By Christopher A. Sawyer
As I sat listening to the presentation on the 2013 RAV4, a single thought filled my mind: I’m glad I’m not Hyundai. That’s because Toyota, while carrying over the platform of the outgoing RAV4, has completely rethought and revamped its little SUV, and borrowed a few things from the Korean car maker’s playbook. There are now three models (LE, XLE, Limited), two drive configurations (front- or all-wheel drive), and one powertrain choice (a 2.4-liter four mated to a six-speed automatic). Gone are the Sport and the V6. Plus, you get more stuff for your money compared to the outgoing version. It’s almost like Toyota rediscovered the playbook it rode to success, and Hyundai so blatantly copied.
It’s hard to believe, but the 2012 model only had a four-speed transmission. The 2013 RAV4 has a more modern six-speed automatic mated to the 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder found in the Camry. It pumps out 176 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 172 lb-ft of torque at 4,100, and has dual variable valve timing. That’s plenty of power when you consider that a RAV4 weighs between 3,400 lb on the low side and 3,600 lb on the high side. Plus, the six-speed keeps the engine in the power band, and front-drive models are rated at three more mpg on the highway (31 mpg).
Toyota claims the LE has more standard equipment than most of the competition, and is priced at $23,300 for the front-drive model. Adding all-wheel drive to it, or any RAV4, will run you $1,400. Toyota expects the entry-level model to account for 30% of sales, and all-wheel drive to be ordered on 65% of all 2013 RAV4s. The fact that the LE comes with 17-in steel wheels may seem like a retrograde step, but Toyota wisely designed the plastic wheel covers to line up exactly with the steel wheel behind and fit close to its surface. You really have to look closely to see that it’s not an alloy wheel. And while you get a chrome-accented grille and color-keyed door handles, the folding black outside mirrors are the big tip off to the LE model’s entry-level status.
Inside, the LE comes standard with backup camera playing through a 6.1-in screen, Eco and Sport modes for the transmission and steering (Hint: Stick with the Sport mode.), fabric-covered six-way driver and four-way passenger front seats, Display Audio, a tilt/telescope steering wheel with controls for audio and Bluetooth phone, a reclining 60/40 flat-fold split rear seat, remote keyless entry with illuminated entry, and more. You don’t feel like you are in the poverty edition.
The XLE, on the other hand, is expected to be the sales leader with a projected 40% of RAV4 sales. Again, Toyota claims to have added $2,000 of equipment compared to the LE, but to only have increased the price by $1,000. It’s $24,290 for a front-drive XLE, $25,320 with navigation and Entune. Moving up a notch to this model puts real 17-in alloys inside the P225/65 R-17 tires, upgrades the outside mirrors to heated units with color-keyed covers and integral turn signals, adds variable intermittent front and rear wipers and a tilt/slide moonroof, gives silver highlights to the lower grille and fog lights in the front fascia, and places roof rails on (where else?) the roof.
Move inside, and you get everything on the LE plus: dual-zone electronic automatic climate control with dust and pollen filters, sport bolsters on the front seats, silver accents on the shift lever, the addition of jam protection to the power widows with driver auto up/down, and a cargo tonneau cover.
The remaining 30% of sales will be filled by the Limited, which adds 18-in alloys with P235/55 R-18 tires, projector beam headlamps with auto on/off, and a height adjustable liftgate with jam protection. In addition, the steering wheel gets covered in leather (as does the shift lever), the sport-bolstered seats are trimmed in two-tone SofTex faux leather, and two more adjustments are added to the driver’s seat. There are two Display Audio systems with navigation and Entune available, one with six and one with 11 speakers, and the Limited is the only RAV4 that offers blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert. The Limited starts at $27,010, and all RAV4s come with two years complimentary maintenance and 24-hour roadside assistance.
The 2013 RAV4 looks a bit more conventional now that the spare tire has been moved from the hatch to under the load floor. This not only improves rear vision, it eliminates the side-hinged door, and improves loading and unloading by getting the door out of the way. One advantage of the side-hinged door was that it didn’t care if the roof of your garage or parking structure was low. Now, and only on the Limited, you can get a height adjustable power hatch with memory. Open it to the height you want, press the hatch button, and wait for it to beep at you four times. That’s all it takes. Owners of the other models will just have to be careful when they open the hatch.
Space behind the second row is up two cubic feet to 38.4, and dropping the reclining seatbacks increases load area to 73.4 ft3. But what really impresses is that the hatch opening is wide, the load floor flat, and the wheelwells and trim don’t intrude. This is a very practical space. The RAV4 can carry a 900-lb payload, and tow up to 1,500 lb with a maximum tongue weight of 150 lb.
As expected, Toyota engineers increased the percentage of high-strength steel used, which increased body rigidity. To reduce noise levels inside the car, the 2013 RAV4 has an acoustic windshield, a spray-on acoustic blanket on the front bulkhead, and another one on the floor. It’s noticeably quieter than the outgoing model. Yet, like that car, it carries over the MacPherson strut front suspension and double wishbone with coil springs rear suspension of the 2012 model, though a lot of work has been carried out in terms of damping, geometry and bushings to improve both ride and handling.
This focus continues to the Eco and Sport modes, as well as the Dynamic Torque Control AWD system. Engaging Sport mode dials back the power steering’s boost by 20%, and encourages the six-speed automatic to hold each gear a bit longer for quicker acceleration. And, for once, this addition does improve the driving experience by adding greater heft to the steering without making it heavy. The Dynamic Torque Control, on the other hand, does not have to be engaged separately. It works to reduce understeer, and can shift up to 50% of the torque to the rear wheels if necessary. A downhill hairpin on the drive — which became an uphill hairpin on the return route — proved the efficacy of this system. It won’t make the RAV4 a sports car, but it does a good job of eliminating the grinding understeer that plagued the 2012 model in similar situations.
Speaking of the 2012 RAV4, if the new version is built on the same basic platform, what’s the real difference between the two, other than styling? I can answer that in three words: Night and day. The 2012 car was a hodge-podge of models with an interior that lacked both style and usability. In addition, the seats in the new RAV4 are significantly lower, which not only improves the driving position, it gives you the feeling of sitting in the car, not on it. Sightlines fore, aft and to the sides are better, and the interior is quieter. About the only problem noted in my short drive of the car was the use of slightly too soft bushings in the suspension. They’re great for reducing impact harshness and the transmission of noise into the cabin, but make the car’s responses a touch “lazy” under some conditions. You expect a more rapid response in so small a vehicle, though it’s unlikely that most RAV4 drivers or passengers will ever notice.
As I said at the beginning, the folks from Korea might want to look over their shoulders. Though not the most effusive design, the RAV4 is far more stylish than ever. It replaces the model-heavy previous lineup with a three-step array of models featuring limited options. In addition, the value proposition has been improved, making the 2013 RAV4 a strong entry in the small SUV segment.