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Posted: January 13, 2014

Executive wheels: Raves for the Rav4

Toyota's little SUV has grown up

Jeff Rundles

TOYOTA RAV4 XLE AWD AND LIMITED AWD

It’s been kind of a Toyota run for me lately, which happens occasionally as the press fleets for each manufacturer tend to roll out all at once. It makes it difficult to make side-by-side comparisons between competitors, but at least I get to delve into the world of Toyota.

I actually got to drive two RAV4s – the XLE and the Limited – which are, essentially two-thirds of the RAV4 lineup. The other one is the base model LE, and all three come in both All Wheel Drive and Front Wheel Drive versions, although I think you’d be hard pressed to find a FWD model for sale in Colorado. (There’s also a very high priced RAV4 EV, all electric, with technology partially developed by Tesla).

Obviously, both of the RAV4s I drove featured the AWD, and that was good since I encountered snow and icy conditions on both of my test-drive weeks and got to test the system out pretty well. Verdict: Great AWD, wonderful traction, excellent maneuverability and turn radius. I felt safe driving around in the Denver area and into the mountains (on maintained highways) no matter what the conditions.

RAV stands for Recreational Active Vehicle and the 4 is for four-wheel drive, even though you can get it in two-wheel-drive.  The vehicle made its debut in the US in 1995, based on the Corolla sedan platform, but by the third generation (2005-2012) the RAV4 – which like seemingly everything out there – got larger and was based on its own, all-new platform, unusual in car design.

Since 2013, they have the RAV4 in the 4th generation, and my recollection is that not only were the earlier versions somewhat smaller (the first being quite small), the latest version also takes what was a fairly plastic-y, basic ride into a nicely appointed, near-luxury vehicle. Now, this is true of almost everything on the road today – there are very few cheap, basic cars anymore – but you can see in the RAV4, and Toyota generally, that meeting the competition as we enter the second decade of the 21st Century is mostly about the creature comforts.

Sure, Toyota and others talk performance and handling and safety and all that, but most of the sale is made versus the competition before the driver actually drives the vehicle. If it’s cool inside – comfortable, luxurious, quiet, plenty of bells and whistles – then the test-drive is merely a formality. Plus, it’s a Toyota, so it has legendary quality already, which makes beating the competition easier.

The size issue is important because when I first laid eyes on the RAV4, I thought it was a 4Rnner or even the other larger and more costly SUV, the Highlander. Indeed, all week long during both my test drive weeks I encountered 4Runners and Highlanders – got up next to them – and it was difficult to see why they make so many, very similar products. The other thing I noticed was that while there are a fair number of 4Runners and Highlanders, there are a ton of RAV4s – and probably because of the fact that it is so similar to the others, has a lot of nice stuff and finishes, and doesn’t cost as much.

One way they made it larger – you notice these things out on the road – was the removal of the spare tire attached to the back, side-opening gate, putting it instead inside the now larger back area (under the carpet), with a liftgate in the newer version that opens like most SUVs, up. Size does matter, and where I found the RAV4 too small in the past, I had no such issues with this new one. It felt, as they say, right-sized, and safe.

The interesting thing with the two RAV4s I drove – and for all RAV4s for that matter – is that they are essentially the same vehicles with different trims. The engine – 176 hp, 2.5-liter I4 – is the same in each, and they drive exactly the same. 6-speed auto transmission, great handling (especially for a SUV), easy maneuvering, very little bounce (wonderful center of gravity), and a smooth – and great driver’s feel – drive. I loved driving these RAV4s and I can easily – very easily – imagine myself as a RAV4 owner.
So the question is, which one? I’ve already said that I think it would be hard to find a two-wheel-drive version in Colorado, and I wouldn’t buy a 2-WD SUV anywhere. So I didn’t drive the base model, the LE, but rather the XLE and the Limited. But all three have the same engine and the same mileage rating (very good at 22 city/29 highway), and they all drive beautifully.

Looking at the stickers on the two RAV4s I drove, there isn’t much of a difference to justify the cost differential. The base price of the XLE is $26,690, while the Limited carries a base of $28,410, but from what I can tell the only basic difference is that the Limited has (and the XLE doesn’t have): a power liftgate (nice, but not critical), a power driver’s seat adjustment, and a smart key (meaning the door opens without dealing with the fob).

They both has keyless entry, power windows and mirrors, display audio with modern device hookups, rear backup camera, stability control, ABS brakes, and more than average stuff. One thing I didn’t like on both versions is that the controls for the windows, mirrors and door locks mounted on the driver’s side armrest (in the door) don’t light up at night, so in the dark there are hard to find. Quite annoying.

The difference here was that my test-drive Limited model had a $1,660 optional package, including an upgraded JBL sound system, 6.1-inch touch screen, navigation, more speakers, Sirius radio, a whole bunch of Bluetooth, iTunes, music streaming and all that. They also added blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, for $500. Both models included, for $549, running boards.

So the bottom line on the Limited was $31,964, while the final sticker on the XLE was $27,084. While I like some of the extras, I didn’t really miss them enough in the XLE to justify the nearly $5,000 more in cost. In fact, I kind of liked the simplicity of the XLE with no options. Just a great drive.

You’ll have to decide what it’s worth to you. But on the RAV4 itself, my rating is:

RATING: 4 WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR)

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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