Aside from the mega-dollar Lexus LFA and the Scion FR-S, few Toyota products of the last decade can be considered edgy, exciting, or controversial. Ironically, the one unique proposition in Toyota's lineup that departed from mainstream orthodoxy was the RAV4 compact SUV. In a class that has become dominated by smooth, wind-sculpted designs, four-cylinder power, and conventional packaging, the RAV stood out with its angular styling, exterior-mounted spare, and optional V-6 engine.
In our test of a 3.5-liter, V-6-equipped RAV4 in 2011, the cute 'ute ripped from 0-60 in a brisk 6.3 seconds, making it the quickest vehicle in its class. Back when it was first introduced for the 2006 model year, the V-6 accounted for as much as 30 percent of RAV4 sales. That number had since dropped well below 20 percent. The RAV4 has also been falling on the sales charts, trailing rivals including the recently updated, four-cylinder-only Honda CR-V and Ford Escape.
So it doesn't come as a surprise that Toyota has made some significant changes to its redesigned 2013 Toyota RAV4 to keep up with the Joneses. Gone are outgoing model's hot-rod V-6, square-sided styling, and the "Skittles" exterior spare tire cover.
In are attractive if somewhat anonymous styling, and a single engine option -- Toyota's well-worn 2.5-liter four-cylinder that served as the base engine in the previous RAV4, paired with an efficiency-minded six-speed automatic. With 30 mpg the new benchmark for highway fuel economy in the compact SUV class, the 2013 RAV4 delivers 24 city and 31 highway EPA figures for the front-drive model. Under our admittedly leaden feet for a week and a half, the new RAV averaged 22.5 mpg.
Compared to the V-6 we tested, the four-cylinder posted a significantly slower, but class-appropriate 0-60 time of 8.4 seconds. The difference in the quarter-mile time was not quite as gaping, at 16.4 seconds at 85.8 mph versus the V-6's 14.9 seconds at 92.9 mph. The new 2013 RAV4's 0-60 time is identical to the last Honda CR-V we tested, and its quarter-mile time is a mere one-tenth slower, but with a 0.2-mph faster trap speed. Credit the Toyota's extra cog over the Honda's five-speed auto.
And although we lament the passing of some of the features that gave the last RAV4 character and differentiation, the new vehicle's design takes some clear steps forward. The interior -- especially the dashboard -- is an undeniable improvement over the hard, plasticky cockpit of its predecessor. Although we wouldn't go so far as to call it sumptuous, the stitched, soft-touch center horizontal accent trim definitely lends a more upscale feel to the cabin. The buttons and knobs are large, intuitive, and clearly marked. The display audio head unit is easy to understand; displays Bluetooth music metadata; and on our model, included navigation, HD Radio, and a rear-view camera, the latter being standard on all 2013 RAV4 models.
The exterior is fresher and more modern than the last RAV4, but also less distinctive. The rear three-quarters looks very similar to other vehicles in the class, including the Ford Escape and the slightly larger Hyundai Santa Fe. The new horizontal taillight design also supposedly doubles as an aerodynamic enhancement, with a nearly flat horizontal plane that looks large enough to hold a tall latte, although we weren't brave enough to test our hypothesis.
The nose is said to reflect the "new" face of Toyota. It's very similar to the newest Euro-spec Toyota Auris hatchback, and will likely show up on the coming redesign of the Corolla and other future models. A somewhat questionable exterior feature is the unpainted plastic lower cladding on the front and rear bumpers and lower rocker panels. That said, we could see how it would likely stand up to road debris and normal wear-and-tear better than painted pieces.
The driving experience is typical Toyota. The 2.5-liter four starts with the familiar thrum of Toyota's larger-displacement four cylinders, and settles into an unobtrusive hum once warm. The electric power-assist steering gives light effort at slow speeds, but sometimes gets caught off-guard, and can fight the driver when making quick turns. The gear spacing on the six-speed automatic is near ideal, with short, closely spaced lower ratios, and an extra-tall sixth gear for relaxed, economical highway cruising. And although it may seem gratuitous on a vehicle aimed at young mothers and empty nesters, demographics not typically considered thick with driving enthusiasts, the Sport mode keeps the RAV4 from insistently seeking the tallest gear all the time, holding gears longer when cruising and on inclines, and making the transmission kick down more quickly for passing.
Stepping back from our personal affection for the V-6, the 2013 RAV4 is an improvement over its predecessor in all the ways that will likely matter to its target audience, namely, improved fuel economy; more attractive, mainstream styling; and a much-improved interior, while retaining the generous passenger space and cargo utility that characterized its predecessor. A more focused, narrower model lineup has worked well for Honda, and it's clear Toyota had the CR-V in its sights when it was developing the new RAV4. We'll see if the RAV4's new formula pays off the same as it has for Honda.