An engine can make or break a car. That's rather obvious since without cylinders pumping under the hood, a car is nothing but an expensive lawn ornament. But in the case of the 2008 Toyota RAV4, its optional V6 engine catapults this otherwise competent compact- to medium-sized crossover SUV to the top of its class. Not only does the 269-horsepower six-cylinder provide excellent acceleration, it gets about the same fuel economy as four-cylinder-equipped competitors putting out 100 fewer horses -- including the four-cylinder RAV4. More power without more consumption is always a recipe for success.
The vehicle surrounding that engine is a model of user-friendly transportation. Though previous generations of the Toyota RAV4 were petite, the third-generation RAV has ballooned to offer a huge 73 cubic feet of cargo space (more than the midsize Ford Edge, for example) and ample space for five passengers. A third-row seat provides room for two children, or possibly small adults with a high threshold for cramped spaces. There are also plenty of family-friendly cubbies, cupholders (10, to be exact) and other features like an available rear-seat DVD entertainment system.
Even with its boffo V6, the 2008 Toyota RAV4 still isn't the most involving crossover to drive. As such, driving enthusiasts might prefer a Mazda CX-7 or Saturn Vue Red Line. Otherwise, the V6-powered RAV4 is hard to beat for families in search of a vehicle that offers plenty of space, features and value (both at buying time and at the pump). The four-cylinder RAV4 isn't quite as attractive. Unless you really need a third-row seat, the Honda CR-V is a more well-rounded, versatile and luxurious choice. And although they don't offer the same space and/or fuel economy, the Nissan Rogue, Mitsubishi Outlander, Saturn Vue and Hyundai Santa Fe are also worthy of a look.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2008 Toyota RAV4 is a crossover SUV that falls in between the compact and midsize categories in terms of size. There are three trim levels: base, Sport and Limited. There is standard seating for five; however, a third row is optional on the base and Limited trim levels and it increases capacity to seven people.
Standard features for the base RAV4 include 16-inch steel wheels (17-inch alloys are optional), rear tinted windows, full power accessories, keyless entry, cruise control, a tilt-telescoping steering wheel and a six-speaker stereo with CD/MP3 player and auxiliary audio jack. The Sport adds 18-inch alloy wheels, a sport-tuned suspension, foglights, heated side mirrors and several exterior details. The range-topping Limited trim includes 17-inch wheels for a smoother ride, dual-zone automatic climate control, an eight-way power driver seat, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and an in-dash six-CD changer (optional on the two lower trims).
Options available on the Limited trim include leather upholstery, heated front seats and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system. Optional on the Limited and Sport trims is a sunroof and upgraded nine-speaker stereo system with satellite radio capability and Bluetooth. Toyota packages these options together, but those packages' exact content and availability varies based on region.
Powertrains and Performance
The 2008 RAV4 comes standard with 2.4-liter four-cylinder that delivers 166 hp and 165 pound-feet of torque. A four-speed automatic transmission is standard. Revised fuel economy figures for this engine with front-wheel drive are 21 mpg city and 27 mpg highway, while the four-wheel-drive model gets a 20/25 mpg rating.
Optional on all trim levels and coupled to a five-speed automatic transmission is a 3.5-liter V6 that produces an impressive 269 hp and 246 lb-ft of torque. This powertrain gets almost the same fuel economy as the much less powerful four-cylinder, with 19 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. Getting four-wheel drive results in a loss of only 1 mpg on the highway. In performance testing, the RAV4 V6 4WD delivered a very quick 0-60-mph time of 7.2 seconds.
All RAV4s can be equipped with either front- or four-wheel drive. Front-drive models have a limited-slip differential, while the electronic 4WD system sends most of the power to the front wheels until it identifies potential slippage. Unlike many competitor vehicles, the RAV4 offers a true 4WD lock feature that fixes the front/rear power split 50/50, which is useful for driving in snow and light off-roading.
Antilock disc brakes, stability control, traction control, front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags are standard on every 2008 Toyota RAV4. Vehicles equipped with the V6 and/or the optional third-row seat also come with hill-start assist and downhill assist control. In crash tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the RAV4 earned a perfect five stars for driver protection in frontal impacts and four stars for the front passenger. It earned five stars for front- and rear-occupant protection in side impacts. Toyota's small SUV performed well in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tests as well, earning the top rating of "Good" in both the frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests.
Interior Design and Special Features
Inside, the RAV4 has a clean design with large, simple controls and lots of storage space. The cabin isn't as plasticky as previous-generation RAV4s, but it still has a budget feel compared to competitors like the CR-V, Rogue and Santa Fe. Nevertheless, the Toyota offers a highly practical design. The rear seats recline, and can slide forward or rearward 6.5 inches to optimize passenger space or cargo capacity. Normal seating capacity is five, while the optional third-row seat bumps it to seven. Though this seat is meant only for children, it is at least reasonably sturdy and spacious.
To configure the RAV4 for cargo, all one has to do is flip a lever to instantly get a flat load floor -- no need to remove headrests or fold up seat cushions. With its flat load floor, the RAV4 can hold a maximum of 73 cubic feet of cargo. The load floor is also quite low for this class, and minimizes the strain of loading a week's worth of groceries. The Toyota's side-hinged tailgate can be an inconvenience when you're parked on the street, though, as it opens away from the curb.
Although plenty capable off the beaten path, the 2008 Toyota RAV4 is meant for and succeeds at a life on pavement. Its taut suspension and quick electric steering (that can nevertheless feel a little vague) make daily errands much more enjoyable than they would be in most SUVs. The RAV is not as athletic as the Mazda CX-7 or Honda CR-V, but in trade, the Toyota offers a smooth ride that's forgiving enough for commuters who drive on crumbling expressways. Road noise can be an issue at times, but wind noise is well controlled.
If we were to buy a RAV4, it would have to come with the optional V6. Despite having 100-plus more horses than the CR-V and four-cylinder RAV4, V6-equipped RAVs manage to get almost the same fuel economy. The four-cylinder is a reasonable choice for most buyers, as it provides adequate power for day-to-day driving, but when equipped with this engine, the RAV doesn't fare as well against its competitors that offer similar power, gas mileage and space.
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