Aug. 19, 2013
Look familiar? It should; Toyota’s RAV4 has been popular for almost 20 years, during which time it grew from a mini to a compact SUV and got handsome. Toyota photo
At least in the summertime, it’s difficult to drive a RAV4 without thinking “vanilla!” Despite, or maybe because of its blandness, vanilla has been the best-selling ice cream since those mythical cows came home. (Dairy cows, surely.) Equally reliably, every month Toyota sells about 15 thousand of these compact crossover wagons in North America alone, in spite of, or again possibly because of their blandness. There isn’t an idiosyncratic gene anywhere in the RAV4’s DNA—not a sharp corner, a blue note or a sour taste. As modern SUV-type family cars go, the RAV4 is not too big nor too small, neither over-motored nor hopelessly wimpy, and of course it bears Toyota’s reputation for reliability. Goldilocks would have had a RAV4 and some vanilla ice cream to go with the porridge that was just right.
This year, Toyota spawned the fourth generation of its R
ehicle with 4
-wheel drive, our first Rav without a spare tire on the tailgate. Toyota also simplified the menu. We can have any engine and transmission combo we want, as long as it’s this 4-cylinder, 176-horsepower gas-burner with the creamy-smooth 6-speed automatic that can be shifted manually.
We do have to choose between front-wheel or all-wheel drive. Yet the penalties of AWD—in weight (about 120 pounds), gas mileage (the difference between 29 and 31 MPG) and price (around $1,500)—are slight enough and the potential benefits real enough, even in places where it doesn’t snow, that I wonder why anyone would choose FWD.
For $25,000, we can get a basic-vanilla LE-model Rav with a backup camera and an appealing interior, along with the AWD. Many more features are available on the XLE version and then the Limited, each one tricked out with more goodies. Mechanically, all three are the same, so the question becomes: How much do you want to spend on goodies?
A Limited with every box ticked tops out at $31,000-plus. This can be knocked down slightly by deleting the running boards and the locking lug nuts, which still leaves navigation, dual-zone automatic climate control, a JBL stereo, an adjustable electric tailgate, pushbutton ignition, front seat heaters and an 8-way-adjustable driver’s seat, a power tilt-and-slide sunroof, blind-spot monitors in the side mirrors and rear-cross-traffic alert.
While the base LE has a computer screen and a hands-free Bluetooth phone connection, the other two models come with a full array of electronic connectivity features. I use very little of this stuff, and I feel like an idiot talking to my car (which usually doesn’t understand me anyway), so let’s just consider the overall automotive experience, shall we?
Every RAV4 has two extra driving modes on tap: Sport sharpens up the throttle and transmission response and makes the Rav feel somewhat caffeinated, while Eco has the opposite effect—it mutes the driver’s throttle inputs, to save a bit of fuel. In any mode, the steering is unexpectedly quick (a dash of chili powder in the vanilla?), and the coil-and-strut suspension with stabilizer bars fore and aft makes the car unexpectedly nimble, especially in town.
We also didn’t expect our RAV4 XLE AWD to be so confident on the interstate. Wrong again. It doesn’t have the planted, master-of-the-universe stance of a high-dollar autobahn cruiser, but at speed this Rav didn’t feel like it was either straining or teetering along on its tippy-toes.
The last choice that a buyer faces, then, is a RAV4 versus the more powerful and slightly more expensive Ford Escape or the top-selling Honda CR-V or the Hyundai Santa Fe or any of the many other similar utes fighting for our attention. In other words, vanilla—or chocolate, strawberry or cherries jubilee? To the suburban mother juggling a job, two children, an incontinent dog and a distant husband, the Toyota can be much more than just a soothing dessert; it might be the most reliable thing in her life, the never-fail, can-do personal assistant that gets the job done.
All this ice-cream talk made me curious. For the first time in years, I went out a bought a small tub of vanilla. Ben & Jerry’s. And you know what? I think all those people are onto something.