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First Drive: 2013 Toyota RAV4 [Review]

by Andrew Ganz

Simplified and geared at a more mainstream audience, the Toyota RAV4 is less interesting - but likely to be more popular - than ever before.

Mainstream America, your Toyota RAV4 has (finally) arrived.

One of the last vestiges of Toyota's often quirky past has bitten the dust, replaced instead by an everyman (and everywoman)-oriented crossover that's bound to arrive in more than a few driveways on your block shortly after it goes on sale in January.

The fourth generation RAV4 shares many of its dimensions and its four-cylinder engine with its predecessor, but the new-for-2013 model does without the old car's crisp handling, robust optional V6 engine, useless third row seat and antiquated four-speed automatic transmission. As you can probably guess, what's new for 2013 is a bit of a mixed bag of good and not-so-good - but that doesn't mean that Toyota has struck out. Far from it.

Simplified range

With just one engine, one transmission, three trim levels and the choice of front or ($1,400) all-wheel-drive, picking out a 2013 RAV4 won't be a challenge if this First Drive makes you want to sign on the dotted line. Lost in the shuffle of the simplified lineup is an overall sense that this RAV4 - the great-grand crossover of the first modern car-based SUV to hit the market - has been repositioned as something of an entry-level value alternative to vehicles with a wider range of personalization like the Ford Escape and Hyundai Santa Fe.

Cementing that notion is the fact that Toyota axed the 2012's torquey V6 in favor of only a 176 horsepower, 172 lb-ft. of torque 2.5-liter four-cylinder with the company's dual variable valve timing system. A new six-speed automatic does at least bring the RAV4 up to industry standards, but there's not much really worth bragging about under the crossover's hood. It does ratchet fuel economy up to 24/31 mpg (26 combined) with front-wheel-drive and 22/29 (25 combined) with all-wheel-drive, figures that are strong but not class-leading.

In practice, the four-cylinder is a docile, refined unit and the new gearbox does a mostly admirable job of keeping the engine in its power band aside from what is becoming an industry-wide tendency to move into too high of a gear to save fuel. The problem is that there's not a lot of grunt in reserve, and with what should be a svelte 3,500 lbs. to lug around, the RAV4 feels a bit pokey.

A little over half of all RAV4s are expected to be ordered with all-wheel-drive, a slightly revised system that now includes Toyota's Dynamic Torque Control system to more efficiently transfer power to the rear wheels. That sounds sporty, but make no mistake: The RAV4 is hardly a corner carver. A new electric power steering setup undoubtedly reduces a little fuel consumption, resulting in the kind of numbness that plagues the RAV4's chief rival, the Honda CR-V. A dash-mounted Sport button firms up the steering assist ever-so-slightly, but it doesn't really make things more fun. Road noise permeates the cabin due to limited sound deadening, though wind and engine rush are mostly absent.

By contrast, the outgoing RAV4 boasted surprisingly good steering that made it something of a joy to toss into corners. The firm, compliant-riding 2013 is no less composed in the twisties, but what excitement there was has apparently been siphoned into Toyota's Scion FR-S sports car. If only there was a little more FR-S in every Toyota.

Cohesive style

RAV4s have never really been lookers, but the new car is arguably the most stylish model yet. Retaining the swept-back roof line of its predecessor, the 2013 gains a more expressive front end plus some rugged-looking unpainted plastic. Yet with over an inch lower ground clearance than the 2012, the crossover is even less of a mud plugger than before.

All three trim levels look identical save a choice of wheel sizes and designs, which means that the range-topping Limited doesn't really seem very special. That sense of sameness carries over inside, where about the only difference between LE, XLE and Limited grades is the upholstery and a few trim bits.

All three models are well-packaged with good front and rear passenger room, plus a roomy cargo area now accessible by a conventional (powered on Limiteds) lift gate rather than the swing-away door RAV4s have had up until now. The horizontally-styled dashboard is attractive and functional and all models come standard with a touch-screen audio system and a back-up camera. Materials are mostly average, though the padded and stitched vinyl trim on XLE and Limited-grade dashboards is quite nice. Opt for the XLE and you'll get sportier cloth seats, while Limited covers those in a leather-like material called Softex. Real hide isn't on the options list and Softex is more convincing than your average synthetic, but the inability to sit on real cows further underlines the RAV4's glass ceiling status.

Leftlane's bottom line

That subtle repositioning might be just what Toyota intends to do in order to leave more space between the RAV4 and the larger, more upmarket Highlander. If that's the case, the right-priced, simplified RAV4 has all the ingredients to make it a mainstream hit - even if it's a notably less interesting than before.

Still, we think shoppers are interested in the availability of high-zoot, more powerful range-topping trims offered on competitive crossovers like the Ford Escape and Hyundai Santa Fe - even if they take home the $28,000 model.

2013 Toyota RAV4​ base price range, $24,145 to $29,285.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.

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