The first Toyota RAV4 appeared on the market in 1994, and was presented as a possible antidote to the collapsing hot hatch market, where huge increases in insurance premiums had made cars like the Escort RS2000 and Golf GTi out of reach to many of their target buyers. In presenting a cheekily styled 3 door “soft roader”, Toyota thought that they had a “fun” product which people would want to drive, but which the insurance companies would not see as presenting anything like the same risk. Although the customer segmentation analysis was probably not particularly accurate, the RAV4 did sell well, and in effect it opened up a whole new sector of the market, into which many other manufacturers quickly followed. A five door model was not long in appearing, and then a second generation car, which, almost inevitably was bigger and which in due course was offered with a diesel engine to supplement the original petrol offering. When the third generation model arrived, some were surprised to find that there was no longer a three door car in the range, and that what had started out as a cheeky runabout was now a slightly portly soft-roader positioned at the upper end of its target market segment. Nonetheless, the RAV4 continued to do well in comparison tests and despite the extra heat from the CR-V, the Sportage, the Tucson, the Freelander, it was frequently deemed by the motoring press to be worth consideration. When Hertz Switzerland presented a 2.0 petrol version to me, I wanted to find out what I thought, and to see whether the RAV4 is still fun to drive or not.
The rental car fleets in Switzerland still largely favour petrol engined cars, so it was perhaps no surprise that I received the 2.0 148bhp petrol engined model to test, even though in most of Europe it is now the diesel that takes the majority of the sales. Although RAV4 has grown and put on weight with each successive generation, it is still not a large car – measuring less than 4400mm – so you might reasonably assume that 148bhp would prove sufficient to endow it with quite a sprightly performance. Let me tell you: it does not. The engine is very smooth and refined, but it is also lacking in both power and torque to make this more than “adequate” in the powerplant department. The RAV4 is not embarrassingly slow, but neither is it quick. There is not that much torque so it is likely that for sudden bursts of acceleration you are going to change down a gear or two, as I found on more than one occasion when I had been baulked on the autobahn. Swapping through the gears of the 5 speed ‘box is no particularly hardship as despite the rather wand like gearlever, the change is actually very good, feeling precise and slotting cleanly from ratio to ratio. I could not help feel that a sixth gear would have been of benefit for steady speed cruising, as even at 130 kph on the autobahn, the engine was quite noisy as the RAV4 was spinning at quite a lot of revs. Urban driving was OK, but there was certainly no real pleasure to be had out of the experience either. When the fuel gauge registered less than half full at the mid point of my test, I feared I was going to have to add fuel before getting back to Zurich, but in fact the gauge dropped less quickly for the second half of the tank than the first, and although it did read almost empty when I did refuel it, I only managed to squeeze in 45 litres in a 60 litre tank. Doing the conversions, this equated to about 28 mpg, which is not too bad considering a lot of that was pounding up the autobahn to Stuttgart at 150 km/h.
A taller than average vehicle, and one that weighs quite a lot is not like to deliver the ultimate in handling prowess, and the RAV4 has no secret tricks up is proverbial sleeve to defy this theory. Again, the epithet that comes to mind is “OK”. There were no surprises, and the car felt stable enough on the bends, but no more than that. The steering is light, and has some feel to it, but this is clearly not a car that the legendary Ford engineers have been anywhere near. No issues with the brakes, and there is a conventional pull handbrake lever between the seats for the final anchoring of the car when motionless. One challenge for small SUVs often is the ride, and whilst the RAV4 would win no prizes for this, it was not bad and acquitted itself acceptably on the admittedly rather smooth surfaces on which I drove it. Despite the looks, this is a car that is not intended for serious off-roading. It does have a little more ground clearance than a standard family hatch, and there is a diff lock, activated by a switch to the right of the instrument binnacle, but I did not test this at all, limiting my “off road” to a bit of loose gravel and grass at a couple of the photographic locations.
Inside the RAV4, all is pretty conventional, and it will present few surprises to even a regular hatch driver. When I initially set the steering wheel and seat relationship to my preferred driving position, I found that the steering wheel did not go high enough and with the seat set to its lowest position, either I was still too high, or the wheel was too low. Actually, you would not want to sit any lower, as then you would feel like you were sitting in a bath tub, unable to see out, and of course a high seating position is one of the prime reasons that people give for favouring this type of vehicle over a regular hatch. After I had been in and out of the RAV4 a few times, this unusual wheel: seat relationship ceased to bother me, so I suspect that you would quickly adjust to it. It certainly does make help you to see around the vehicle, and I found no problems in manoeuvering it. The fact that it is a short car, and that you can see the top of the rear-hatch mounted spare wheel in the mirror means that it is quite easy to determine exactly where the back of the car is. Coupled with decent sized mirrors, the RAV4 was easy to park. Oddly, unlike the feeling I have experienced with cars like the Sportage and the old Ford Maverick, I did not have the sensation that I was higher up than other people when I was sitting in traffic.
Target market for this car is likely to be a family, so more is needed than just the higher driving position. No issue with accommodation levels in the rear seats, with plenty of space for two adults, or three children, but I do not think three adults would be very comfortable sitting in the rear seats for very long. The rear seats are also higher than usual, so there is not a huge amount of headroom, and you would just have to be careful when getting in and out not to bash your head on the roof/top of the door area. As the RAV4 is not a long car, it will not be a surprise to learn that it is the boot that shows most where the space has been saved. This is not large, though there are a couple of useful cubby areas under the flat floor, which can be accessed by lifting simple panels upwards. There is a simple retractable cover which hides the content of the boot, and which has a couple of lugs on the seat-facing side which clip around the base of the rear headrests. To extend the boot size, the asymmetrically split rear seats can be folded forward, an act which brings the cushion forward and then creates a space for the backrest to drop into. The resulting area is flat, but there are gaps in the middle, in which small items could fall. This would make a big difference in load capacity, at the expense of reducing seating capacity to two people.
I think the best way to describe the interior of the RAV4 is “inoffensive”. There is a pretty conventional dash, moulded from decent quality plastic, which has some inserts of a metal effect colour, those these are of an unusual texture when you examine them close up. The main instrument binnacle comprises as central speedo, with rev counter to the left and fuel and water temperature gauges to the right. Everything else is logically laid out and intuitive, with a simple to operate 1 slot CD system, and standard air con and climate control. I was pleased to see that unlike some other Toyotas this one had no complex procedure to start it. You put a key in a slot on the right of the column, twist it and the engine fires. As simple as that! As well as a cubby between the seats and some deep door bins that line half the length of door, there is a bi-level glove box to store odds and ends inside the car. The test vehicle had only covered 8000km, so it still looked new, and hence it is hard to tell whether the interior would be as susceptible to looking tatty with scratched plastics especially around the key slot, as I have found with all other recent Toyota cars. By now, it will be clear that there were no serious faults evident with the RAV4. It will also be clear that there was nothing really that got me excited, or even particularly impressed. Doubtless this car would prove as reliable as all other Toyotas, so as a long term ownership proposition, it could be appealing. As a car with any sort of fun, though? Just forget it! I suspect that the diesel is a better RAV4 to drive, as the torque will probably make all the difference. But my conclusion of this model has to be that this is just yet another appliance from Toyota.