Trying to imagine the automotive landscape without compact crossover SUVs (CUVs) is like trying to imagine life without Starbucks, cell phones and iPods. Oh, the dark days before them were pleasant enough, but we were blissful in our ignorance. If these are the cultural addictions of our day, compact crossovers like the excellent 2008 Toyota RAV4 might as well be added to the list.
Not too long ago, the automotive landscape was devoid of these handy vehicles. Sure, we had our Jeep Cherokees and Isuzu Troopers, but before our eyes were opened to the joys of CUVs, we overlooked the fact these were stiff-riding, clumsy-handling, truck-based rigs usually shown bashing rock-strewn trails in their advertisements. But what about folks with more realistic needs such as abundant cargo space, high fuel economy and the ability to negotiate highways and byways in inclement weather? Toyota responded to them in 1996 with the RAV4, an economical, compact car-based crossover.
The 2008 Toyota RAV4 represents the third year of this generation, and also shows how much this former "cute ute" has grown up. Sized closely to some midsizers, the RAV4 offers an optional third-row seat and the best engine in the segment. That rearmost seat is pretty cramped and best appreciated by little kids, but it's a rarity in this segment and better than the rickety lawn-chair affair in the rival Mitsubishi Outlander.
The available V6, however, can be appreciated by any grown-up with its seemingly impossible combination of strong performance and good fuel-efficiency. A caveat is in order about opting for the powerhouse engine — it's a bit too much for the front-drive version as evidenced by the torque steer comments seen in our former long-term RAV4's logbook. Go with the 4WD version, however, and that becomes a nonissue, as the considerable thrust is handled ably by all four wheels.
If that's the biggest complaint we have with the RAV4, then Toyota is doing something right. A roomy cabin and pleasant driving dynamics round out the 2008 RAV4 4WD V6 and make it one of our favorite vehicles in terms of practical everyday usability.
The 3.5-liter, 269-horsepower V6 in the 2008 Toyota RAV4 is almost magical in the way it combines acceleration that can shame everything in its segment, along with fuel economy that does the same: sipping fuel more like a four-cylinder. Yes, you can get the RAV4 with a four-cylinder engine, but with the EPA fuel mileage ratings being nearly identical to the V6's, why would you?
At the test track, our loaded, four-wheel-drive RAV4 Limited ran to 60 mph in just 7.3 seconds and flashed through the quarter-mile in 15.4 seconds, making this the Usain Bolt of its class. On the road, the five-speed automatic transmission was hard to fault, with smooth gearchanges and a willingness to step down a gear or two when a burst of power was needed for merging or passing.
And yet against EPA ratings of 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway and 21 mpg combined, we pretty much nailed the now-more-accurate EPA's numbers. This athlete of compact utes averaged 20.6 mpg. And that's under our team of leadfoots and with the fuel-sucking climate of traffic-riddled Los Angeles. Our consumer feedback shows folks averaging even better fuel economy, with many claiming averages in the mid-20s.
Going the other way, braking performance is similarly strong, with a panic stop from 60 mph taking just 120 feet. Furthermore, the RAV4's brakes showed minimal fade after a succession of these tests. Pedal feel is on the soft side — they honestly don't feel as strong as they are — though the action is progressive.
In typical Toyota fashion, the RAV4 has steering that's precise but devoid of road feel, while effort is still on the light side compared to rivals such as the Honda CR-V and the Outlander. Handling is competent, with moderate body roll only in tighter corners. Push it harder on back roads and the cautious stability control kicks in early and often. Though it doesn't have the sporty feel of some of its competition, that sits fine with us, as the RAV4 provides a generally secure feeling at the helm that should please most consumers. At 34.8 feet, the RAV4's turning circle is 3-5 feet smaller than other compact utes, making parking lot maneuvers and U-turns easier.
The four-wheel-drive system is typical for this "soft-roader" segment in that it functions in a front-drive mode until slippage is detected, at which point it sends power to whatever wheels have the best grip. But the RAV4's system also allows (under 25 mph) the front and rear power distribution to be locked at 50/50 (to optimize traction in slippery going) and features hill ascent and hill descent controls (which minimize rollback when starting up a hill and keep speed in check when going down). This makes the 2008 Toyota RAV4 a good choice for mild off-roading, say, to a woodsy cabin or campground.
Tuned more for ride comfort than ripping through what few twisty, desolate roads you'll find in suburbia, the RAV4's suspension works as promised, making long trips that involve traveling over freeway expansion joints less irksome. Oddly, wind noise at freeway speeds is noticeable, perhaps more so because the RAV4's engine and road noise are quieter than most.
Opinions on front-seat comfort were mixed, with shorter staffers finding them fine and longer-limbed drivers feeling a bit cramped under the steering wheel. As a result, the staff shorties were happy on long trips, while the staff giraffes (6-foot-2-plus) were not. The 60/40-split second-row seat, which slides fore and aft to increase either legroom or cargo space, provided enough room and support for big and small alike, and it reclines, too. Our Limited had the optional ($1,050) leather seating but we'd skip this, as the leather seemed more like vinyl and the cloth found in our long-term RAV4 was of high quality and didn't get as hot under the sun.
Most of the RAV4's controls are well-marked and simple to use. If you've driven any Japanese car built within the last quarter-century, you'll know how to use the lights and wipers. The climate control in the Limited, however, dispenses with the normal three-knob layout for quirky circular push-button pods that take some getting used to. Should you opt for the optional JBL audio system, you'll likely be disappointed in the sound quality if you like your music loud and clear, though it does include Bluetooth connectivity.
Putting a child seat in the second row is easy, with plenty of room to set it in place and have it face either way. Converting the 2008 Toyota RAV4 for cargo duty is likewise a cinch. Flipping the second row down (or up) is a one-shot affair — you just pull the lever on the side of the seat(s) — no removing headrests or flipping up bottom cushions required. At 73 cubic feet, the RAV4's maximum cargo capacity ties the CR-V for class-leading, besting the Nissan Rogue and Saturn Vue by 15 and 17 cubes, respectively.
Design/Fit and Finish
The RAV4's clean, somewhat anonymous styling hasn't changed since this generation's debut for 2006 and we've never been fans of its tailgate-mounted spare tire. It might look cool, but it blocks rearward vision and tends to maximize potential damage. Get hit from behind (or back into something) and chances are you'll wind up with a dented tailgate and shattered rear window, as opposed to just rear bumper damage if there's no jutting spare tire back there. For 2009, the RAV4 gets a few styling tweaks and the option of a tireless tailgate (the spare is replaced with run-flat tires).
Overall build quality is solid, nothing squeaks or rattles and panel fitments are good. Materials quality is mixed, however; some soft-touch materials lend an upscale feel but hard plastic trim is too frequently seen. A former leader in cabin fit and finish, Toyota has slipped the last few years, while former vendors of subpar interiors (such as Hyundai) have stepped up their efforts considerably and passed Toyota.
Who should consider this vehicle
Savvy consumers. The 2008 Toyota RAV4 represents the smartest choice if you're looking for a roomy compact crossover that provides strong performance, good fuel economy, everyday practicality and a strong reputation for reliability.
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