Toyota says their RAV4 was the first crossover SUV, a vehicle introduced in 1995 here in the States. Today as we drove the 2013 RAV4, we have a fourth-generation of the car-based SUV which Toyota has brought along to a more mature and modern character.
For 2013, the RAV4 gets a significant re-design from the ground up. The chassis remains largely the same size, if not slightly smaller. Key styling elements inside and out are all new with Toyota's new sharper facial features, round wheel openings instead of squared, and an overall silhouette which is lower to the ground.
The swing open tail-gate with spare tire is gone, making way for an easier to use lift-gate. This is a welcome change as the swing open gate was heavy and difficult to use. Another key change was the decision to drop the V6 engine option for a standard 2.5 liter four-cylinder engine across the model range, mated to a new six-speed automatic transmission.
While that may seem a disappointment to some, the reality is the V6 was not all that popular in terms of percentage of sales. Their decision was based on the notion that if you want more power you can step up to the Toyota Highlander. With the new six-speed transmission and the 176 horsepower 2.5 liter four, power is more than adequate and drivability is much improved.
Added this year is a new set of drive mode buttons on the console, “Eco” and “Sport”. These two buttons enable the computer to alter the driving character of the RAV4 to either save gasoline or offer up a more responsive feel through throttle mapping, transmission shift behavior and steering feel.
The interior steps up significantly in quality feel from the 2012 RAV4. A new two-tone styling treatment creates zones and bands with the door panels and instrument cluster that is quite appealing. On the top two of the three trim grades available, a soft touch hand stitched dash trim looks right out of a Lexus sedan.
The three trim grades for RAV4 now are LE, XLE and Limited. All three models come well equipped, with the LE being what Toyota calls “not a base model”. Even on the LE you get display audio with back-up camera, a power lift gate with a new adjustable stop feature, and a limited slip differential for max traction.
Toyota has simplified the model range such that the three trim grades come with very few options or packages. When you step up to each grade you get more stuff of course. The only significant options are navigation with Entune, blind spot monitor system, and roof rails on the LE model.
One change that we found a bit strange was on the top of the line Limited, leather seating is no longer available. Instead Toyota is offering their “SofTex” synthetic leather surfaces which has become a staple of models like the Prius. The material does offer a similar feel and touch of leather, and Toyota says it has many positive attributes for durability, wear and environmental sensitivity. We will see if buyers agree or not in time.
On the road, we found the new 2013 Toyota RAV4 has a more car like driving character than the previous generation. Steering is better weighted and can be changed with the sport mode button to be more firm. Chassis refinement is up a notch with more roll stiffness and a lower center of gravity.
The engine is nothing to report a great deal of enthusiasm over. It has enough power and doesn't make a show of itself. While we didn't measure acceleration, it is snappier than before due to the additional gears in its new six-speed automatic transmission. Due to this new gearbox, EPA estimated gas mileage is up to 31 mpg highway and 24 mpg city for the front-wheel drive model, 29 mpg highway and 22 mpg city for the all-wheel drive.
For those upgrading to all-wheel drive, a new electro-magnetic coupling system allows for up to a 50/50 power spit front to rear. The RAV4 will default to 100/0 with all power to the front wheels unless traction dictates otherwise.
In sport mode however, the system can deliver more torque to the rear wheels to enhance feel when driving more aggressively. We found the system to offer a noticeable response on windy mountain roads during our test.
The interior is where most drivers will find the bar significantly raised. Not only is the dash and center stack more modern and attractive to the touch, the interior cabin has more space. Rear seat room and cargo area are increased, now with up to 73.4 cubic feet of cargo space – a class leading number.
The seats are plenty supportive, especially in the XLE model grades and above which features deeper side bolsters. Toyota lowered the steering wheel angle and the instrument cluster a bit so this RAV4 feels more like a car inside than a small bus. The two-tone banding really creates an air of style too.
The standard display audio system with back-up camera is a major plus, offering up a nice crisp sharp color view behind. The sound quality is great for a standard audio deck, with six speakers. You can of course upgrade to a JBL system with more power as well as navigation.
With the LE model you still get a key to insert and twist, but upgrade to higher trims and you get a start button. The standard cloth seats are of a nice quality and grip if you forgo the Limited with its SofTex interior trims. The hand stitched dash pad in the top two trim grades is a major quality touch point that alone sets a graceful tone for the interior.
Overall, we came away impressed with the new 2013 Toyota RAV4, even though some strategic decisions were made to de-content the crossover such as the aforementioned lack of a V6 or leather option. In response to this Toyota says it has listened to their customers and is giving them most of what they want, which key in the RAV4 range is value.
With the strong list of standard features on the starting LE grade of the RAV4 they are delivering just that. Starting at $23,300 the 2013 Toyota RAV4 is not the least nor the most expensive model in its class. Toyota says the mid-grade XLE will be their top selling model, with some 40% of total sales. With the experience of over 1.7 million RAV4's sold since its introduction, they are likely correct in their assumptions.