Forget about school runs, visibility problems created by tall vehicles and gas-guzzling monsters driven by inconsiderate owners. Four-wheel drives now have another problem: the greenies say they’re contributing to climate change. Toyota must be embarrassed by its own success in the Middle East where four-wheel drives are replacing the camel as the desert transport of choice. People who claim to know say dust storms in the Sahara have risen 10-fold because of the swirling tracks left by all those Toyota Landcruisers and Nissan Patrols.
Critics slam “Toyotarisation” as a major cause of dust storms. There aren’t many dust storms in downtown Auckland yet SUVs are leaving enough tracks to form an unfavourable impression in the minds of the anti-car lobby. Mostly, of course, the critics are misguided. They complain about 4WDs’ size and the fuel consumption without recognising that, aside from Ford’s Territory, most of the best-selling 4×4 SUVs take up no more room than the average compact car and use about the same amount of fuel.
Toyota has a significant share of this class. Last year, its second generation RAV4 was the best-selling compact SUV in NZ and second only in total 4WD passenger car rankings to the six-cylinder Territory. The RAV4 is now the best-selling compact 4WD in Europe where a 2.2-litre, 120kW diesel version is offered alongside the petrol model. Yet, when it comes to personality, the Toyota RAV4 has lost much of the first generation model’s magic.
When the RAV4 arrived in 1994, there wasn’t much around in the way of lower medium size SUVs. Since 1988, Suzuki had been selling the first Vitara, a 1.6-litre four-cylinder three-door with a separate chassis, dual ratio drive and plenty going for it. Then along came Toyota’s monocoque-chassised 2.0-litre RAV4 with permanent 4WD and no low ratio drive. Its car-like on-road manners and distinctive three-door body shape gave it plenty of appeal. You couldn’t mistake a first generation RAV4 for anything else. We’re talking about the distinctive three-door, not the bland five-door that came later. First time around the Toyota was something of a design statement. However, when the Mark 2 arrived in 2000 not only did the driving dynamics improve while preserving the personality, but the stylists maintained an individual look. Since then the RAV4 has become more powerful, more refined and bigger; and there’s no longer a three-door RAV4 – international sales weren’t strong enough.
But the new RAV4 has lost its distinctiveness: its looks ape many other models’, and lack wow factor. However, bigger does mean more practicality, and the Mark 3 is a genuine family machine, offering good rear seat space, a 586 litre load area (25 percent greater than before), and a 150mm longer cabin. The load cover is somewhat fiddly to use, but the swivelling load hooks are great and a clever folding rear set mechanism produces a proper flat floor. Access is easy, visibility comforting and the 200mm ground clearance (up 10mm on the old RAV4’s) clears most obstacles. The increased size and added equipment add almost 15 percent to the kern weight, which is now 1520kg, affecting performance adversely.
The auto Limited tested had the optional heated leather upholstery and electrically-ajustable driver’s seat, boosting the price by $3000 to $50,590. The new RAV4 is slightly shorter, less powerful and more costly than the Mitsubishi Outlander XLS or Nissan X-Trail. Other rivals include the Suzuki Grand Vitara, Land Rover Freelander and Honda CR-V. In upmarket form, the RAV4 tilts at the BMW X3, but the Bavarian SUV is essentially aimed at a more exclusive market. Not that you’d complain about the Toyota’s impeccable finish or its new found refinement and all-round ability. The push buttons for the flimsy lid of the upper stowage compartment are the only jarring items in an otherwise well executed cabin. Even the concealed, 90-litre storage area under the load floor is carpeted.
Where older RAV4s were full-time four-wheel drive, the new car drives the front wheels only during normal operation. When grip diminishes, the transmission sends up to 45 percent of the torque to the rear wheels, and can be locked in that mode. Instead of a centre differential, the “active torque control” has electronic sensors to monitor steering wheel angle, vehicle speed, engine torque and accelerator angle. As the all-wheel drive, stability and power steering are monitored, torque is varied to each axle, helping the driver to call the right shots. The electric power steering is sharp and reasonably accurate, and the new double-wishbone rear and revised MacPherson strut front suspension offer a good, long travel ride.
Toyota’s 2.4-litre, 125kW four-cylinder engine drives through a four-speed automatic gearbox. The motor is only slightly gruntier than before, but has less friction and lower emissions. With the extra weight, the latest RAV4 struggles to match the old model’s acceleration, and reaches 100km/h in 11 seconds. Toyota says the auto will consume 9.4 litres of petrol per 100km (30mpg).