Much of Scottsdale, Arizona, is still beautiful, wild desert country with huge cacti, craggy mountains and starry night skies, but we ignore all that and make a beeline for Target in the redesigned 2013 Toyota RAV4.
It's easy to find, of course. This Phoenix suburb has at least five such stores, according to the navigation system in Toyota's compact crossover. We pull off a sweet parking job in a lot crowded with holiday shoppers, and after we're done stimulating the economy, the RAV4's rear cross traffic alert system helps us avoid flattening another consumer slowly wheeling a plasma TV to his vehicle.
Acceleration is just average as we merge back onto the Loop 101 freeway, but in most other respects, the 2013 Toyota RAV4 has made the trip convenient, comfortable and enjoyable. This supreme ease of use is exactly what's drawing everyone to compact crossover SUVs in the first place and that's what this RAV4 was designed to do.
It's a New Era
Lately, though, Toyota hasn't been selling its small crossover to as many of us as it would like. The outgoing third-generation RAV4 has been on sale since 2006, while its main rival, the Honda CR-V, has been revamped twice since then. Plenty has changed in those seven years, too, as customers now expect their compact utility vehicles to look and feel like sedans on the inside.
Actual interior room has never been a problem in the RAV4, so Toyota hasn't changed the dimensions much in this redesign. The wheelbase remains 104.7 inches, and overall length increases by an inch to 179.9, though the 2013 model looks shorter because the spare tire no longer hangs off the tailgate. Overall height drops by an inch, and the RAV is half an inch wider. Its footprint is nearly identical to the CR-V, Ford Escape and Mazda CX-5, while the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport is slightly larger. Even with a donut spare under its cargo floor, the 2013 Toyota RAV4 leads the class in cargo capacity with 73 cubic feet.
The real change is in the ambiance. Whereas the old RAV4 felt like economy transportation, this one has enough crisp lines, stitched surfaces and contrasting colors to appeal to the hipsters we saw shopping in the stationery aisle. Many of the materials are nicer than what you'll find in the Camry.
Take a Seat
Toyota has also tried to make the seating position feel more like the Camry's — we're sitting a half-inch lower than before and there's another inch of seat-track travel. The driver seat is comfortably firm and has road trip potential. If there's anything to complain about, it's storage: The RAV4 has fewer cubbies and slots than the CR-V.
Legroom is plentiful in the backseat, which reclines but no longer adjusts fore/aft. There's no pressing need for that anymore, since Toyota has eliminated the optional third row, which it says only 5 percent of customers bought.
The rear seats fold almost flat, and though there's no easy-peasy auto-fold option, Toyota has added its own nifty convenience — a height-adjustable power liftgate that's standard on top-of-the-line Limited models. Setting the height is complicated enough to require the owner's manual, but once done, it's a boon for shorter owners who park in undersized garages.
Good-Bye, Mr. Hyde. Hello, Mr. MPG
The previous Toyota RAV4 had a crazy side, and it came in the form of an optional 269-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 mounted transversely in the nose. It was too much engine for the chassis and wreaked havoc on the handling, but it also delivered the otherwise mild-mannered grocery-getter to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds.
For 2013, the V6 is gone. The take rate had dropped from 35 percent at the beginning of the model cycle to just 15 percent in 2012, Toyota officials tell us. More importantly, fuel economy takes priority now. Last year's 2.5-liter four-cylinder is the sole engine on the 2013 RAV4; a hybrid version might show up later.
The 2.5-liter is rated at 176 hp at 6,000 rpm and 172 pound-feet of torque at 4,100 rpm. Instead of the old four-speed automatic transmission, though, it teams up with the Camry's six-speed automatic. This transmission has two overdrive gears, and its torque converter is locked up more of the time, which helps mpg.
The result is a 24 city/31 highway/26 combined mpg rating for front-wheel-drive 2013 Toyota RAV4s — up from 22/28/24 on the 2012 model. Our all-wheel-drive tester comes in 22 city/29 highway/25 combined, which improves on the previous 21/27/24 rating. That's right in line with the ratings on the CR-V and the Escape with the 1.6-liter EcoBoost engine, but short of the CX-5's 28 mpg combined rating.
We miss the V6, but the four-cylinder is refined and adequately powerful. The six-speed automatic shifts smoothly and right at the 6,200-rpm redline under full throttle. A Sport mode calls up slightly more aggressive throttle response and shift points, and provides rev-matched downshifts. Toyota says the front-drive 2013 RAV4 will hit 60 mph in 8.9 seconds, which would give it an edge over the CR-V and CX-5 but not the 2.0-liter turbo-equipped Escape or Santa Fe Sport.
Handling Is Better, Too
Our RAV4 has Toyota's new AWD system (a $1,400 option), which is more than just a winter weather aid when you're in Sport mode. There's an electromagnetic coupling mounted just ahead of the rear differential, and it's able to use steering angle and yaw rate data to transfer torque rearward and minimize understeer around the few tight turns along our route.
The 2013 Toyota RAV4 also features many of the chassis-strengthening measures employed on the 2012 Camry. The front end is stiffer than before, and ditching the external spare tire has made it easier to control pitch. The suspension remains the same with struts in front and double-wishbones out back, but spring and damper rates are revised.
This doesn't add up to Mazda-style athleticism, but the 2013 RAV4 is well balanced and impressively stable going down the freeway. Its electric-assist power steering is more precise than before and the wheel naturally returns to center without feeling gummy. In Sport mode, power assist is dialed back 20 percent. Braking hardware hasn't changed much in this redesign, though the engineers shortened the pedal stroke.
Ride quality is a mixed bag. Even on Arizona's smooth pavement, our RAV4 Limited has a jittery ride on its 235/55R18 Bridgestone Dueler H/T 687 all-season, low-rolling resistance tires. Then, we drive a couple XLE models with 225/65R17 Michelin and Dunlop tires. Those tires give the RAV4 the kind of compliance you'd expect from a crossover SUV.
So Buy the XLE?
Based on customer feedback, Toyota has trimmed the options list for the 2013 Toyota RAV4. You still have three trim levels — now LE, XLE and Limited — but they come with more standard equipment. Not only does this make your life simpler, it makes the RAV4 more attractive for leasing, officials tell us, as the excessive options on older models made it tough to set residual values.
As expected, LE models ($24,145) have everything you need, including a standard back-up camera, Bluetooth and a USB input.
Upgrading to the XLE model ($25,135) provides dual-zone automatic climate control, something current owners really wanted, says Josh Hoffmann, Toyota's national marketing manager for crossover SUVs, "because they rarely drive alone." In addition, you get nicer cloth upholstery and access to the optional navigation system with the Entune app-based smartphone integration ($1,030). Although the RAV4 has a higher starting price than the CR-V, CX-5 or Escape, Toyota is hoping the XLE model will hit a sweet spot (and account for 40 percent of RAV4 volume) as it provides access to these particular amenities at a lower price point than the rival crossovers.
The main reason to step up to the Limited is because you want simulated leather upholstery (SofTex), a power driver seat, a keyless ignition and the power liftgate. Nav remains optional, and you can combine it with a premium JBL sound package. A blind spot monitor with the rear cross traffic alerts is a $500 option.
The Art of Being Ordinary
Crossover SUVs are quickly replacing midsize sedans as the default family car. This is easy to understand, given that these compact utilities offer similar passenger room and features in a package that fits better in most people's garages and makes it easier to transport all-terrain strollers and large dogs. Now many of them are just as comfortable to drive to work as a sedan and capable of returning similar fuel mileage.
The 2013 RAV4 is one of these compelling arguments against midsize sedan ownership. A careful redesign by Toyota has resulted in a vehicle that excels at being ordinary and checks most of the boxes you're likely to have on your list. It may not hold a serious advantage over its top rival, the CR-V, but the 2013 Toyota RAV4 competes on the same level. Game on, Honda.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.