engine is partnered with a new four-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission that is more compact, lightweight and efficient than the previous unit, with twin balance shafts reduce noise and vibration. 

EPA estimates for the 2009 four-cylinder RAV4 are 22 mpg city/28 mpg highway with FWD, and 21/27 mpg city/highway with 4WD. That's a significant improvement over last year's 21/27 with FWD and 20/25 with 4WD. 

The optional V6, with its head-of-the-class 269 horsepower and 246 pound-feet of torque, is a different story. With its impressive acceleration comes torque steer, particularly in front-wheel drive models: Hang on to the steering wheel, because when you floor the gas pedal the engine feels like it wants to pull the wheel from your hands. You'll get used to it, and the V6 sounds much better than a four. 

In general, the RAV4 is quieter inside than many small sport-utility vehicles, though perhaps not as quiet as the Honda CR-V. Some wind whistle crept into the RAV4's cabin around the side windows. 

The RAV4's on-demand four-wheel-drive system uses an electronically controlled center coupling to distribute torque between the front and rear wheels, depending on road conditions and driver input. The system can continuously and seamlessly switch from front-wheel-drive to four-wheel-drive mode, maximizing fuel efficiency. In Auto mode, torque distribution to the rear wheels is decreased during low speed cornering for better maneuverability. 

A 4WD manual locking switch will disengage the Auto mode, maximizing torque to the rear wheels. When vehicle speed reaches 25 mph, Lock mode will disengage, reverting back to Auto mode. Lock mode also disengages when the brakes are applied, optimizing ABS and VSC operation. FWD models come equipped with an automatic limited slip differential. 

Hill-start Assist Control provides additional control for on-road and off-road driving by helping to keep the vehicle stationary while starting on a steep incline or slippery surface. Downhill Assist Control is designed to enhance low-speed descending ability by helping to hold the vehicle to a target speed with minimal intervention from the driver. 


The Toyota RAV4 is enjoyable to drive and packaged well. Three rows of seating are available. The available V6 engine delivers lots of power. correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report after his test drive of the RAV4 in Texas. John F. Katz provided additional commentary from south-central Pennsylvania. 

Model Lineup

Toyota RAV4 ($21,500); RAV4 Sport ($23,200); RAV4 Limited ($24,490). 

Assembled In

Tahara, Japan; Woodstock, Ontario, Canada. 

Options As Tested

JBL audio ($490); third-row seat ($700); power glass sunroof ($900). 

Model Tested

Toyota RAV4 Limited V6 4WD ($27,810). 

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