Automotive design is a fascinating subject, especially when one is able to see the evolution of a concept over a lengthy span of time.
While one element of design is the artistic one, a significant factor is ‘guesswork’ that comes with imagining what people will want from the product when the new model is launched several years into the future – that also including trends research (which some say is guesswork anyway) and consumer buying patterns.
Since it was first launched in 1994 as a quirky little fun car, the Toyota RAV4 has evolved in both size and stature to be a far more serious player in the soft-road arena with capabilities off the beaten track falling into the surprisingly good category.
The latest version, like most new versions, changes in size compared to the outgoing model but in the Case of the RAV4 actually becomes slightly shorter and wider to give a much squarer stance on the road.
Reducing the front and rear overhangs by a combined 35 mm (-5 mm front, -30 mm rear) means the new model is shorter overall by 5 mm (4 600 mm), yet the wheelbase has been increased by 30 mm (2 690 mm), securing a more spacious cabin.
Overall width has grown by 10 mm (1 855 mm) and the front and rear treads have been increased. At the same time, overall height has been brought down by 10 mm (to 1 650 mm).
The bonnet sits 15 mm lower, the front pillars are slimmer, the belt line lowered and the rearward view from the driver’s seat has been improved.
The overall visual impression is one of purpose and my test unit, fitted with the 2,0-litre petrol engine, substantiated that quite admirably – except for the CVT gearbox. There is a 2,5-litre version with an 8-speed automatic gearbox.
The 2,0-litre variant is offered with a rev-matching 6-speed Intelligent Manual Transmission (iMT) or Shiftmatic CVT option that has more whines than a Brexit debate.
In theory, the concept of the CVT gearbox is both clever and sound but, in practice, it is hugely annoying as the engine races while the belt moves up or down the cone trying to find (theoretically) the perfect gear for the situation at the time.
Fortunately the RAV4 has a couple of drive modes including Sport and the shift lever can be slotted into manual – absolutely necessary when venturing off the tarmac and into muddy or sandy conditions where any wheelspin just confuses the CVT.
I will concede for tootling about in the traffic, there is some advantage to the CVT in terms of long-term fuel efficiency.
This fifth generation RAV4 introduces the use of Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) for the first time, meaning the lowest possible centre of gravity is achieved by making every component lighter and locating it lower down in the vehicle – everything from the engine to the seats in the cabin. The platform also allows for a 57% increase in body rigidity, which contributes to a stable, flat ride with superior handling.
Response from the electric power steering has been improved by moving the assist motor from the column to the rack. The RAV4 now sports a double wishbone rear suspension system that, thanks to the low centre of gravity and high body rigidity, does not have to be made stiffer to meet dynamic targets.
Handling is thus agile, faithful and neutral, giving the driver confidence with accurate responses to the driver’s use of the steering wheel and throttle pedal.
It is confident both on and off road with the slightly wider stance ensuring a more neutral reaction to quick directional changes. The permanent all-wheel drive system ensures optimal traction and limits some of the natural understeer in tight corners.
The RAV4’s new design brings in angular features with a stronger looking bumper, grille, LED headlights and taillights.
The cabin is also more upmarket with soft-touch surfaces for the dashboard and door panels. Switchgear is new, too, with integrated buttons and tactile controls, such as the soft touch knurling on the audio and air-conditioning controls.
Both the driver’s hip point and range of steering wheel adjustment have been improved. Comfort for rear seat passengers has been improved with increased seat width, more spacious rear footwells and increased opening-angle of the rear doors.
The load space behind the rear seats has been made larger and more user-friendly, notably thanks to a fully flat floor and a length extended by 60 mm to secure a capacity of 580 litres (79 litres more than in the previous RAV4). Flexibility is integrated so that the space can easily be adapted to gain more cargo room when required – with the rear seats folded down, the new RAV4 can accommodate a 29-inch mountain bike without any wheels having to be removed.
The rear seats have a 60:40 split-folding function and there are storage nets on each side of the boot.
The 2,0-litre engine delivers a maximum power output of 127 kW at 6 600 r/min and peak torque of 203 Nm between 4 400 r/min and 4 800 r/min, while also offering a fuel consumption of between 6,5 – 6,8 l/100 km and C02 emissions of 147 g/km.
The mechanical all-wheel-drive system is equipped with Toyota’s first dynamic torque vectoring system with Rear Driveline Disconnect. This manages torque distribution between the left and right rear wheels using twin couplings on the rear axle to give stable performance and accurate response to the driver’s steering inputs when cornering, both in dry and slippery conditions.
The new RAV4’s AWD performance is further improved with the introduction of AWD Integrated Management (AIM). This automatically adjusts different vehicle systems – steering assist, brake and throttle control, shift pattern and drive torque distribution – according to the drive mode selected. ‘Mud & Sand’ and ‘Rock & Dirt’ modes are available.
All of these combine to lift the RAV4 more than a notch upwards as a true contender in the off road arena anywhere low range is not an absolute necessity (and even there I suspect it would surprise people at just what it is capable of).
The GX model forms the foundation of the specification offering and offers 17-inch alloy wheels, roof rails, LED headlights, push-button start, a 7-inch display audio and multi-information display (MID), Cruise Control, Reverse Camera and rear Park Distance Control (PDC) are also included.
The GX-R – the spec for my test unit – receives an enlarged upper front grille with broad horizontal slats, a larger more prominent skid plate and chunky black over-fenders as well as adding power-adjustable leather seats with lumbar support, seat heaters, leather steering wheel and trim, smart entry, auto-dimming interior mirror, rain-sensing wipers, wireless charging and climate control.
The new RAV4 is equipped with a full suite of crash bags – including knee and curtain types – fitted to all models, with electronic driver aids in the form of anti-lock braking, EBD, Brake Assist, Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), Hill Assist Control (HAC) and Trailer Sway Control all catered for.
All models carry a 6-services/90 000 km service plan with 12-month/15 000 km intervals. A 3-year/100 000 km Warranty is also provided.