The Toyota RAV4 was one of the first compact SUVs launched in Australia, and as it has grown and morphed over the generations into its current guise, it has remained one of the most popular.
That’s a pretty solid effort when you consider the growth in the medium SUV segment in terms of sales and the number of models on offer. The RAV4 topped the charts in 2001, and finished second in 2015, and over that time it about doubled its volumes while halving its market share. That’s what happens when you get the proverbial jump on many rivals.
The selling power of Toyota has proved undeniable — even when the RAV4 was starting to get a little long in the tooth against fresh blood such as the Mazda CX-5 (the only rival to outsell it), Nissan X-Trail (breathing down the RAV4’s neck) and Hyundai Tucson (the January 2016 leader).
In December last year, three-years into the current RAV’s life-cycle, Toyota launched an updated model — it updated or replaced a staggering 13 of its offerings last year — bringing new exterior styling, a refreshed cabin, engine tweaks, new safety features and improved infotainment and connectivity to the table.
Its fresh look, Lexus-like interior updates and added extras are impressive. But is it enough to carry it through until the next generation arrives when its up against a crowded and competitive field of rivals?
The flagship specification in the range is the RAV4 Cruiser AWD diesel, and here we test the diesel option priced at $49,490 before on-road costs. Quite a jump from the entry-level 2WD RAV4 GX for $27,990 and $5000 more than the AWD Cruiser petrol variant.
Its main rivals in this particular specification include the flagship Mazda CX-5 Akera diesel ($50,610) and the Hyundai Tucson Highlander diesel ($45,490). Naturally, you can get a lesser-equipped but larger SUV such as a Mitsubishi Pajero Sport for the same kind of money.
First off, the 2016 model RAV4 is distinctly different-looking from the outside, adopting the same face as various other updated Toyotas, including the Corolla — the top-selling car in Australia for 2015. The way the black wraps around under the bonnet to the badge reminds me of a famous monobrow. Bert from Sesame Street, anyone?
The grille is bigger and lower, taking pride of place within the bolder, more prominent front bumper. Adding to the enhanced exterior styling are slim-line LED projector headlights, updated LED daytime running lights and new 18-inch alloy wheel designs.
High-end standard features include satellite-navigation, powered tailgate, leather accents on the seats, a moonroof (a sunroof in Toyota-speak), blind-spot monitor, rear cross traffic alert, auto high beam, active cruise control, autonomous braking and front parking sensors in addition to the rear-view camera and rear parking sensors.
New colours are now available including the Dark Red you see here — a deep red mica metallic that's an interesting alternative to the brighter shades or darker maroons often seen on our roads. The RAV4 to my eyes looks fresh and modern, distinctly different to its pre-update self.
Although the exterior changes are noteworthy, it’s the interior that has had the even more major overhaul. Upon entering the MY16 RAV4, those familiar with the old one might have the impulse to get out, walk around the back and check they’re in the right car.
In its previous incarnation, it was easy to wonder what all the buyer fuss was about. Sure, Toyotas are impeccably well-made and hard-wearing, but the RAV4 wasn’t particularly interesting or exciting… Until now.
It’s got a bit of flair in place of that old no-frills feel. The new centre console design is ergonomically friendly and the cup-holder at the base of the centre stack can fit a mug with a handle — a clever but niche addition.
There's excellent use of storage space in the cabin, one of the best being a shaded rubber-lined tray under the dash but above the glove box, a perfect place to stash your phone or lollies within easy reach.
There's a new instrument cluster with a colour display, and the presentation is far better overall. The media system is a big improvement but the central touchscreen is still pretty small compared to others in its class, and very flat, almost angled more to suit the passenger. It’s a bit glare-prone.
The 'leather accented' material used on the seats is rather soft, it feels supple and comfortable and the seat back is setback so the sides tend to wrap around and tuck you in.
The matte black trim with silver accents and leather-like sweeping dash looks and feels of Lexus-level quality. Though black and silver are always a nice colour combination, the same can't be said for brown and black, however. The tone of the caramel coloured trim here is almost offensive, perhaps not aided by the dark red paint colour.
Rear passengers are well catered for with an abundance of space. Knee room is very generous and even with the moonroof there is ample headroom. The seat base is firm but supportive and the middle seat is nice and flat so when you do have a passenger seated in the middle they won't feel like they're straddling a log. There are no air vents though, but there is a 12V outlet and water bottle holders in the doors.
There’s 577 litres of boot space with the rear seats in play, which is excellent for the class and the space is suitably versatile.
The unique cargo hammock is one of those things you never knew you needed. Once I realised there was a never-ending list of uses for it, I wondered why we don't find more of these systems in boots.
There are multiple configurations and it can be used to keep fragile items off the boot floor, gently hanging above anything a bit more hardy at the bottom of the boot. Or it can be used as a cargo barrier in a number of different positions. Clever, easy to use and it actually does something helpful. There's also a space for the cargo blind under the boot floor, which takes care of another pesky problem — where to you leave it when you don't need it.
With plenty of boxes ticked simply by sitting and going through the cabin and the list of included features, the clincher to the MY16 RAV4 getting a much improved rating it how its performance while on the move stacks up.
Up front there’s a familiar 2.2-litre four-cylinder diesel engine (110kW and 340Nm) — a stalwart that's been found under the bonnet of Toyotas for years with no sign of going anywhere anytime soon.
In diesel fashion, it offers plenty of torque — the maximum is on tap from 2000rpm — meaning excellent pulling power when lugging cargo, overtaking or tackling hills. It’s never as zippy as a petrol around town, but a highly capable languid cruiser. That said, the diesel engines in the CX-5 (129kW/420Nm) and Tucson (136kW/400Nm) shade its outputs comfortably.
The engine is a little truck-like at idle, chugging away and making the car vibrate like one of those cheap exercise machines on tv. However it's pretty quiet inside, since Toyota has upped the insulation.
The six-speed automatic transmission is well behaved and throws no curveballs as it works smoothly through the transitions.
Don’t forget, the same specification RAV4 comes with a petrol engine — a 2.5 with 132kW/233Nm — for $5000 less. Where the diesel wins is fuel economy, with a claimed figure of 6.7 litres per 100km against 8.5L/100km. Still, if you only want this for urban duties, the petrol will suffice.
If you’re going to be towing a trailer, you might suspect the diesel to be the winner. The problem is that its conservative legal braked capacity of 1200kg is 300kg lower than the petrol’s, and behind the Mazda CX-5 at 1800kg or the Hyundai Tucson at 1600kg. You do get trailer sway control at least.
What else is new? Shock absorbers and coil springs have been tweaked. CarAdvice has marked the RAV4 down previously for being a little harsh on the road but again the changes have had a positive impact on comfort levels. The general consensus from myself and others around the office is a more compliant and comfortable urban ride than before.
The Toyota still sits a little short of benchmarks such as the locally tuned and supple Hyundai Tucson, and can be occasionally sharp over broken pavement and hard edges like road joins. The steering is light and can weigh up unevenly at speed, though the RAV4 is generally manoeuvrable enough around town.
The RAV4 has on-demand AWD activated with the touch of a button and you can choose to drive in eco or sport mode. You’d be surprised what these light-duty crossovers can manage when you ask it of them… You can’t get the Cruiser spec in fuel-and cost-saving front-wheel drive.
Toyota offers a three year/100,000 km warranty with a capped price servicing plan every six months or 10,000km. These intervals are short, but each visit is cheap at $180.
The Toyota reputation for reliability has certainly been a factor in its continued popularity despite the fact it's been lagging behind its competitors in areas like technology, styling and the finish of the cabin.
However, the freshly updated Toyota RAV4 is looking better than ever both inside and out. When it comes down to it, Toyota had no choice but to make this facelift a thorough overhaul, with competition among the medium SUV segment showing no signs of slowing up.
Do the updates make the RAV4 a class leader? Well, the infotainment and the diesel’s middling outputs, plus the better but still not-class-leading ride comfort, mean maybe not quite. But this is a significantly better offering than before.
Click on the Photos tab for more 2016 Toyota RAV4 images by Christian Barbeitos.