Ronald Montoya, Senior Consumer Advice Editor
If you are in the market for a compact SUV, consider yourself a savvy shopper. You've likely realized that compact SUVs are more maneuverable and easier on gas than their larger variants. And you probably know that you gain a higher seating position and more room for cargo when compared to a midsize sedan. Now the only question to ask is, "Which is the best compact SUV for my needs?"
The Toyota RAV4 is like a grizzled veteran among compact SUVs. It was one of the first crossover SUVs and helped define the segment. But the 2011 Toyota RAV4 isn't the go-to pick it used to be. Its styling hasn't changed much and its competitors have begun to offer more standard features for the same money — or in some cases, less. But while the RAV4 has been somewhat slow to evolve, this doesn't mean that you should strike it from your list just yet. The RAV4 continues to be a strong contender whose utility is still near the top of its class. And with the price of gasoline soaring above $4 per gallon, maybe you'd like the RAV4 with a four-cylinder engine instead of the V6 that has been the default choice.
Compact SUV buyers in 2011 will find that there is some stiff competition in the market. The Honda CR-V has a nicer interior, but we find its engine to be lacking in torque. The Kia Sportage is less expensive and better looking, but it holds less cargo. Among the RAV4's domestic competitors, the Chevrolet Equinox is a spacious and solid pick. Lastly, though the Ford Escape continues to be a perennial best-seller, its platform is growing dated and it's set to get a much-needed redesign later this year.
This 2011 Toyota RAV4 is powered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 179 horsepower and 172 pound-feet of torque. It is mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. While the RAV's competitors have stepped up to five- or six-speed transmissions, the four-speed actually proves more than capable and does not hunt for gears unnecessarily.
During Edmunds testing, the RAV4 accelerates from a standstill to 60 mph in 8.9 seconds and comes to a stop in an impressive 120 feet. The handling tests resulted in a 63-mph run through the slalom and 0.76g of cornering grip on the skid pad. These are fairly competitive numbers among similar compact utilities powered by four-cylinder engines.
We feel that the RAV4's engine makes more than enough power for around-town driving and is able to easily climb hills and get up to highway speed. The inline-4 engine produces about the same amount of horsepower as the Honda CR-V's four-cylinder, yet feels like a much livelier engine because it has a wider power band for good drivability. But if you still crave more power, there is an excellent V6 available, but power tends to get the better of the front-wheel drive in slipperier conditions, so all-wheel drive might be a better answer. And if you do opt for the V6, there is hardly a penalty in terms of EPA-rated fuel economy, although the V6 uses noticeably more fuel in real-world driving.
For the RAV4 four-cylinder, the EPA's fuel economy estimates are 22 city/28 highway mpg and 24 mpg combined. This is about the same as a CR-V, while the Equinox and Sportage have higher highway ratings. During our testing, we averaged about 24.4 mpg, on par with the EPA's combined rating. We recorded a high of about 29.8 mpg and a low of 19.8 mpg.
Opinions on the front seat comfort are divided among our editors. Shorter drivers and those of average height should have no problem finding a comfortable seating position. But taller people may find that the steering wheel doesn't telescope enough and the seat may not feel as supportive.
The rear seats have a good amount of legroom and can slide back to accommodate taller passengers. If you need to carry more people, the RAV4 is one of the few in this class to offer a third-row seat — though it will cut into your cargo space.
In a recent comparison test, our editors were surprised to find that despite its popularity with families, the RAV4 was one of the worst when it came to installing a child safety seat. Not only was there less space for a rear-mounted seat than in the Chevy Equinox or Hyundai Tucson, but also the top tether anchor points are buried between the rear seatback and cargo area bulkhead, making access difficult. They concluded that once you've installed the car seat, you would likely be reluctant to move it.
Road noise is noticeable at highway speeds, but isn't too much of a distraction.
Front visibility is excellent, but somewhat compromised in the rear due to the spare tire mounted on the back. The optional back-up camera on our test model helped with parking and locating smaller objects.
The RAV4's biggest strength is its cargo space. There are 36.4 cubic feet of space behind the second-row seat, a substantial amount. In our real-world usability tests, we were able to fit two large suitcases and three small ones. Hit the one-touch fold-flat lever and with the 60/40-split seat down, the maximum cargo capacity expands to 73 cubic feet. This is the most of any vehicle in its class and approaches the capacity of a midsize SUV. There are also plenty of other storage spaces to accommodate smaller objects throughout the vehicle.
We were disappointed to see that there were no audio controls on the steering wheel, nor did this model include Bluetooth. The steering wheel audio controls are available in an optional "value package," but the Bluetooth option must still be added. If you equip the Equinox or Sportage with comparable electronics, you can get both features for less money.
Design/Fit and Finish
This RAV4 seems as if it's been around for ages. Although this current generation of the vehicle dates only from 2006, the styling hasn't dramatically changed in more than 10 years. The RAV4 isn't an ugly SUV, but with its slow evolution and spare tire mounted on the back (which can be removed as an option), it is a reminder of an older design language that says sport-utility, not crossover.
The RAV4's interior is a mix of soft touch-materials and hard plastics typical of vehicles in its class. We are particularly fond of the three-spoke steering wheel and brushed metal finish in the center stack, which add a touch of sportiness to the interior.
Overall, the RAV4 has solid build quality both inside and out. We didn't notice any squeaks or rattles.
Who should consider this vehicle
If you want a reliable, compact SUV that gets great fuel economy and has plenty of cargo space, the 2011 Toyota RAV4 is one of the better picks. Whether you want V6 power or a third-row seat, it has the flexibility to meet almost all your needs. And aside from the smaller and more expensive Volkswagen Tiguan, the RAV4 is the only other compact SUV to come with free maintenance. The Toyota RAV4 might have invented the compact SUV, but it has always been a crossover at heart, and as a result it gives you a comfortable, practical, fuel-efficient driving experience even as it delivers serious SUV-style cargo space.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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