Does the latest RAV4 have what it takes to remain a sales success in an increasingly crowded and competitive mid-sized sports utility segment? David Thomson takes the wheel of both diesel and petrol 4WD variants to find out.
Make no mistake, there is no harder segment of the new-vehicle market to stand out in than that for mid-sized SUVs.
It's fair brimming with choice, and amid all that is on offer and what is still to arrive this year (think new Honda CR-V and Nissan X-Trail), there are several vehicles that are excellent, and not one is a dud.
Toyota has been playing in this realm for longer than most, with the latest fourth-generation RAV4 superseding its predecessor back in April, and continuing a family line that dates back to the mid-1990s.
This RAV4 is all-new, shorter, narrower and lower than before, and with external styling that gives a fresh and edgier look. Up front, a sharply cut nose echoes that of the latest Corolla.
Thinner pillars give a lighter look to the cabin area, and while there is less scope to play a radical styling hand at the rear, the spare wheel no longer hangs off the tailgate, which is now hinged at the top rather than the side.
This tailgate change has been made practicable in part by lowering the trailing edge of the RAV4 roofline. The floor pan is lower too, providing easier access for loading cargo at the rear.
Boot space is good at 506 litres, and both GXL test cars were fitted with an adjustable cargo hammock under the load cover that is ideal for carrying small items.
Back-seat passengers are treated to substantially more legroom than before and seat backs recline to a limited extent, as well as tipping forward in the usual split-folding way to create extra luggage space when required.
Viewed from the driving seat, the interior of the RAV4 has taken a bold styling turn, with real pizzazz in the sweep of the split-level dashboard.
This visual flair and a lift in the quality of interior trim materials (including pseudo leather on the dash and simulated carbon-fibre finishes elsewhere) make this one of the nicest cabins in the current Toyota range.
Equipment levels are a vital ingredient in a class as competitive as this. In GXL guise, standard features include keyless entry and start, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, a six-speaker sound system, dual-zone climate control and cruise control.
Key audio functions can be accessed via a 15cm centre-mounted colour touchscreen as well as via steering-column mounted fingertip controls. The screen also displays the reversing camera and, if an SD card is inserted, photographic images of the owner's choice.
Front, side, curtain, and a driver's knee airbag are all standard fare, and the RAV4 holds the maximum five-star Ancap crash test rating.
Mechanically, the latest RAV4 is a three-engine range, but with the entry-level 2.0-litre only deployed in two-wheel-drive variants.
The all-wheel-drives, as tested, come with a choice of 132kW/233Nm 2.5-litre petrol and 110kW/340Nm 2.2-litre turbo-diesel engines. A big change with this model is that a six-speed automatic is now the transmission of choice for the diesel as well as the petrol variant.
Hill descent control, hill start assist, a locked 4WD mode and customised stability programming are included as standard, and unlike the top-flight LTD variant, the GXL comes with a full-sized rather than space-saver spare wheel.
Drivesouth's test of the GXL, in petrol ($51,490) and diesel ($53,490) form, included runs from Dunedin to Central Otago, and trips up skifield access roads in muddy conditions, as well as bouts of gentle off-roading.
The driver's seat of both variants scored well for comfort and support during these extended drives. Though the driving position still gives one a commanding view, it is lower than in previous RAV4s, in part because the floor itself is lower.
This combines with the new model's lower centre of gravity to deliver a greater feeling of engagement during open-road driving.
Road handling it is sharper, too, with crisper initial turn in and better balance and reduced body roll through corners. Primary body control over poor surfaces is good and wind noise is nicely contained.
Road noise is an issue on some coarse-chip surfaces. Both variants took dirt roads, moderate amounts of mud and basic off-roading in their stride, with their tyres (as is usual in this class) the main barrier to progress in really slippery conditions.
Perhaps the most fascinating point of comparison is the mechanical one: with just $2000 separating petrol and diesel, and both now autos, which holds the greater appeal?
The 2.5 petrol RAV4 certainly passes muster as thoroughly competent by a clear margin: it accelerates cleanly from low revs, is responsive in the mid-range, and spins out to 6000rpm nicely.
Gear changes are smooth and unobtrusive. An economy return of 9 litres per 100km for the full duration of the road test fell shy of the vehicle's 8.5l/100km standard cycle consumption figure, but was still reasonable given the mix of driving involved.
However, the 2.2-litre turbo-diesel impressed me more, and not just because it was close to 14% more economical than the petrol on an almost identical test route.
What really stands out is the way in which the diesel-auto combination endows the latest RAV4 with a long-legged, fuss-free open-road manner.
This makes it a very relaxing vehicle for lengthy open-road trips, as well as a commendably frugal one. Well done to Toyota, then, for delivering a new RAV4 that advances sufficiently over its predecessor to remain competitive in a tough segment of the new-vehicle market.
And plaudits to those responsible for the turbo-diesel which, now it has a truly suitable gearbox, is responsible for lifting the latest RAV4 to a four-star rating in this Drivesouth test.
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