Snaking through a gravel slalom behind the wheel of a Toyota RAV4 feels as illogical as it sounds.
The same goes for sliding sideways through a 90-degree left-hander with three other people strapped inside, the crossover’s high center of gravity a cause for concern as we practice weight-shifting pendulum turns over and over. It’s an entirely counterintuitive experience in an entirely counterintuitive vehicle — yet somehow it works. And in an even more surprising twist, it works pretty damn well.
It’s surprising, of course, because there’s nothing about the RAV4 that would indicate it has any business in a rally setting. Of all the small CUVs on the market, this one’s about as wholesome as they come. Think of it as the sensible cardigan of crossovers; it might not be sexy, but it will seldom let you down. Toyota wants to change that perception — well, at least the part about it being packed with prudence.
To do so, it brought a group of journalists to the Team O’Neil Rally School, a sprawling 600-acre campus of woods and winding roads in rural New Hampshire, to sample the RAV4 outside its comfort zone. I had visions of piloting a rally-prepped ride modeled after the one driven by Ryan Millen on the American Rally Association (ARA) circuit. What I got was something far more, um, tame.
A trio of RAV4s greeted us when we arrived at the school in the shadows of Mount Washington, each looking every bit the part of a real-deal rally car. An aluminum skid plate adorned the front bumper, while oversized mud flaps poked out from behind meaty BFGoodrich KO2 tires wrapped around Sparco rally wheels. With LED light bars providing the finishing touch, the usually mild-mannered crossover looked properly mean. Looks can, of course, be deceiving.
Here’s a tall and tippy Toyota that, while benefitting from an aesthetic overhaul, has been largely untouched otherwise. The stock powertrain is completely intact, with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine sending a whopping 176 horsepower and 172 lb-ft of torque to all four wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission. And while the suspension has been modified on two of the RAV4s at our disposal, the best-looking one of the bunch, with its contrasting pearl white paint and pure white wheels, boasts a bone-stock setup geared towards maximum comfort.
Following a quick classroom session where we covered everything from the fundamentals of weight transfer to controlling a skid, it was time to collectively clamber inside and see what the cute-ute was capable of. Which turned out to be quite a bit. While not quite as easy to flick around as the Ford Fiestas Team O’Neil uses to teach the basics, the RAV4s proved plenty willing to play along.
There were also noticeable differences in how each responded to driver input depending on suspension setup, with the stock version the most compliant by a country mile. With its cushy dampers cooperating most effortlessly when it came time to transfer the vehicle’s weight to the front or rear wheels, initiating proper drifts and slides was done with ease. So when the time came to stitch all the lessons learned together for a friendly rallycross competition, I knew exactly which rig I wanted to drive.
Charging as hard as possible uphill towards a sweeping left-hander, the white-on-white RAV4 gobbled up gravel steadily, the beefy BFGs providing plenty of traction on the way. Pushing it through the slalom course, the RAV4’s tail wagged steadily as the weight shifted side to side before it was time to add an extra dose of skinny-pedal for a pendulum turn, the penultimate in our series of challenges. And it was here the soft suspension came in handy, hunkering down in the front as I lifted off the throttle and hit the brakes to move across to the right before flicking it back to the left for a silky-smooth slide through the tight corner. Braking hard into the stop box, the pearl white RAV4 emerged with the win — and a newfound respect.
Still caked in remnants of the mud and dust we accumulated throughout the day, the RAV4 was packed with people, plus their stuff, for the quick trip across the border into Maine. And it was here that the RAV4 really shined, proving itself as wholesome as ever.