Ten years ago, before the flood of current compact SUVs washed over the market, Toyota's RAV4 offered the Gen X and Gen Y folks an SUV that suited their supposedly active lifestyles.
Something that could handle foul-weather driving as well as a trip to the slopes or mountain bike trailhead. Something that had relatively small dimensions for an SUV, making it easy to park in the city. Something that had a frugal four-cylinder engine that promised 20-somethings 20-something miles to the gallon. Something journalists dubbed the "cute ute."
Well, this is America, the Land of Supersizing, so it was inevitable that the RAV4 would get bigger. And that's exactly what happened with the 2006 Toyota RAV4. Although this new RAV also debuts in Europe this year, they'll be getting the shorter-wheelbase version shown at the 2005 Frankfurt International Motor Show. The difference in length is most noticeable by looking at the rearmost side windows. North America gets a third-seat option, Europe does not.
Would this upsizing kill the lovable, agile demeanor of the RAV4? Or would it take Toyota's entry-level SUV to new heights? We couldn't wait to find out so we got hold of a preproduction unit, a V6 Limited that was loaded to the roof rack with options.
Grow up already
At 181.1 inches in length, the 2006 RAV4 is over a foot longer (14.5 inches) than the outgoing model. It is also arguably more handsome than its forebear. The grille sports Toyota's signature trapezoidal shape, the oversized rub strip on the side is gone, and the greenhouse has a more elegant appearance with its reverse-canted D-pillar. Width is up 3.2 inches, adding to the more aggressive stance.
Compared to its chief competitors, the new RAV4 is about the same length as a Honda CR-V (181.3 inches), about 11 inches longer than the Hyundai Tucson and about 8 inches shorter than the midsize Chevrolet Equinox. A lower coefficient of drag (0.33 versus 0.35 previously) promises a quieter ride and better fuel-efficiency at higher cruising speeds.
Three trim levels will be available: base, Sport and Limited. Base versions are anything but strippers as the following features are all standard: air conditioning, cruise control, tire-pressure monitor, power windows, power locks, tilt/telescopic steering wheel, keyless entry, an AM/FM/CD system with auxiliary input jack, 215/70/16 tires (V6 versions get 225/65/17s), a six-way (manual) driver seat and a split/reclining/sliding second-row seat.
Step up to the Sport and added to the mix are a sport-tuned suspension, alloy wheels wearing 235/55/18 performance tires, foglights, rear privacy glass, spare-tire cover, and color-keyed mirrors, door handles and fender flairs.
Limited models feature dual-zone climate controls, heated/power mirrors, a six-disc CD changer and steering wheel controls for the audio system, anti-theft system, chrome grille, color-keyed bumpers, door handles and rear spoiler, power driver seat, alloy wheels with 225/65/17 tires, rear cargo net and leather wrapping for the steering wheel and shift knob.
The Safety dance
A comprehensive active safety package is standard on all RAV4s and as such, all the high-tech acronyms apply here. Antilock brakes, BrakeAssist, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, traction control and Vehicle Stability Control provide peace of mind as well as the ability to save your butt while dealing with the daily risks of urban and suburban driving. Side-impact and side curtain airbags are optional.
Come on in and get comfortable
Compared to the '05 RAV4, the '06's difference in interior space is immediately noticeable. Toyota claims a 21-percent roomier cabin, and that seems no exaggeration. With the wheelbase stretched 6.7 inches, space for second-row passengers is plentiful — at 38.3 inches, rear legroom is 2 inches greater than a Ford Escape's and an inch less than the Honda CR-V's. And that second-row seat slides fore and aft to cater to passenger and cargo needs — it's not an original idea (Chevy has it in the Malibu Maxx and Equinox) — but a great one nonetheless.
Along with the upsizing came the availability of upscale features. Our Limited even had a DVD entertainment system in addition to the leather seating and moonroof. A third seat is optional, and though our test RAV4 didn't have it, we tried it out while at a press event. It should be fine for the kiddies, but adults bigger than 5 feet tall are going to feel cramped back there.
Simulated brushed-metallic trim adorns the dash, console and door panels, furthering the uptown image, as do the Optitron gauges and illuminated cupholders up front.
Most staffers found the seats supportive and comfortable over long drives, although our tallest staffer (at 6-foot-4), Richard Homan, just didn't fit no matter how much he fiddled with the eight-way power seat. The telescopic feature on the steering wheel was appreciated and rare in this class. The quietude of the cabin impressed everyone, as did the ease with which the second row folded (just flip a lever on the seat side and the seatback flops down, without requiring removal of the headrest in most cases).
Not just bigger, but faster, too
For the first time, a V6 engine is available in the RAV4. And this ain't no puny 2.5- to 3.0-liter V6. Borrowing a page from the Saturn Vue playbook, Toyota stuffed a burly 3.5-liter V6 (shared with the company's flagship sedan, the Avalon) into the RAV's engine bay.
With a forceful 269 horsepower (at 6,200 rpm) and 246 pound-feet of torque (at 4,700 rpm) on tap, this engine gives the RAV4 a decidedly aggressive personality. Coupled to a five-speed automatic and running through an electronic, "on-demand" four-wheel-drive system, our RAV4 scurried to 60 in just 7.1 seconds and was still going strong as it flashed through the quarter-mile in 15.2 seconds at 91.2 mph. This means it will lay waste to your snobbish friend's X3 3.0 by about a second in each category.
On the street, the RAV4 just moves out quickly whenever you toe into the throttle. The automatic tranny is never caught sleeping — no need to slam your foot to the carpet to coax a downshift. Gear changes are swift and smooth and our average gas mileage, at 19.3 mpg, is commendable given our leadfoot tendencies. Those with more self control should get closer to Toyota's estimates of 20 city and 27 highway. Two-wheel-drive V6 RAVs are rated 1 mpg higher on the highway.
The base RAV4 powertrain consists of a 2.4-liter four-cylinder with 166 hp (up 5 over last year) and 165 lb-ft of torque running through a four-speed automatic gearbox. As with the V6, no manual transmission is available. Mileage estimates are 24/31 (2WD) and 23/29 (4WD).
Disc brakes are standard all around, and aided by the best technology available to provide swift and short stopping distances. We scored a best of 120 feet from 60 mph, a performance just 2 feet shy of the highly regarded BMW X3's. Solid and progressive, the pedal feel provided confidence in all driving scenarios.
The available four-wheel-drive system operates in front-drive mode for optimum fuel-efficiency until a situation (such as quick acceleration from a stop or while driving on slippery roads) demands four-wheel drive, at which point up to 45 percent of the torque is transferred to the rear wheels. A "4WD Lock" switch allows one to manually select that maximum torque output to the rear wheels.
The V6 models come standard with Hill-start Assist Control (which prevents rolling back when on a hill) and Downhill Assist Control (which automatically keeps speed down without the driver having to brake while moving down a steep hill).
For those who tow and want to know, the four-banger can pull up to 1,500 pounds while a V6 model can tow up to 3,500 pounds.
No longer tiny, but still a dancer
With independent suspension at all four corners, the RAV4 incorporates McPherson struts up front along with a double-wishbone setup out back. With tuning set nicely between plush and firm, our Limited delivered a comfy ride over broken-up pavement while remaining responsive and secure on winding two-lanes. Surprisingly, the electric power steering feels well weighted and natural (take note, GM) with no slack at all on-center.
With a performance of 61.3 mph through our slalom course, the RAV4 felt confident and well planted. Toyota's overenthusiastic Vehicle Stability Control slapped our wrists and intervened while we were still playing with the RAV's good clean handling fun — we have a recent history of taking issue with Toyota/Lexus traction and stability systems. Overall, we're happy to say that the RAV4 retains its sporty dynamic even though it's grown considerably larger this year, a helluva feat for the chassis engineers.
This is how we do it
Not only has the 2006 RAV4 moved up in terms of size, it's also managed to broaden its appeal without losing any of its previous spunky and affable personality. Once again, Toyota has shown the automotive world how to build on a model's strengths while still making improvements where needed.
System Score: 7.0
Components: Our RAV 4 came equipped with an optional stereo. The upgraded system is a JBL premium sound system with a total of eight speakers plus a subwoofer. Our test car was a Limited and with or without the JBL stereo it includes an in-dash six-disc CD changer, MP3 and WMA capability, mini-jack input for portable music players like an iPod and steering wheel-mounted audio controls.
Performance: It's hard to tell the standard Toyota stereo from the upgraded version just by looking at the head unit. The only visual cue your passengers will get that you opted for a nice sound system is the JBL logo on the speakers.
The display and controls are all Toyota, which is to say they are practical and functional. The head unit is mounted high and the buttons are large and easy to use with just a glance. Even so, the steering wheel-mounted controls are the likely route for most drivers. Those buttons are simple and straightforward and clustered together on the left side of the wheel. Like the rest of the car's controls, the audio controls are very intuitive to use.
The sound quality of this optional system is clearly better than the stock system but overall it is only a little above average. Even with the optional system's subwoofer, the bass is just OK. It's prominent enough but lacks true kick and can tend to be muddy when the volume is turned up. We found the best sounding profile was to have the bass and treble boosted almost all the way up with the mids at about +1. But hey, that means this stereo has a midrange adjustment and we like that.
The highs are never overwhelming but even with the treble bumped up to +3 or so, much of what we listened to lacked detail. The system overall sounds very good but there is a softness to the sound that can take away from some harder-edged music. Stereos like Pioneer from the Scion line and Nissan's newest Rockford Fosgate offer a more aggressive sound when you want it.
Best Feature: Intuitive head unit and controls.
Worst Feature: Lack of bass punch.
Conclusion: Like the RAV4 itself, the optional JBL stereo is a step up but ultimately lacks a "wow" factor. While the sound quality lacks edge, the system overall is easy to use and seamlessly blends itself into the driving experience. — Brian Moody
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
I was never a fan of the previous RAV4s. Between their bizarre styling and too-small-to-be-truly-utilitarian dimensions they always struck me as "cute utes" that were neither cute nor utilitarian. The last generation did handle quite well, and it possessed typical Toyota quality in design and execution, so for someone who needed an economy sedan — but wanted to be seen driving a "lifestyle" vehicle — I guess it worked.
The new model has addressed both of my previous issues. It looks cool, both inside and out (think BMW X3), and its larger size means it has real utility potential (though the third-row option is more symbolic than authentic...). But where this car really shines is under the hood. Toyota's new 3.5-liter V6 is a sweetheart of an engine, with exceptional horsepower and torque. The first time I punched the throttle I found myself shouting expletives — in a good way. Is there such a thing as too much horsepower? Of course not! But the fact that question crossed my mind while driving the RAV4 is a good indication that Toyota has transformed its smallest SUV into a serious player.
Executive Editor Richard Homan says:
Toyota has come a long, long way with the RAV4 since its original iteration two generations and 10 years ago. The original version was gag-a-maggot ugly to my Gen-XY (male) eyes, especially in its two-door form. It drove OK, but no better. Toyota found its footing with the second-generation RAV4, giving it almost mini-BMW X5 lines and respectable road manners.
Now the 2006 RAV4 comes along and the news is almost all good. The shape has a legitimate cool-factor to it, especially in the Metallic Red that our test RAV wore — Frank Lloyd Wright would have been proud. And the 269-hp V6 deserves a standing ovation all its own. That much horsepower in this class of ute is a godsend for righteous passing maneuvers.
Did that man say "almost" all good news? Yeah, he did. At 6-foot-4, this editor doesn't fit in the RAV4 so good. The torso is no problem — headroom abounds — it's the legs that have no place to go. If you're not a genetic freak (or "normal" as I like to think of myself), you may still feel like you're propped-up on, rather than sitting in, the driver seat, and you may get that low-steering-wheel bus-driver feeling. But at least you'll fit. Also, the spare-tire carrier blocks the view out the rear window pretty effectively.
But if you fit the new RAV4 and the price fits you, it's an easy decision to make.