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2009 Toyota RAV4
The small SUV that thinks big
By Dustin A. Woods, Apr. 08, 2009

While advertisers would like you to believe that bigger is always better, regardless of whether the topic is department stores, dish detergent or diners, some people aren’t into thinking big just for the sake of it. Aside from the fuel mileage and lack of social stigma, there are actually many benefits that come with owning an SUV that wasn’t designed to intimidate pedestrians. Having the additional space to carry the tiny sprigs off of your family tree, with the peace of mind that comes from an elevated driving position, combined with four-wheel-drive, are but a few reasons drivers abandoned the minivan and station wagon years ago. Smaller crossovers and SUV have become commonplace for most manufacturers in recent years, blending the aforementioned advantages within a package that is more likely to fit your finances, not to mention your garage.

FAST FACTS

1. Two engines are available, a 179hp four-cylinder and a 269hp V6.

2. FWD V6 models get impressive fuel economy of 19/27 mpg (city/highway), with the 4-cyl rating at 22/28 mpg.

3. Despite being a compact crossover, the RAV4 can tow up to 3,500 lbs when equipped with the V6 engine and tow package.

Launched in 1996 the original RAV4 was the first SUV to be built on the chassis of a car. The Corolla-based mini SUV was offered in both two and four door versions. While it’s debatable which model was the more hideous of the two, the RAV4 has always enjoyed a decent sized audience. It seems that blending small, fuel-efficient engines and off-road capabilities has become a winning formula for Toyota – although with the increased size of the new RAV4, the engines have grown considerably as well.

Thankfully, the mini SUV was completely revamped in 2000 without the aquarium-sized windows and with less plastic LEGO body cladding. Europeans continued to have a two-door option, however only four-door models graced our fair shores.

MORE POWERFUL 4-CYL ENGINE, BUT V6 THE BEST OPTION

The third generation model came out in 2006 and received a facelift for 2009. Changes include a restyled grille and bumpers, active headrests for the front seats and a more powerful 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that boasts 179 hp and 172 ft-lbs of torque.

The inline-four provides decent fuel mileage numbers at 22/28 (city/highway) for FWD models and 21/27 mpg for AWD versions. A 3.5-liter V6 mated to a five-speed automatic transmission is available on all trim levels, producing a serious 269 hp and 246 ft-lbs of torque, while getting four-cylinder-like fuel economy numbers of 19/27 mpg for FWD and 19/26 for 4WD models. The RAV4 is offered in three variations; Base, Sport and Limited, which are available in both four and six cylinder engine configurations with a four-speed automatic transmission as standard equipment.

The third generation RAV4 may still be considered a mini SUV, but it offers a roomy interior big enough for five adults, 73 cubic feet of cargo space and an available third row for the little tykes in Base and Limited form.

Personal preferences often vary when it comes to the design of rear hatch and tailgate configurations of vans and SUVs, however, I think that this is one area the RAV4 could easily be improved. The entire rear door swings open on hinges located on the right side making loading and unloading difficult, whether you are backed into a tight spot or parked curbside.

RAV4 CONTINUES TO DRIVE LIKE A SMALL CROSSOVER

Despite offering impressive cargo and passenger space, the RAV4 is easy to drive, even when navigating cramped parking garages or city gridlock. While the V6 version hits 60 mph in just over seven seconds, the four-cylinder version leaves something to be desired in the performance department and has only marginally better fuel efficiency than its V6 counterpart. Handling on the Sport version is precise and predictable, but at the expense of ride quality, which may have to do with the “sport tuned” suspension, but might just as likely be the result of the 18-inch wheels and lower profile rubber. The Limited model offers 17-inch wheels as standard equipment for a more supple ride.

FRONT OR ALL-WHEEL DRIVE OFFERED ON ALL TRIM LEVELS

The RAV4 is equipped with either front-wheel drive with a limited-slip differential or electronic four-wheel drive. In four-wheel drive-equipped models, the electronic system sends power to the front wheels unless traction is compromised, at which time it will call on the rear wheels for help. Four-wheel-drive models also offer a lock feature that creates a 50/50 front to rear power split for driving in consistently poor conditions or in the off chance someone wanted to go off-roading in a RAV4.

I did get the chance to test out the winter capabilities of my 4WD Sport model tester during a particularly bad North-Eastern snow storm, where it demonstrated itself to be moderately capable. Whenever the wheels would slip in snow or icy conditions, yellow lights would flash on the dashboard, buzzers would ring and traction control would fight violently to get a grip. All of this seemed to merely be an expensive, annoying replacement for proper throttle control. Besides, without proper winter tires, a 4WD system won’t do much. While the heated seats are a welcome addition, they offer no potential for adjustability, meaning that the only option for buns on the leather seats are frozen or toasted.

Standard features for the base RAV4 include 16-inch steel wheels, keyless entry, cruise control, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel and a six-speaker stereo with a CD/MP3 player and auxiliary audio jack. The Sport version adds rear tinted windows, 18-inch alloy wheels, a sport-tuned suspension, foglights and heated side mirrors. The Limited model offers a leather-wrapped steering wheel, dual-zone automatic climate control and an in-dash six-CD changer with satellite radio as standard equipment.

THE VERDICT

Additional options for V6 4x4 models include run-flat tires, a rear door sans mounted spare tire and an upgraded audio system. Limited and Sport models can be spiced up with a sunroof, leather seating, a power driver’s seat, back-up camera and nine-speaker stereo system with satellite radio and Bluetooth. Heated front seats and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system are also available on Limited models exclusively. Starting at only $21,500 in front-wheel-drive Base form and topping out in Limited 4x4 trim at just $27,810, the RAV4 offers a great little package with big value. For all of the extra benefits you get when you buy a mini SUV like the RAV4, it doesn’t seem so small after all.

PLUS

Road manners
Interior space
V6 power with 4-cyl fuel economy

MINUS

One-mode seat warmers
Rough ride on Sport model
Overzealous traction control