Created Frankenstein-like by surgically fusing Camry car bones with the Celica All-Trac’s all-wheel-drive system, the Toyota RAV4 was the world’s first compact crossover sport-ute when it debuted in Japan and Europe in 1994. Who knew it would establish a whole new automotive segment that today eclipses everything on four wheels?
The RAV4 deviated from truck-based SUVs by employing lightweight unibody construction, a fully independent suspension (struts up front, trailing arms in back) and rack-and-pinion steering. The engine favoured powering the front tires to save fuel, and activated the rear axle when the system sensed the back wheels slipping. The amalgam of all-wheel-drive capability, economy-car thriftiness and carry-all utility quickly found an appreciative audience.
When the odd-looking RAV4 landed in North America in late 1996, Automobile magazine recognized the genius of it and named the RAV4 its Automobile of the Year. Subaru answered Toyota’s invention by jacking up its all-wheel-drive cars to create the Outback and the Forester. Toyota enlarged the RAV4 with each successive generation to chase Honda’s CR-V sales and a rapidly expanding field of competing models.
The fourth generation RAV4
Designers expended a lot of clay, time and server space to get the 2013 RAV4’s look just right. With its taut profile and stance, it avoids looking plump and doughy like so many small utes. The RAV4 remained right-sized, with product planners resisting the temptation to make it bigger. Third-row seating was no longer offered; what buyers got instead were cabin dimensions comfy enough for five and a generous cargo hold.
Engineers specified several grades of high-strength steel to form key structural pieces in the roof, rocker sills, doorframes and engine compartment to create a lighter but stronger unibody. All 2013 RAV4 models feature eight standard airbags and Toyota’s Star safety system, which includes traction and stability controls, antilock braking, electronic brake-force distribution and Smart Stop technology (to prevent unintended acceleration).
One change immediately apparent to shoppers was the absence of the spare tire hung on the rear door. It was moved indoors and under the load floor (a mini spare, naturally), which allowed the cargo door to swing upwards instead of sideways, making it easier to operate on a slope and in tight parking situations.
The cockpit is driver-centric with primary and secondary controls all within reach, and the instruments are big and easy to read. Optional was a host of high-tech gear, including blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning, back-up camera and more. Not everyone was enthralled with the display panel at the centre console, however.
“The absolute worst feature is the touch-screen control centre that easily vanishes and becomes unreadable in daylight and impossible in sunlight when the sunroof is open,” reads an online complaint.
The floor at the back seat is flat enough to accommodate the footwear of three passengers, and the 60/40 split-fold rear bench can recline several degrees to enhance comfort. Still, the rear quarters are not quite as spacious as the CR-V’s, especially for three occupants.
Motivating the RAV4
The Camry’s 2.5-litre DOHC 4-cylinder is the lone powerplant, rated at 176 hp and 172 ft-lb of torque (the V-6 was jettisoned to boost Toyota’s US corporate average fuel economy ratings, or CAFE). Replacing the previous 4-speed automatic is a conventional 6-speed autobox with manumatic shift. Both fifth and sixth gears are tall overdrive ratios to save gas. Additionally, the Eco mode promotes more fuel-efficient driving by adjusting transmission shift points.
The optional all-wheel-drive system is automatically engaged when accelerating or when wheel slippage is detected. It’s quick to act thanks to the electro-mechanical coupling used to summon rear wheel grip. There are three different drive modes: Auto, Lock and Sport. Lock allows up to half of available engine torque to be directed to the rear wheels, enhancing traction in mud or sand. The base model offers front-wheel drive only.
Subsequent model years did not see big changes. Engineers revised the frontal structure to improve the RAV’s score in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety small-overlap crash test for 2015, and a power liftgate became optional the same year. A mid-cycle refresh for 2016 brought updated styling, including sleeker LED headlamps and taillights, and optional accident avoidance technology.
Also debuting that year was the RAV4 Hybrid. Borrowing the gas-electric powertrain from the Camry Hybrid, it employs the same 2.5-litre gasoline engine, electric motors front and rear, and a nickel-metal hydride battery that together generate 194 hp through a continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission.
The Toyota Safety Sense system, which packages a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert and dynamic cruise control, became standard issue in all 2017 models. The fourth-generation RAV4 bowed out after the 2018 model year.
Zero to 97 km/h (0-60 mph) comes up in 8.4 seconds in the AWD model, while the Hybrid manages a virtually identical performance at 8.3 seconds (while it makes more power, the Hybrid lugs an additional 150 kg of electrical hardware). Braking distance is a little on the lengthy side.
The RAV4 handles well and feels light on its feet, even tossable, belying its upright, sport-utility stance. The ride can feel a little stiff with the optional low-profile 18-inch tires. The hood may vibrate at highway speeds – a flub that drivers have noted online, at least in some 2013 models.
Engine noise is subdued, turning just 2100 rpm at 120 km/h. On the highway it’s wind and tire noise that may be more intrusive than anything else. The RAV4’s big 4-cylinder isn’t quite as fuel-efficient as some of the segment’s best, according to owners.
Owners talk reliability
The Ontario-built RAV4 is a good all-rounder that competes well in a hotly contested segment that includes the bestselling Honda CR-V, Ford Escape and Mazda CX-5. Buyers rave about the roomy cabin, refined drivetrain and quiet composure – attributes that made the Camry sedan a hit.
Used-vehicle shoppers value dependability and the RAV4 doesn’t disappoint in that regard. Given the huge numbers of RAV4s in circulation, there hasn’t been a lot of complaints logged online. The single biggest concern is the quality of the navigation and radio displays in early fourth-gen models.
“Toyota’s Entune system is a joke and all navigation head unit functions are slow and clunky, especially when compared to other auto makes from the same era,” reads a grievance. Long-term owners have noted the units can fail outright post-warranty; the replacement cost is apparently more than $1,100.
More troubling are reports of drivetrain vibration in 2013 models related to the torque converter going bad. Dealers have been replacing them under warranty, and there is a one-year powertrain warranty extension to address this fault.
The power steering can spontaneously fail, an unwelcome surprise that requires physical effort to steer and raises the risk of a crash. Toyota is recalling certain 2014-2015 RAV4s, as well as 2015 Camry and Highlander models, because a component of the electric power-steering system may have been damaged during manufacturing.
Other concerns include mouldy air conditioners, interior squeaks and rattles, and flaking paint (especially white pearl). The door design seems to accumulate dirt and slush at the bottom, which may encourage early rust. The new headlights that were part of the 2016-model-year update were criticized by some owners for their poor light pattern.
Despite the complaints, all in small numbers, the RAV4 acquits itself as a low-maintenance sport ute that makes it easy to own. And that’s by design. Having staked its claim as a crossover innovator, Toyota made a wager that paid off handsomely.
2013-18 Toyota RAV4
Typical price range: $16,500-$30,500
Pros: Refined drivetrain, competent handler, enviable reliability
Cons: Class-average acceleration, no V-6 option, fussy Entune system
Things to Watch Out For: Infotainment system is dear to replace, interior rattles, vibrations from torque converter, mouldy air conditioner, electrically assisted steering may cut out, dim headlights, flaking paint.