The updates are big: The RAV4 loses its available V-6 and third row of seats, upgrades to a six-speed automatic transmission and swaps its swing-gate cargo door for a more conventional roof-hinged liftgate. The RAV4 is an improvement over the previous version, but only by a baby step. The smoother ride and greater fuel efficiency are leaps ahead, but cuts to the second row and cargo area set it back. The RAV4 is up against several comfortable, refined, efficient compact crossovers, including the jack-of-all-trades Honda CR-V, the mileage king Mazda CX-5 and the popular Ford Escape.
Styling: Toyota Stew
The new RAV4 is about an inch shorter from bumper to bumper than its predecessor, but it seems like it's shrunk even more because the spare tire has been relocated from the rear to under the floor. Its front end also got an extreme makeover — attitude style.
Toyota says the RAV4's new look is emotional, aggressive and easily recognizable. I agree on all points, especially the last one. Its new tough-guy character is an amalgamation of the Toyota lineup, highlighted by Camry-inspired headlights, a Highlander-like integrated spoiler, and a grille and front bumper that share similarities with the Sienna minivan.
On the way to the press preview, my cab driver told me he'd never buy a current-gen RAV4 because of its "feminine" styling. Not anymore. Chrome-accented upper and lower grilles combine with wraparound, imposing plastic fangs for a more aggressive appearance. The overall look isn't as dynamic as the CX-5's, but it will probably be better received by shoppers than the chunky, angular CR-V.
A Focus on Efficiency
Toyota thinks few people will miss the energetic V-6 — especially because only around 15 percent of RAV4s were so equipped — but customers who did want it will have a tough time acclimating to the four-cylinder, which is the sole engine for 2013. Though it's not quick, power from the carryover 176-horsepower, 2.5-liter engine is adequate with front- and all-wheel drive, and it builds steadily thanks to a responsive six-speed automatic transmission that replaces last year's outdated four-speed.
Two new driver-selectable modes alter accelerator response, transmission timing and steering feel — one to benefit fuel economy, the other to enhance performance.
The first, Eco mode, should be called conservation mode. When activated, it feels like you're bucking a sudden headwind. Throttle response is dulled, and output from the climate system is limited to conserve fuel. It's most noticeable in stop-and-go traffic, where takeoffs are markedly slower.
On paper, the modest power is worth it, as fuel-economy ratings are up for 2013: Two-wheel-drive models are EPA rated at 24/31 mpg city/highway, a boost of 2 city mpg and 3 highway mpg. City mileage is 1 mpg better than the CR-V (23/31), but the RAV4 still trails the impressively efficient base CX-5 (26/35).