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If you're in the market for an SUV - and it's almost a case of who isn't these days - then you just may have the Toyota RAV4 on your shortlist.
The Toyota Rav4 is the oldest of the car-based off-road-style vehicles, having launched in 1994, and it continues to be one of the most popular models cashing in on the world's - and Australia's - obsession with SUV ownership.
SUV sales are already up 26 per cent year on year and the market shows no signs of slowing.
The SUV segment has recently grown from three to four categories – small, medium, large and upper-large – in response to the latest trend for city-sized SUVs.
If you want choice, how do 327 different SUV variants to choose from sound?
There are eight different versions alone for the Toyota RAV4, which now moves from the ‘Compact SUV’ segment to become a ‘Medium SUV’, along with vehicles such as the Nissan X-Trail and Subaru Forester.
There will be a new-generation Toyota RAV4 in early 2013, but with a year still to go we wanted to revisit a model that continues to defy fresher models.
Having notched up over 180,000 sales since its Australian launch back in 1994, it’s difficult to think of a more consistently successful nameplate in the segment than the Toyota RAV4. In the last decade, it has been a top seller three times, second on six occasions and third once.
The RAV4, like the majority of SUV purchases these days, effectively replaces the four-door family car by offering a far more flexible package, especially in terms of cargo space and enhanced visibility for driver and passengers.
It might look positively compact sitting beside a Toyota LandCruiser, but the RAV4 is anything but when it comes to interior space.
The rear cargo bay alone seems larger than you might ever need, but then there’s some additional stowage space in a cleverly concealed compartment under the cargo floor, perhaps to hide more expensive items such as laptops or camera gear.
Although it’s unlikely you would need any more cubic space in the rear cargo area, remote levers located back there automatically lower the 60/40 split-fold rear seats to a horizontal position for longer items such as skis, surfboards or even a ladder.
The rear seats can also be moved forward or back, offering even more versatility.
We also lost count of the number of individual storage spaces hidden around the RAV4 – but more than 20 without even including the dual compartment glovebox.
Then there’s the ridiculously large amount of legroom for rear seat passengers, which would rival that of many vehicles in the large car segment.
Our $39,990 CV6 RAV4 test car is a mid-spec variant, and while it doesn’t come with leather upholstery, the fabric seats are comfortable with a wide design up front for larger body shapes. For those smaller builds there’s enough side bolstering to hold you firm when negotiating twisty roads.
While the interior mixes different plastics and faux-metal accents to try and create a more interesting-looking cabin, there are few soft-touch materials to be found inside the RAV4 and the design is inevitably tiring in the twighlight year’s of this generation’s lifecycle.
There are all the usual electrically operated creature comforts, however, including Bluetooth phone and audio streaming system that is quick and easy to pair.
A colour LCD touch screen with satellite navigation would be better, however, than the very ordinary LCD display that is hard to read in sunny conditions.
We’re not too fussed about the RAV4’s styling, either, notwithstanding its age, but it’s a bit dull when compared to a number of its contemporaries, including the South Korean Kia Sportage and Hyundai ix35 twins.
One thing that isn’t lacking is the RAV4’s performance credentials – at least in straight line. Under the bonnet is the most powerful petrol engine in its class – the same 201kW and 333Nm 3.5-litre V6 found in the Toyota Aurion, Toyota Kluger and Toyota Tarago V6. (It’s worth noting that most rivals use only four-cylinder engines, where the RAV4 offers the additional V6.)
It’s fast, too; simply dab the accelerator pedal and the RAV4 leaps off the line quicker than most performance hatches. It might seem unusual to talk about 0-100km/h sprint times for the family SUV, but 7.4 seconds and a top speed of 210km/h is quicker than anything in this category and price range.
The RAV4’s extra grunt makes for safe and effortless overtaking on freeways and country roads as well.
It’s smooth revving, too, and very quiet inside the cabin at idle. In fact, we turned off the air-conditioning at the lights and the engine note was barely audible. However, things can get rowdy during hard acceleration.
An auto with only five speeds rather than at least six ratios is also indicative of the RAV4’s age.
The RAV4’s tyres and all-wheel-drive system (there’s no V6 for front-drive versions) combine to ensure there’s excellent traction, though, even in horribly wet conditions (as we experienced).
Toyota has tuned the RAV4’s electric power steering well, as it’s nicely weighted, with only a small degree of play either side of the straight ahead and plenty of assistance for an easy time with tight parking spots.
The RAV4 runs on 225/65 series tyres, which are a long way from being low profile, so the ride even over blemished road surfaces is pretty good, but it’s not exemplary like that offered by the likes of the new Mazda CX-5.
It’s the same story with the handling, the RAV4 turns in well enough and there’s minimal body roll, but it doesn’t feel quite as composed or planted as several of its rivals.
Naturally, the bigger and heavier engine isn’t going to be as efficient as four-cylinder models, and 10.5L/100km is thirsty by class standards.
A Volkswagen Tiguan 155TSI, for example, offers slightly quicker performance yet uses only 8.8L/100km.
So the Toyota RAV4 CV6 AWD will be ideal for buyers looking for a combination of practicality and performance.
But with a number of areas betraying the number of candles the RAV4 now has to blow out on its birthday cake, Toyota’s engineers and designers have some work to do to match its SUV’s qualities to its popularity.