Toyota started the "Cute Ute" segment when it put an SUV body on a compact car chassis and created a vehicle that could haul five adults with a bunch of luggage, and still deliver excellent fuel economy.
Twenty-one years later, thanks in part to a well-deserved reputation for reliability, safety and practicality, the RAV4 is the best selling passenger vehicle in North America, the king of a highly competitive hill that it created.
Of the 102 SUVs of all sizes, models and brands available in American showrooms, the top four sellers in 2017 are all compact. The RAV4 leads a tightly bunched group that includes the Nissan Rogue, the Honda CRV. and the Ford Escape.
Though others have nicer interiors or, in the case of the Mazda5, offer more smiles to the miles, the RAV4's track record and the fact that, unlike most other manufacturers, Toyota does not charge extras for life-saving technology, have propelled the RAV4 past the former king of the hill, the Camry.
With an all-new 2019 RAV4 due in showrooms in the fall, now is a great time to shop for a 2018 model. Robbins Toyota, for example, is discounting RAV4s to employee discount pricing. That's in addition to a $2,000 discount or zero percent financing from Toyota.
Competent drive train
Critics knock the relative sluggishness of the RAV4s 176-hp, DOHC, 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine, but we found it to have ample power. The car easily merges into interstate traffic and holds its own maneuvering around big rigs. It has six more horses and is a second quicker in the 0-60 than the Roque but peppier cute utes are available, especially the turbocharged ones, like the Ford Escape, Buick Encore and Kia Tucson
RAV4 comes standard with a six-speed automatic transmission. The power train delivers EPA fuel economy estimates of 23 mpg city/30 mpg highway/26 mpg. Hybrid models get up to 32 mpg in combined fuel economy.
Perhaps the best part of the drive train is that it's a Toyota. We have a couple of RAV4s in the family and the doggone things are bullet-proof.
Nice road manners
On the road, the RAV4 feels well-planted and handling is firm and predicable. The body structure makes extensive use of high-strength steel to provide a robust and stiff, yet light, platform and is the foundation for the RAV4's smooth ride, handling agility, and cabin quietness.
The rear suspension employs spots welds and robust support mounts to help enhance rigidity and reduce vibration transfer into passengers' space. MacPherson strut front suspension and double-wishbone rear suspension allow the RAV4 to absorb bumps, ruts, and railroad crossings with composure.
On balance, the ride feels a little more compliant than when the current design hit the streets four years ago. It was engineered to have a nice, middle-of-the-road suspension. It handles parking lots with ease. If you want something more akin to a sport sedan, check out Mazda's CX-5.
Inside, there's ample room for five adults, including a competitive 37.2 inches of rear legroom. Behind the rear seat is 38.4 cu. ft. of cargo capacity (35.6 cu. ft. for Hybrid). With the 60/40 split rear seats folded, that space expands to 73.4 cu. ft. (70.6 cu. ft. for Hybrid). The rear seatbacks recline several degrees for added passenger comfort, and rear privacy glass is standard on all RAV4 models.
Special attention was directed towards improving cabin quietness with the addition of sound insulation materials in the rear cargo area, floor pan, and side and rear doors to help reduce road noise and create a premium feel.
With state-of-art safety technologies now standard on all new Toyotas, the RAV4 is at the head of the class when it comes to safety.
It starts with Toyota'sStar Safety System which includes: traction control, electronic brake-force distribution, enhanced vehicle stability control, brake assist, anti-lock braking, and smart stop technology. Eight standard airbags include dual stage advanced driver and front passenger airbags; front seat-mounted side airbags; first and second row side curtain airbags; driver's knee airbag and a front passenger seat cushion airbag. whiplash injury lessening front seats are designed to help support the driver's and front passenger's heads during certain types of rear-end collisions.
Add to that Toyota Safety Sense driver assist system which bundles cutting edge active safety technologies, including pre-collision with pedestrian detection function, featuring forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking, lane departure alert with steering assist, automatic high beams, and dynamic radar cruise control.
The latter makes interstate driving so much more comfortable. If the vehicle ahead is detected traveling at a speed slower than your set speed or within your distance range setting, the system is designed to automatically decelerate the vehicle without having to cancel the cruise control. When a greater reduction in vehicle speed is necessary, the system may apply the brakes and operate the vehicle brake lights. The system will then respond to changes in the speed of the vehicle ahead to help maintain the vehicle-to-vehicle distance set by the driver. When there is no longer a preceding vehicle driving slower than the vehicle's set speed, the system accelerates until the set speed is reached and returns to the pre-set speed cruising.