The biggest factors distinguishing the Toyota RAV4 from the rest of the compact SUV pack have traditionally been its tailgate-mounted spare tire and right-hinged tailgate.
In a bold, but welcome, move the outside spare has disappeared from the redesigned 2013 RAV4 and a conventional top-hinged liftgate replaces the side-opening door. A temporary spare tire now rests beneath the cargo floor.
The new hatchback is a significant improvement. It's lighter and easier to use in crowded spaces and it doesn’t force you to stand out in traffic when loading curbside.
It also allows much better visibility without that giant arc blocking the view in the inside mirror.
The number of owners who actually used the full-sized spare contained within a plastic housing on the old RAV4 was probably minimal anyway. They and others will just as readily use the new temp spare.
Toyota probably isn’t too worried about losing any customers because they don’t recognize the new fourth-generation RAV4. While totally redesigned from head- to tail-lights, it is readily recognizable as a RAV4, even without the bump on its bum.
The RAV4 has consistently been a major player in this category, duking it out for sales runner-up status with arch-rival Honda CR-V and, more recently, the Dodge Journey. The Ford Escape has “owned” the category for several years.
Both CR-V and Escape were new last year so the makeover is timely as more and more consumers are turning to compact SUVs, both here and south of the border.
Small enough to be economical to run and large enough to carry lots of people and stuff the compact SUVs and CUVs are all the rage. Appropriately, every major car company has at least one on offer and most of those have been introduced or redesigned within the last 18 months.
As mid-cycle makeovers go, this one is major. Almost everything you see and can touch has been changed and while the four-cylinder engine has been carried over, the ancient four-speed automatic has been ditched, replaced by a six-speed.
The difference two more gears make to performance is enough to allow the V-6 engine option to be dropped. Those same extra gears also bring a considerable improvement in fuel efficiency.
The RAV4's new look starts with a very aggressive front end with sharp creases on the hood where they meet the fenders. There is a prominent dark valance beneath the front bumper, giving the impression the vehicle is capable of scaling the nearest mountain.
That ruggedness is offset by a rear-sloping roofline that draws your eyes back to bulging taillights and the new conventional hatchback.
The update is even more noticeable inside. When I opened the door and gazed upon a two-tone interior with black and beige nicely integrated into everything from the instrument panel and doors to the seat coverings, I thought here we go again – another maxed-out top-trim tester.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered this was the most basic model on offer – an entry level, front-drive LE with only $1,000 in options that included a back-up camera and display, audio upgrade and cargo compartment cover stickers.
So equipped, it stickered at $24,790 - $500 less than last year's model.
It is not as though Toyota cut a bunch of things out. Even the base RAV4 LE comes with a six-speed automatic transmission, air conditioning, power windows and locks, tilt an telescope steering wheel, cruise control, remote keyless entry, heated power mirrors, audio system with USB and auxiliary input and steering wheel controls and Bluetooth connectivity.
The only obvious sign of cost cutting is a lack of heated seats. Newly available technology includes: Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Lane Departure Alert, Blind Spot Monitor, Automatic High Beam System and the aforementioned back-up camera.
The redesigned interior features a horizontal ledge that starts on one door and continues across to the other, interrupted only by the instrument panel. The two tone trim results in a very airy and light feeling compared to the dark treatment which has become so common. Soft-touch surface abound and as you’d expect from Toyota fit and finish are top notch
Three trim levels
The 2013 RAV4 comes in three trim levels -LE, XLE and Limited. The LE and XLE come with front-wheel-drive. All-wheel-drive is standard on the Limited and available on the LE and XLE. It features “dynamic torque control” which sends 100% of engine output to the front wheels under normal conditions, 50/50 when in lock position and 90/10 in sport model.
Dimensionally the new RAV4 is the same as old, other than a 50-mm cut in overall length thanks to the missing spare tire carrier. Interior dimensions are also carried over but there is a little more space for rear seat passengers and cargo.
The new roof-hinged hatch provides access to a claimed segment-leading 1,087 litres of cargo space with the rear seat in place, 2,078 with it lowered. There are cargo tie-down hooks to prevent stuff from moving around.
On the road
The new RAV4's 176-horsepower 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine is unchanged from last year– but the addition of two extra gears in the transmission has resulted in a transformation in driving feel
There is a lower first gear for added punch off the line and a taller top gear for more relaxed cruising – while using less fuel. There are three driver-selectable modes – ECO, normal and sport.
The tall seating position allows excellent visibility and on the open road you discover the development team spent some time quelling noise from both road and wind with touches like an acoustically-laminated windshield and additional sound-deadening measures.
The highway ride remains compliant and there is less lean in the corners than with some others in this class, thanks to revisions to springs, dampers, bushings and anti-roll bars.
The 2013 RAV4 is a significant upgrade – in looks, performance and efficiency. The lower price is an added attraction.