Plenty to like in Toyota's new RAV4

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The fourth-generation RAV looks smart and is more fun to drive than its predecessor. Photos: Supplied

The original RAV4 that came along in the mid-1990s headed into unexplored territory; the only other genuine rival of the day out of Japan was the Suzuki Vitara.

And now? Well, see for yourself. Kiwis today can choose from more than 40 vehicles created to meet ''crossover'' requirements, and a good number are from the same formula Toyota concocted for its original ''recreational activity vehicle four-wheel-drive''.

That the RAV4 has always been a dominant player in this segment of the market is quite an achievement, and though the impressive registration counts are to some extent reflective of Toyota's ability to own the fleet and rental sector, sheer natural talent is also a key to that enduring success.

The just-launched fourth-generation car looks smart, and is more fun to drive than its predecessor. Within the new range, the torque-rich turbo-diesel that previously won little attention as a manual is set to fly, having now been remarried to an automatic.

Against? The small SUV sector is entering an age of electronic warfare and the Toyota looks light in bypassing some ''smart'' functions (quick-witted radar/camera-guided anti-collision technology, lane-keeping alert, intuitive pace-keeping cruise control and self-parking) that others now offer.

That those rivals are priced to directly compete with the $39,990 to $62,790 RAV4 surely signal that this technology no longer comes at a premium.

The RAV4 is not wholly depleted of electronic assists though; sat nav, blind-spot monitoring, keyless start, a power-opening back door and heated seats all tempt, while the all-paw variants take downhill and hill start assists and a specially tuned stability control.

Engine choices are 107kW/187Nm 2.0-litre and 132kW/233Nm 2.5-litre petrol motors plus the 110kW/340Nm 2.2-litre diesel.

The RAV4 redesign is total; the new corporate nose hangs off an entirely fresh body that looks sleeker and lighter due to thinner pillars and plenty of glass. At the back, the trademark rear-door-hung spare has disappeared.

If the exterior treatment seems avant garde for Toyota, wait until you slide inside. The split-level dash could have been a straight lift from a company concept; that it overhangs far enough to conceal some buttons, including several that are quite useful, is a pity. Buy into the Limited and you get real leather stitched on to the dashboard.

It's a spacious machine, both up front and in the back, where Toyota provides an almost flat floor and good knee room. The short-straw seat is that of the front passenger; it's high-set and could benefit from a height adjuster.

The petrols will sell strongest but overall the diesel is the thrift and thrill king, with 6.5L/100km. It also tops on towing, with 1800kg max, and works brilliantly with the six-speed auto. Conceivably the oiler will be the best choice for off-seal work, assuming you think of the RAV4 as a pukka off-road car.

The updates to the all-wheel-drive that optimise front and rear torque split pay off on the seal and it demonstrates better than average body control there, too. A sport setting makes it fun on gravel despite the nannying stability control.



Plenty to like in Toyota's new RAV4
At a Glance


Prices: $39,990 (front-drive GX) to $62,790.

Engines: 1987cc four-cylinder 16-valve DOHC dual VVTi petrol, maximum power 107kW@6200rpm, maximum torque 187Nm@3600rpm; 2494cc four-cylinder 16-valve DOHC dual VVTi petrol, max power 132kW@6000rpm, max torque 233Nm @4100rpm; 2231cc four-cylinder 16-valve DOHC common rail direct injection turbo-diesel, max power 110kW@3600rpm, max torque 340Nm@2000-2800rpm.

Transmission: Seven-step constantly variable transmission (front-drive), six-speed automatic (four-wheel drive).

Brakes and stability systems: Disc brakes, ABS, BA, EBD.

Wheels, tyres: 225/65 R17 to 235/55 R18.

Fuel and economy: 6.5 (diesel)/7.4 (2.0-litre)/8.5 (2.5 litre petrol) litres per 100km, capacity 60 litres.

Dimensions: Length 4570mm, width 1845mm, height 1660mm.