EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 30, 2013

New Toyota RAV4 moves with history

Motor Mouth
Jeffrey Zygmont

---- — The Toyota RAV4 occupies a prominent position in American automotive history.

OK, so it's not as lofty a spot as, say, the Ford Model T, which used Henry Ford's brilliant innovation, the moving assembly line, to make automobiles affordable for ordinary people like you and me. (And, by the way, let's not abandon that legacy to carbon cops who would make driving unaffordable for average people.)

But the RAV4 is undeniably as important as such creative new vehicle types as the modern minivan, which most people date to the late-1983 appearance of the Dodge Caravan. The early Caravan was a front-wheel-drive box with enough cabin space to substitute for big, old-style, rear-drive station wagons, which were going away because of U.S. government fuel-use mandates.

The Toyota RAV4 arrived in America in 1996 as the first compact crossover SUV. Bill Clinton was president then, and enormous SUVs were the fashionable vehicle class, led by extravagant models like the Hummer H2 and the Cadillac Escalade.

But the RAV4 was a humble car, an easy-riding passenger vehicle, at the time built on the same platform that underlaid the Toyota Corolla. To that car platform, the RAV4 added the elements of SUVs that people liked most: a high body with a wagon back for cargo, and all-wheel drive. Thus was born the crossover, a passenger vehicle that combined the comfort and easy maneuverability of an automobile with the usefulness of an SUV.

Everybody followed the example of the Toyota RAV4. Today, crossovers are abundant, sold in heaps by auto brands from racy Porsche and stately Mercedes-Benz down to the more common car makes like Chevrolet and Ford. Crossovers have far, far outdistanced traditional SUVs in popularity and have displaced minivans as the must-have vehicle for families.

And the RAV maintains a top-spot, leadership role. At the start of the year, Toyota started selling its fourth-generation, 2013 RAV4, a re-styled and re-engineered, thoroughly modernized new crossover. The updated model is so popular that Rockingham Toyota Scion Honda sells it about as fast as new inventory arrives.

“It's a car that I can't keep in the showroom,” said Marc Smith, general sales manager at the Salem, N.H., dealership.

As the month of June ended, RAV sales at Rockingham were running more than double their rate during June 2012, when Toyota still sold the prior-generation version, Smith said. In fact, demand for the original crossover is so strong – both at Rockingham and across the U.S. as a whole – that the RAV4 is challenging the dominance of the most popular passenger car in America, which happens to be another Toyota, the Camry.

“The Toyota Camry has not been outsold by any passenger vehicle out there in the last13 years. But the RAV4 is possibly going to surpass it this year,” Smith stated. That's counting sales to consumers only. When you add in sales to fleets, the Camry surges ahead of RAV4, which typically isn't placed in fleets. Still, even approaching the long-reigning Camry in consumer sales – when the Camry itself remains a hot seller – is a noteworthy feat.

Improvements to the new version are comprehensive. But Smith singled out a few big changes that are drawing oversized applause for the 2013 RAV4.

One is the smoothly streamlined body design. The new RAV4 wears a gracefully sculpted but assertive nose and front end. It tapers artfully to the back, where you find some stand-out changes.

Prior versions of the RAV4 carried their spare tire outside the tailgate, which swung to the side to open. After all, as a compact crossover, The RAV4 must remain manageable and maneuverable in size, while also maximizing cabin space. Keeping the spare tire outside contributed to that twin goal. But in the 2013 model, engineers hid the spare under the rear cargo floor and converted the back opening to a lift-gate. The result is a cleaner exterior look, and easier, move convenient rear cargo loading, said Smith.

And Toyota didn't sacrifice rear space to make room to hide the tire. In fact, the company reports that the back cargo area of the 2013 RAV4 is larger than in the previous model. All versions come with a 60/40-split, fold-down rear seat back to make the cargo floor configurable. What's more, the new model features thinner front seat backs, which gives more leg room to back-seat passengers.

Another sizable improvement is a new, six-speed automatic transmission, replacing a four-speed available in the RAV last year, Smith said. The new transmission lets Toyota tailor the vehicle's performance to suit individual drivers – or to suit changing moods and desires of the same driver.

It works through a button that lets the driver select between an economy driving mode or a sport mode. The economy mode aims to maximize fuel economy. The sport mode makes the RAV behave as a quicker, more responsive road warrior. It does that by calibrating fuel delivery and changing transmission shifting for fast starts and rapid hops.

As a result, the 2013 RAV4 does not offer the V6 engine option that was available in earlier versions, the Rockingham sales manager said. Instead, with the sport-mode selection it provides the beat-the-traffic performance that V6 drivers seek, but with the four-cylinder that now is the one and only engine available in the vehicle.

“They're just building a smarter car,” Smith said. “People get to operate it the way they want to operate it. That gives them more control over the car. For the customer who has a V6 mind-frame, once they test-drive the car and feel the sport mode, their objections to a four-cylinder are over.”

There's more, he noted, like a new all-wheel drive system that operates in front drive until it detects the need to distribute power to other wheels. Then it distributes the traction intelligently, according to the vehicle's needs, Smith said.

All told, the new RAV4 comes with a generous supply of standard equipment. Even the lowest priced, LE trim level – starting at $24,145 for a front-drive version and $25,545 for all-wheel drive – comes with such features as a back-up camera, adjustable steering wheel with cabin-feature control buttons, privacy windows, filtered air conditioning, remote locking, touch-screen audio system, and more.

Taken together, the additions, changes, upgrades and improvements make the 2013 Toyota RAV4 a thoroughly contemporary car, while it remains an historic milestone.

Jeffrey Zygmont is an author of fiction and non-fiction books, and a long-time auto writer. Contact him at www.jeffreyzygmont.com.

2013 Toyota RAV4 Vehicle type: 4-door, 5-passenger, front- and all-wheel-drive compact crossover\Price range: $24,145 to $29,255 (plus options Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles basic warranty; 5 years/60,000 miles powertrain warranty; 5 years/unlimited corrosion warranty; 2 years/25,000 miles free scheduled maintenance and roadside assistanc Engine: 2.5-liter I4 Power: 176 horsepower at 6,000 rpm; 172 lb.-ft. torque at 4,100 rpm Transmission: Six-speed automatic Fuel economy: 22 mpg city; 29 mpg highway (with AWD) Wheelbase: 105 inches Length: 180 inches Width: 73 inches Height: 65 inches Weight: 3,435 pounds Fuel capacity: 15.9 gallons Turning circle: 34.7 feet