The recent suite of updates added to the evergreen Toyota RAV4 suggests that the just-released 2016 facelift moves the game forward by a tangible margin for this popular mid-sized SUV range. Sharper styling, a lift in cabin features and finishes, plus improved ride, handling, comfort and safety all carry the collective promise of game-lifting and enhanced value.
And what better way to measure that margin than to pit the new RAV4 against two perennial and direct segment competitors in the Hyundai Tucson and Nissan X-Trail, and a left-field, wildcard challenger in the form of the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack.
Our first review of the revamped MY16 RAV4 suggested there’s something of a clean slate at play, though in its tyre tracks is dragged something of a lacklustre track record in past CarAdvice reviews.
The last time the (pre-updated) RAV4 faced off against the Tucson, in our 4x4 diesel flagship mid-SUV shootout, Toyota’s Cruiser played a very quiet fourth fiddle at the side of stage where Hyundai’s Highlander stole the limelight. The relative newcomer and segment-shaking Tucson rated an excellent 8.5, while the RAV4 dragged along a workmanlike score of six in the tail end.
Now, however, we’ve aimed to select middle-range 4x4 petrol-powered variants that sit around the mid-to-high $30K mark. On spec and boasts, the broad-ranging changes applied to the Toyota should close the gap considerably between the RAV4 GXL ($36,990 plus on-roads) we have here its logical AWD petrol nemesis from Hyundai, the Tucson 1.6L Elite ($38,240 list).
Not nearly as fresh-faced, though a very solid sales spinner, is Nissan’s X-Trail, here in middleweight ST-L trim ($39,490 plus on-roads). Back in 2014, the then-new same-spec X-Trail ST-L rated 7.5 in our ten-way mega-test, dispatching the (high-spec) six-from-ten RAV4 Cruiser. More old scores for the Toyota to settle, then...
That we've included the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack in this test may raise eyebrows. However, there’s $37,990 worth of petrol-powered, all-wheel-driven method to the madness of throwing this small wagon to the pack of medium SUVs. No only does it align itself on price, powertrain format and soft-roading pretensions, in some areas – notably its SUV-rivalling 1620-litre cargo capacity – it looks a valid competitor for family hauling.
The Volkswagen, with its very handy 8.5 rating in review, doesn’t merely serve to keep its SUV rivals honest, it challenges the notion that an SUV is the must-have option for conveniently moving families balancing on- and off-road driving. It’ll be interesting to see what compromises are demanded by opting for a small wagon, if indeed there are any.
The RAV4 leads the charge on pricing – add the refreshed appearance inside and out and there’s plenty on the table to entice buyers. Outside, the more sharply styled spruce up features LED headlights, tail lights and daytime running lights, and it’s the only car here sat on 18-inch wheels, its rivals all fitted with 17s.
The Toyota needs to leverage its freshness and pricing because its equipment list, while hardly poverty stricken, isn’t exactly brimming with generosity. Keyless entry, push-button start, a reverse-view camera, rear parking sensors, 6.1-inch touchscreen infotainment with app-based sat-nav functionality, Bluetooth/Aux/USB connectivity, cruise control, rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone air-conditioning and hill start are all standard issue fare for an SUV at this price point. New for RAV4, though, is the addition of trailer sway control.
Want leather? You’ll have to jump to the tree-topping Cruiser variant. Perhaps more crucially, you need to pay $2500 extra for the Advanced Safety Pack to add blind-spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, front parking sensors, lane departure alert, forward collision warning or autonomous braking active smarts, or niceties such as auto high beam headlights and active cruise control. Yes, much of this is available in Cruiser trim, but active safety credentials are very barren indeed.
The Tucson Elite matches all of the RAV4 GXL’s standard gear while expanding the list to include dusk-sensing headlights, electric heated/folding mirrors, trailer stability and hill start assists, electric lumber seat adjustment, a larger 8.0-inch infotainment screen, an electric park brake (the RAV4’s is mechanical) and an electric tailgate, though both the Toyota and Hyundai are fitted with cloth interior trim. And like the Toyota, you also need to jump to the tree-topping Highlander model – or, unusually, drop down to the Active X variant – to get leather appointed seating or advanced active safety (which is at least cost-optional in the RAV4 GXL).
Unlike its SUV rivals, the X-Trail ST-L comes with leather-accented trim and front row heating for its seats – no doubt a big plus for some buyers – and a 360-degree parking camera system, though it lacks the supporting sensors, makes do with halogen main beam headlights and gets an antiquated foot-operated parking brake. Its infotainment screen, at 7.0 inches, splits the smaller Toyota and larger Hyundai for sizing. Keeping with segment trends, you need to move up to Ti/TL variants to get blind-spot or lane departure warning systems or Nissan’s Moving Object Detection, though like all four cars on test this ST-L gets off-road tuned hill descent control.
The one-spec-fits-all Volkswagen Alltrack gets bi-xenon headlights with LED driving lights and lacks nothing in standard specification against the SUV trio. In fact, inclusions such as heated front seats, leather trim, front and rear parking sensors to compliment its rear-view camera, App Connect (Apple CarPlay/Android Auto/MirrorLink) infotainment functionality and a suite of drive modes more expansive than its rivals makes the Alltrack, on balance, the most comprehensively specified car here. However, like the Toyota, you need to pay extra ($1300) for the Driver Assistance Package which adds radar-based Front Assist and City Emergency Brake functionality, adaptive cruise and aided bay/parallel parking assistance.
Given none of this quartet boasts much in the way of cutting-edge active support, their safety credentials are best measured by more conventional measurement. The RAV4 offers seven-airbag surety for a full five-star ANCAP rating, while the X-Trail also gets the maximum ANCAP rating despite lacking the driver’s knee airbags fitted to the Toyota and Volkswagen.
The Alltrack has yet to be tested by the local safety assessment program, Volkswagen Australia explains, though it's worth buyer consideration that the seven-airbag Alltrack lacks nothing in the way of safety systems fitted to other Golf variants rated a full five stars.
The Tucson, though, has a lower four-star ANCAP rating despite matching the X-Trail’s six-airbag count and boasting a rollover sensor, for reasons of which are explained here. However, Hyundai is working on getting this rectified as soon as possible, and we expect this will be achieved soon, so keep that in the back of your mind.
[Update: the Tucson range now has a full five-star ANCAP rating following a key redesign and subsequent testing. Read more about this update here.]
On balance, then, the Volkswagen grabs the slightly higher ground for equipment without sacrificing any safety measures to its three rivals.
First impressions of the new RAV4 cabin are quite positive. It’s a funky interior design and the dash is, in my eyes at least, dangerously close to being over-styled, but the positive is that it does feel a little bit special, at least in the context of the usually drab and predictable medium SUV fare. There’s enough richness in the colour choices – dark plastics, titanium look hard surfaces – and tactility in the materials to impart an aura of quality.
The RAV4 certainly leverages the ‘sport’ aesthetic into sport utility vehicle, particularly in the chunky-rimmed multifunction wheel and heavily bolstered front seat that are a mixed-bag affair – the pros are incredibly grippy lateral support and driver-centric feel and placement; the cons are the scratchy fabric and lack of electric adjustment. The convoluted centre console design offers more flash than proper functionality.
The X-Trail couldn’t be more different, its vastly more restrained interior design looking and feeling more down-market and a little dated. While the X-Trail is arguably duller – depending on personal taste, of course – and its materials are harder and cheaper looking, it’s clearer and simpler in interacting with both driver and occupants. The larger central and driver’s screen displays are superior to the RAV4's (which lacks a digital speedo), the infotainment is clear and fast acting and the 360 camera system is slick. While NissanConnect allows some neat app-based functionality (Pandora, Google, Facebook) it has proprietary navigation, where the Toyota offers app-based – and thus mobile data reliant – navigation only.
The Nissan is also roomier and airier than the RAV4, if only fractionally more commodious than the Tucson, which strikes a nice balance between conventional and contemporary in design. However, the X-Trail also feels the largest of the four competitors, its thick A-pillar the most obscuring for forward vision, its extremities most difficult from behind the wheel, and its instruments are set well low of the driver’s field of vision.
The X-Trail’s seats, too, are flat and unsupportive, though as the only SUV of the three here fitted with leather, the Nissan is more utilitarian and mostly easily serviceable when cleaning up after being assaulted by grubby kids.
The Tucson’s controls and interfaces are clear, simple and easy to use, its infotainment a notch above the Nissan’s, its (rear-view-only) camera is clearer, and it feels contemporary without being gauche. The seating, too, is sporty enough for support and driver engagement while being relaxed enough for long-haul comfort and hassle-free entry and egress. From overall design to the quality of the switchgear, there’s a certain not-too-sporty, not-too-bland balance the appealing Korean SUV strikes particularly well.
While the Volkswagen Alltrack doesn’t look terribly smaller than its SUV competitors from the outside, it’s a noticeably tighter squeeze once you climb in. The main difference is in cabin width – it feels the much narrow car – though there’s been obvious effort to maximise elbow and shoulder room and, by small car standards, it’s roomy, generously so in head and leg room. You do notice that it’s a little more awkward for entry and egress given the lower seating position than the higher-set seating in the SUVs.
None of the Golf’s three SUV rivals, though, are anything like as upmarket as the Alltrack inside. From easily the nicest wheel of the group to the quality of leather trim, slickness of the switchgear and fit and finish, the Volkswagen feels at least a premium grade above. In typically German style, it’s a thoroughly resolved, want-for-little cabin design with plenty of depth and detail. For instance, the door bins are carpet-lined to minimise noise from oddments rattling around. And the infotainment system, with its excellent App Connect functionality, offers both proprietary and app-based sat-nav, depending on user preference.
Space, though, remains the sticking point: the Golf will realistically fit four adults, the SUVs on test will swallow five. That said, the Alltrack does have most comfortably form-fitting outboard seating in the second row. While limited in knee room, it’s hardly what you’d call cramped – if you have small kids and have little need to ever lug around adults in the rear, the Golf does make a compellingly practical case.
For maximum spaciousness, though, the X-Trail is the leader, if by a factor of its sheer flexibility as the Tucson is a match for roominess. The second row seating has a 60:40 split arrangement with fore-aft on-rail adjustment, while the seat backs themselves can be angle adjusted – or folded flat – with a 40:20:40 split. Set in its rearmost position, the X-Trail offers an incredible amount of rear space and the rear bench is set quite high, which is great for visibility for small kids.
The Tucson’s second row seating is set much lower and offers 60:40 split back rest adjustment only, but for head-, shoulder and knee room there’s nothing in it against the Nissan. The window line, though, is quite high, which may limit a small child's view of the outside world.
Meanwhile, the RAV4 plays third fiddle in the rear SUV accommodation: there’s no seat adjustment available, it’s the narrowest bar the Golf and, disappointingly, there are no rear passenger air vents in the rear of the centre console. The RAV4, like the Golf, gets rear 12v power, though all four cars here offer ample cupholders, outboard Isofix anchor points and child seat anchor points in all three rear positions, and fit numerous USB/Aux/12v outlets for connecting and powering devices.
On balance, then, the Tucson gets the nod for all-round interior goodness, on the strength of blending space, presentation and usability without much in the way of compromise anywhere.
It's perhaps surprising that the small German wagon, at 605 litres, claims the most luggage area by volume with the second row in play (and a whopping 1620L with the rear seats folded). But it maximises volume in depth, not width, and the narrow area between the inner wheel arches does restrict load capability for bulky objects. And some of the volume must surely account for underfloor storage atop the space saver spare wheel. So a better fit for lugging assorted family addenda than moving furniture, say. However, that so much room is available in a small car is incredible.
Conversely, the Tucson, at 488L and 1478L with rear seats up and down respectively, has a ‘squarer’ load area better servicing bulky objects, such as large travel cases. Unlike the Golf, the Tucson loads a full-sized spare wheel under the floor and has electric tailgate functionality.
The X-Trail and RAV4 make up the middle ground, with 550L and 577L respectively (neither come with maximum seats-down volume claims), but whereas the Toyota gets a space saver spare under the floor (eliminating under-floor storage) the X-Trail, without a spare, offers myriad storage configurations via three adjustable floor sections – you can even slide one floor section into the cargo area for a makeshift shelf. The Nissan also gets more flexible 40:20:40 split-fold seat backs, whereas the Toyota adopts a 40:60 arrangement.
What’s noticeable is the difference in floor heights – for instance, the RAV4’s floor is set much lower than that of the Tucson. As to which design is better depends on buyer needs: those wanting to secure large objects may well prefer the lower floor; parents who use SUV’s luggage areas for changing baby nappies will find the higher floor less back-breaking.
In short, though, it’s the X-Trail that impresses most with its stowage solutions.
Engine and driveline
Power wise, the four soft-roaders are very close at their peaks, the X-Trail’s 126kW just short of Tucson’s 130kW and the Golf and RAV4, both offering 132kW. And yet what powertrains they feature, and how they deliver their energies, are quite different.
Both the X-trail and RAV4 rely on naturally aspirated 2.5-litre four cylinder petrol engines, whereas the Alltrack and Tucson use much smaller-capacity turbocharged fours in 1.8-litre and 1.6-litre sizes respectively. And it’s easy to presume that the Hyundai, in particular, would be left wanting for sheer shove. You’d be wrong.
Both big-engine SUVs make modest torque – X-Trail with 226Nm at a high 4400rpm, RAV4 with 233Nm at 4100rpm – while the turbocharged pair deliver superior peak torque figures much lower in their rpm ranges, 265Nm from just 1500rpm for the Tucson and a dominant 280Nm in the Alltrack from a low 1250rpm.
For around town punch, the Alltrack and Tucson deliver more effortless urgency. However, both are tied to dual-clutch transmissions – six speeds for the Volkswagen, seven for the Hyundai – that can hamstring responsiveness in certain situations. The Alltrack, in particular, can be caught snoozing from standstill and when overtaking is demanded while cruising. Further, there’s occasionally a pause in drive negotiating corners and the wagon can be caught back-rolling off the mark on steep inclines. You can tap the console shifter backwards for momentary ‘Sport’ mode boosts, but doing so incessantly quickly becomes a chore.
The Hyundai’s dual-clutch is less prone to dropping the ball, though it’s not quite as silken in operation as a proper, quality automatic transmission, of which is only fitted in this group, in six-speed form, to the RAV4.
The X-Trail, by contrast, adopts a continuously variable design, and with the engine’s high (4400rpm) peak torque point the Nissan can feel a little stressed if pushed for forward progress. The RAV4, on the other hand, is typically Toyota: peaky and disconcerting initial throttle take-up – not great for around town driving – followed by humdrum shove once you sink the boot in.
On balance, though, the Tucson and RAV4 are the most friendly and task-less around town drives. That said, the Alltrack and X-Trail both want for little when driven in everyday moderation.
Most noticeable is the RAV4 is now both quieter and better riding that its forebear. The Toyota is still firm, but despite the large 18-inch wheels a lot of the fidgety nature of the old car seems to have been removed. The Volkswagen, too, is also slightly firm, though not to the point of being uncomfortable or susceptible to unwarranted crashiness over sharp-edge road imperfections. In fact, the Alltrack feels much more engaging – playful even – than any of the medium SUVs.
The stark contrast is how disconnected the X-Trail feels behind the wheel, though it does soak up the bumps with more aplomb than the RAV4 – it’s smoother on small ripples, more compliant over big hits. Both, though, have quite heavy steering during low-speed manoeuvres, making parking a chore, while it’s the hefty feeling Nissan that, despite the 360-degree camera, has tricky-to-judge extremities when parking into tight spaces.
Worth highlighting is that the Golf isn’t that much smaller, externally, than its SUV rivals. It’s actually longer (4578mm versus 4475mm) than the Tucson and only fractionally narrower than the X-Trail (1799mm versus 1820mm), the main difference being comparable vehicle height – the 1496mm high Alltrack is markedly lower in stance than the Hyundai (1655mm), X-Trail (1710mm) or height-topping RAV4 (1715mm). Despite all of this, the Alltrack feels so much more compact and easy to wield around town, particularly negotiating the tricky urban confines.
The Tucson, though, seems to balance everything just nicely, displaying all-round on-road qualities that have served the Hyundai breed impressively in numerous reviews prior. Though it's not a patch on the firmer-riding Golf for driver engagement, its balance of ride comfort and handling is impeccable. It’s easier to wield around the urban confines than the X-Trail, its powertrain is more useable and well-rounded than that in the RAV4. It’s punchy and pleasant in equal measures, and remains a tough on-road act to top…
Searching out far-reaching camping grounds in the national parks of the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, is typical of how some owners might choose to use their soft-roaders, and our chosen paths are particularly beaten ones. Slippery gravel flat tracks and steep, ungraded inclines are a commonplace, creating a perfect, if challenging, workout for our four family haulers.
One particularly steep and rocky 15-degree gradient served best to test hill-descent composure in the downhill direction, all-paw traction, handling and powertrain tractability in the ascent back up to its peak.
With the RAV4’s centre diff engaged and its Dynamic Torque Control actively shuffling drive among its wheels, the Toyota traversed the course in the leisurely manner that might instil confidence in drivers unskilled at off-road work. Its hill descent control (around 5km/h) offered confidence-inspiring progress without white-knuckled fever, while it ascended the hill in an unflustered if unremarkable manner.
The Tucson, with its active on-demand all-wheel-drive system, was a little more daunting during the descent, dialing up twice the road speed (about 10km/h) on the descent, complete with a weird graunching soundtrack. Despite having superior torque to the Toyota, the return ascent saw traction fluctuate more readily than in the RAV4 and it attacked the climb without quite the same urgency.
With its All-Mode 4x4-I torque smarts locked into 4WD mode, the X-Trail pulled the surprise performance on the hill climb, spinning wheels and spitting rocks with gusto as it rocketed up the ascent like an SUV possessed. Its run downhill, though, was on par with the RAV4, measured and controllable with some noise from the hill descent smarts underneath, though not nearly as prominent as that of the Tucson.
The Alltrack, with its 4Motion system primed in Off Road drive mode and its Hill Descent mode cleverly self-engaging, was slow going to the bottom of the gully. But what took resident off-road expert Trent and I by surprise was its attack of the climb – not only did the small wagon ascent with the ferocity of a rally car, it also proved the most precise and accurate handler while doing so.
The Volkswagen was easily the biggest surprise package off road. Across one flat, meandering, smooth gravel track, Trent described it as “hot hatch like,” such was its eagerness to stick to its line, react to driver input and change direction with an assertiveness none of the SUVs could match.
In contrast, the three SUVs felt looser, demanded more guidance than manhandling, the Tucson shining particularly well, the X-Trail quite aloof in its connection between driver and slippery road. While it's remiss to expect that any of these four cars might be treated like rally cars, the sober fact is that control and response equal safety when transporting loved ones across broken surfaces. And the vehicle demanding the least amount of fear factor from occupants or deft skills from the driver off road was the Alltrack, and by a fair measure at that.
A thorough beaten track workout certainly didn’t do their fuel averages any favours, with the Alltrack (6.7L/100km claimed), Tucson (7.7L), X-Trail (8.3L) and RAV4 (8.5L) all failing to come within a couple of litres per hundred near their makers’ claims on the balance of testing, though the turbo cars did come closer to their open road claims, while the naturally aspirated pair were quite thirsty during around town work.
Hyundai’s iCare program covers Tucson with an impressive five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty complete with a one-year free roadside assist and a complimentary sat-nav update and free first service (at 1500kms). Service intervals are 12 months or lengthy 15,000kms, whichever comes first.
Volkswagen’s warranty extends for three years with unlimited kilometre surety, with free roadside assistance for the duration. Service intervals match Hyundai’s 12-month/15,000km frequency through six services (to 72 months/90,000km), though the capped pricing is higher than its SUV rivals.
Both the Nissan and Toyota have three-year warranties capped at 100,000kms, though only Nissan backs it up with complimentary roadside assist throughout. The X-Trail’s is a more favorable 12-month/10,000km scheme capped through six years or 120,000kms total, whichever comes first. The RAV4, however, requires servicing every six months (or 10,000km), twice the frequency of its three rivals here, though Toyota’s capped price servicing costs around half that of its rivals, evening out longer-term running costs.
The revamped RAV4 is a breed improved, if incrementally so. And some areas – notably active safety – haven’t moved forward in our chosen GXL spec outside of additional cost options. But while it’s quieter and rides and handles a little more impressively, and as a range it's narrowed the value gap to competitors such Tucson, the RAV4 doesn’t really set benchmarks against its assembled rivals anywhere. A commendable seven from ten, then, is a suitably modest rise of rating against what’s been a low-base track record in CarAdvice reviews.
The X-Trail lacks the flash of the RAV4 but packs in more substance and more goodies. The multi-configurable rear seating and cargo area, specifically, are high markers. However, the Nissan lacks a bit in quality and freshness, and it’s the toughest of the four to live with in urban confines and the driving experience is far from stellar. The X-Trail has been a solid 7.5 performer in the past, and so it remains.
The Golf Alltrack led the charge in many areas of this shootout – and from off-road capability to generous levels of equipment, some areas of goodness were most unexpected. If there’s one big shortcoming, it’s the DSG transmission, frustrating the long-term experience. Great car, but one that can’t win here, if for no other reason that it can only haul four-fifths of the adults its rivals otherwise can, and at more than four-fifths the price you simply don’t get enough car for similar money. We’d hoped otherwise from this wildcard entry, but it’s a somewhat predictable result. Call it an eight out of ten.
The Tucson continues to claim victory in mid-sized SUV review, and the all-paw petrol Elite delivers the result here in our test of sub-$40 petrol-powered all-wheel-driven soft-roaders. The Hyundai family-hauler continues to draw praise for its well-struck balance of goodness while rarely putting a tyre wrong, for which we’ve rated a solid eight from ten. It’s the kind of consistency and dependability that you’d want to stick your loved ones into, day in and day out.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Sam Venn.