The RAV4 remains a favourite in the medium SUV segment, but it now faces its sternest test ever against newer, better-equipped competition.
The 2015 Toyota RAV4 is an ongoing sales success story in Australia. But it’s also fair to say that this Japanese segment staple isn’t the most technologically advanced or up-to-date medium SUV on the market – certainly not compared to leaders such as the recently released Hyundai Tucson, the segment leading Mazda CX-5 and the soon-to-be-released new Kia Sportage.
At the time of writing, the RAV4 sits second in the segment behind CX-5 in sales and owns a 15 per cent market share. Sales are up ever so slightly this year compared to last year, and that's no mean feat given the RAV4’s ageing platform. Let’s try to find out then, why the RAV4 remains so popular among buyers.
On test, we’ve got the range-topping RAV4 Cruiser in AWD with the turbo-diesel engine and automatic transmission. Pricing starts from $48,490, with the only option added to our test vehicle being the premium paint, which costs $550. That pushes the as-tested price to $49,040 plus the usual extra on-road costs.
So, the RAV4 isn’t cheap at this spec level, certainly not compared to some of the other equivalent options in the segment such as the Subaru Forester, which starts from $41,490. Anything over five grand is a lot of money when you’re spending around $40K.
In theory and in practical terms, the RAV4 has got everything you need and nothing you don’t though, so unlike some of the Euro vehicles we test, you won’t need to tick a plethora of options boxes in addition to the basic vehicle price.
Like some of Toyota’s vehicles of late (Camry and Corolla most notably), the designers have tried to inject some sporting influence into the exterior styling. In high-end Cruiser specification, the RAV4 is as attractive as it’s ever going to get, the 18-inch alloy wheels a style highlight along with as much colour coding as Toyota could devise.
The RAV4 is the most space-efficient SUV in the class, both in the cabin and the luggage area, so it wins points with family buyers needing to maximise internal space without bulging external dimensions. There’s genuine room for five people, adults will find the second row comfortable and spacious and the luggage space – 577 litres with the second row in play – is clearly larger than the competitors.
While the RAV4’s infotainment system is adequate, its design, functionality and interface is very much last-generation. There’s an archaic feel and appearance that leaves the RAV4 trailing a long way behind the segment leaders. The 6.1-inch colour touchscreen works efficiently, as does the Bluetooth connectivity and MP3 compatibility. Callers did report some occasional echoing through the Bluetooth system though. Disconnecting and reconnecting didn’t seem to alleviate that issue. The satellite-navigation mapping is accurate and works well despite the ageing look to the design itself.
The interior features numerous plastic surfaces and trim that delivers a cheap-and-cheerful feeling. It looks like it would scratch and mark easily and doesn't match the quality of the segment leaders.
The turbo-diesel engine is matched only to an AWD system, so buyers who desire FWD will have to also opt for the petrol engine. The 2.2-litre four-cylinder unit is no less refined than the class leaders and once it comes to life it settles into a calm idle. It’s not too clattery at highway speed either, which will be a factor for country buyers or urban buyers who cover longer distances. The oiler generates 110kW and 340Nm, channels its drive through a six-speed automatic transmission and uses an ADR claimed 6.5 litres per 100 kilometres. On test, we saw an indicated return of 8.1L/100km.
While the engine certainly can’t be accused of being performance focused, it does the job asked of it well enough. We spent plenty of time behind the wheel at highway speeds, and once up to 110km/h, the engine churns along smoothly and doesn’t require hefty kick downs to maintain speed up longer inclines. Around town, the engine’s note, even under acceleration, is never intrusive, and you can muscle the RAV4 up to 60 or 80km/h reasonably effortlessly.
The six-speed automatic does a solid job of slicing through the gears too. Even at low speed in the city, the RAV4 crawls smoothly through stop/start traffic. If your RAV4 is to spend large chunks of time in traffic, you won’t find it jerky or uncomfortable. Around town, the extra space afforded by the clever interior is matched by excellent visibility – not just for the driver either. Passengers also have a commanding view of the world outside. Positioning the RAV4 is a breeze and the view forward is expansive. Likewise, reverse parking into tight spots is also easy thanks to the clear reverse-view camera image.
While the engine itself isn’t overly agricultural, we found the RAV4’s cabin, especially at freeway speeds, to be a little on the noisy side. There’s plenty of road noise, wind noise as well as a little bit of engine noise entering the cabin. It’s not such an issue at lower city speeds, but it’s definitely a factor on the freeway. The ski racks fitted to our test vehicle were a nightmare. They generated an annoying whistle even at 60km/h around town, which just got louder with speed. If you use your RAV4 in the snow, remove the racks whenever they aren’t needed. Your ears will thank you.
The ride comfort – or lack thereof – is for me the central issue facing this range-topping RAV4. It’s so stiff over rough road surfaces, that I checked the tyre pressures three times at three separate petrol stations to make sure it wasn’t running 50psi.
At a loss, I also used an expensive, liquid-filled gauge. I was convinced there was too much pressure in the 18-inch tyres. Nope, each time I got a reading of the requisite 32psi. For an SUV that will spend most of its time around town, with the family on board, the ride is simply too stiff. Head for rutted country roads, and that jarring ride is exacerbated.
We didn’t punt the RAV4 too hard, but when you do eventually hook into a corner, it quickly becomes obvious that the stiff ride isn’t matched by sporty handling either, which leaves you questioning the point of the suspension tune.
The RAV4 is covered by Toyota's three-year, 100,000km warranty. Under the Toyota Service Advantage programme, the RAV4 diesel is entitled to up to six standard schedule services for $180 each for the first three years or 60,000km, whichever occurs first. Service intervals for RAV4 are six months or 10,000km, whichever occurs first.
So, the Toyota RAV4 remains a popular choice, but it’s surely facing its sternest test ever in this segment. The Mazda CX-5 is the dynamic standard, the Hyundai Tucson perhaps the best all-rounder, the Subaru Forester the best value for money. All that, before the new Kia Sportage lands into the marketplace. Even if you’re a dyed in the wool Toyota fan, you’d be doing yourself a disservice not to consider the options before you spend your hard-earned money.
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