I know why Stan is happy: A love letter to the RAV4 [Op-Ed]

Yeah, seriously.

It's 10:00 on an impossibly cold Saturday morning in January. I'm headed to Alamo to pick up the rental car I'll be driving from Cleveland to Detroit for the (yes, the) Auto Show. We're still flirting with polar-vortex-style, single-digit temperatures. The wind's blowing in hard from the west--off the land, rather than the lake. That makes it even worse, this time of year.

It's so cold that my chauffeur's driver-side door won't latch shut. I hop out to help, trudging through shin-deep roadside snow drifts and removing my gloves to better fiddle with the latch mechanism. We figure out a solution involving locking (rather than latching) the door in place. It's inelegant, I'll allow, but like any good roadside repair, it works. After just five minutes of that, my hand is tingling with half-feeling as I settle back into the passenger seat.

A half-hour later, I'm walking through the rental lot at Cleveland-Hopkins. A woman, all of five feet tall and probably half as wide in her coat, calls me over to a row of cars. In her hand is a standard-issue snow brush. I can tell she's already had a long morning.

"I can help you here," I hear from somewhere inside her tightly-cinched hood. "Where you off to?"

"Detroit," I reply.

"Huh," she says, exactly the way you'd expect. "Take the blue one. It's got all-wheel-drive."

I look up as she makes for yet another snow-brushing task, our business obviously concluded. Sure enough, it's a very blue Toyota RAV4.

Oh, boy.

For a long time, "Camcord" was the portmanteau du jour for describing an anonymous, bland, serviceable appliance used for basic day-to-day transportation. It made sense back then. Today, Toyota and Honda's midsize sedans no longer represent the default mode of travel for American car buyers. That honor now belongs to compact crossovers. I'm not entirely sure how one would run those together, though. CR-4? RA-V?

Fundamentally, these are really the same thing. A CR-V is really an Accord hatchback when you get right down to it. The same is true vis-à-vis the RAV4 and Camry. But we don't call them hatchbacks for myriad reasons, most of which revolve around marketing.

Whether we accept or reject the "crossover" nomenclature is really of little consequence to us as enthusiasts. What's important is that they are anathema to the formulae we embrace for determining whether a car is suitable. They don't come with manual transmissions. They rarely offer exciting engines. They're styled to be tall, ungainly and often as bland (or at least inoffensive) as possible.

The RAV4 embraces this approach wholeheartedly. It's powered by a 2.5L four-cylinder mated to a six-speed automatic. It's about as aggressively styled as a milk jug. The highest-performance version is a fuel-economy hybrid, for crying out loud. While the actual Camry is trying hard to be edgy and interesting, the RAV4 doubles down on being unerringly vanilla.

But there's a serious problem. I like the damned thing.

I liked it when I drove the face-lifted model two years ago. I liked it when Toyota loaned me a Hybrid model to drive to and from its rally course. When Honda brought one along as a comparison vehicle during the launch of the new CR-V, well, I liked it then too. It's hard to put my finger on exactly why, and I was prepared to write the ailment off as a side effect of not being forced (I use that term both loosely and knowingly) to spend an extended amount of time with the car.

That would make the RAV4 no different from an iffy one-night-stand or bite of Quinoa, and would mean that my upcoming rental experience would be akin to going on a "real" date or trying out a high-fiber diet--the bright blue paint is now either eye makeup or blueberries in my oatmeal.

I don't think these analogies are sustainable, and besides, I've digressed.

Setting off, a few things jump out at me right away. This is an XLE model, which is the second trim up the RAV4 ladder. It has a few electronic niceties (adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning) but it's otherwise fairly sparsely optioned. I run head-long into this as I search for a place to plug in both my phone and a USB flash drive containing my music collection. No dice. There's only one port, and it's not fast-charging. I opt for the music, having left my 12V adapters at home, and settle for listening to my phone's instructions rather than wasting battery on screen usage.

There's a nasty headwind, which I can feel through the helm. This is both surprising and reassuring--the former because Toyotas are not exactly known for control feedback; the latter because it takes the guesswork out of keeping the car pointed in the right direction.

This brings up an important upside to the RAV4: It's one of those cars that can be driven with minimal attention. I realize that's a trigger word, so allow me to explain why it's a positive thing.

Enthusiasts will react to that statement because it runs counter to a core belief of car people: the notion that engaging cars create engaged drivers. In reality, for every Internet partisan with two hands on the wheel of his 1994 Miata, there's a clown driving his Carrera S 6MT and eating an ice cream cone (Yes, I've witnessed this.).

A car that requires more attention, whether it's because it has a manual transmission or simply has poor on-center steering feedback, doesn't automatically make the driver more attentive. The average human being doesn't see driving as a task worthy of attention at all. The best mass-market cars are those which, at the risk of being a bit too on-the-nose, are developed by engineers who simply choose to steer into the skid.

That's the RAV4 in a nutshell. This is a car that has been developed entirely with its customers' expectations in mind. Maybe that's why we've decided we have to hate it so much. We have certain expectations for our vehicles and more and more manufacturers are unwilling to meet them. Yet, we look across the street and see that Stan Q. Neighborly is entirely content with his new appliance.

It's quick enough. It handles well enough. It's comfortable enough. Its frugal enough. It's more than reliable enough. The RAV4 is enough.

But "enough" won't win comparisons. It's old and it feels it. It feels less substantial and allows more road and wind noise to intrude than do its competitors. The tech features are lacking and those that are there are decidedly last-generation. It won't carve corners quite as well as a Mazda CX-5 and it isn't nearly as quick in a straight line as a Ford Escape 2.0T or Subaru Forester XT.

But we're not talking about catastrophic drawbacks. The Internet echo-chamber has a way of turning a 9.5 into a 0 on a scale of 1-10 just because a 9.8 exists. We turn great into greatest and good into garbage. There's no room in the middle anymore.

And that's to the RAV4's detriment, because it rules the middle. It's a compromise that doesn't feel compromising, and that's why I like it. While my fellow enthusiasts look at a RAV4 driver as some miserable sap who has given up, I know better.

I know why Stan is happy.

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