The new RAV4 is safe and simple to use but lacks its original fun, writes Kevin Hackett.
Road Test: Toyota RAV4
Sometimes I do wonder if I'm being overly harsh on Toyota and Lexus in my reviews, but then I take a look through the hilarious hyperbole of the company's marketing material and I feel utterly exonerated. It isn't that Toyotas are bad cars, it's just that they rarely (if ever) justify the PR spin that's applied to them within the pages of the brochures, and I feel compelled to deconstruct the myth and tell it how it really is.
A case in point is the latest RAV4. This model is now in its fourth iteration and could, in all seriousness, stake a claim to being the very first crossover - you know, like an SUV, but smaller and less able when it comes to traversing wadis and swallowing furniture. The first RAV4 (it stands for Recreational Active Vehicle, Four-Wheel Drive, if you've ever wondered) was nothing if not a whole heap of fun. Launched in 1994, it was a hit from the word go, and was even declared "Automobile of the Year" by Automobile magazine in 1997.
The second generation continued the sense of youthful adventure, but by 2005, the third RAV4 came along and it got all serious and boring. Has the latest offering, which isn't very different to look at, made up for past sins and reclaimed its position as the crossover that younger owners aspire to owning?
If you believe the brochure, it's more exciting than a Ferrari 458 Italia. "Meet the new SUV legend," it declares, going on to say that the RAV4 "attains a level of refinement never seen before" and that it "takes on a stylish new personality, radiant with urban beauty and confident power and defines the new SUV legend of the future". Phew! But that's just the beginning, because if you climb inside you'll "discover unparalleled craftsmanship", that the "sporty and open appeal of RAV4's interior invites you to enjoy an unprecedented motoring experience" and that its "features and functions will thrill you like you've never been thrilled before".
Wait a minute, though, just hang fire - there's no need to cancel that order that you just placed for a new Lamborghini Aventador. Because the reality is as far removed from the fictional prose as it's possible to be. The new RAV4 is the same old recipe wrapped in a mildly refreshed (and quite unattractive) skin. That sense of fun - never mind excitement - appears to have vanished forever.
If you think that Hondas look a bit staid and stiff, check out the RAV4. Externally, it's a mess, combining a Camry-esque front end with quite the most bizarre side and rear-end treatment. Toyota has seen fit to provide a bookshelf above the rear lamps, that carries on down the flanks of the car, petering out just above the front wheels. It's like two entirely separate design teams were tasked with sketching the new RAV4 and they never consulted one another. "Radiant with urban beauty"? You can be the judge of that.
The interior is better, although it isn't exactly "sporty" or overflowing with "unparalleled craftsmanship". Rather, it's quite stylish with a slightly confused material selection that includes nasty, hard plastics with soft-touch plastics, leather and a bit of fake carbon fibre trim. Everything is easy to use, though, and it's intelligently laid out. Does it thrill me like I've "never been thrilled before"? In a word: no.
How about the "unprecedented motoring experience"? Again, the RAV4 is average, at best. The six-speed automatic transmission slushes around, cursing the engine with a forced harshness quite at odds with the "refinement never seen before" promised by the spin doctors, and the wind noise is quite obtrusive, even at fairly low speeds.
The car feels softly sprung, but it does take corners with surprising ease, with little of the ship-at-sea attitude that I expected, thanks to its power being sent to all four corners, and it can hustle along in complete safety because it is, after all, a Toyota.
What that appears to mean these days, unless you're driving a Toyota 86 or perhaps an FJ Cruiser, is competent ordinariness. If that's all that you require from a car then you could probably do no better than a Toyota, and maybe whoever is responsible for writing the marketing fluff needs to bear this in mind next time. Cars like this do have a place on our roads - they get the job done, they're cheap to buy and (despite the 5,000-kilometre service intervals) are cheap to run, maintaining higher-than-normal residual values when it comes to trading them in for something new. They're the workhorses of the GCC, and for that we should all be extremely thankful.
But the RAV4 desperately needs to go back to its roots, to become irreverent and fun once more. This latest version has done its ancestors a disservice and alienated itself from that all-important younger audience, who seem too busy buying funky new Kia Sportages to notice.
Price, base / as tested Dh109,900 / Dh124,900
Engine 2.5L, in-line, four-cylinder
Transmission Six-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Power 176hp @ 6,000rpm
Torque 233Nm @ 4,100rpm
Fuel economy 9.4L/100km
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