Compact crossovers have crowded the marketplace, and the 2008 Toyota RAV4 distinguishes itself as an early pioneer in this category that combines small-car proportions with SUV functionality. First available in the U.S. in 1996, the RAV4 has developed a sterling reputation in the compact crossover class.
We tested an entry level 2008 RAV4. With a base price of $21,100, our modestly outfitted test car stickered at $22,794, which includes 3 year/36,000 mile basic coverage, 5 year/50,000 mile powertrain coverage, and EPA estimates of 21 city, 27 highway.
Much has changed in the compact SUV market since the RAV4 debuted in 1996. Not only has it matured from a no-frills econobox on stilts to a refined small SUV, newcomers like the Hyundai Tucson and Nissan Rogue have crowded the category.
As the competition has thickened, higher-end RAV4s have crept upmarket. Though they start at only $21,100 (equipped with front-wheel drive and a 2.4 liter four-cylinder), a V6-powered, 4-wheel drive RAV4 Limited can top $30,000. Our test vehicle's down-to-earth sticker price includes only three options: an anti-theft system ($60), floormats ($199), and a towing receiver hitch ($750).
Base RAV4s come equipped with a 166 hp four-cylinder, four-speed automatic transmission, and 16" steel wheels. Safety features include stability and traction control, advanced airbags, and a tire pressure monitoring system. Keyless entry, power windows and locks, and a 6-speaker AM/FM CD player are also standard, while higher end models can be outfitted with everything from a rear DVD entertainment system to third row seating -- yet another sign of the RAV4's growing proportions.
Unlike larger SUVs, crossovers are defined by a sense of purposeful utility, a description the RAV4 fits quite well. It's bigger than its original iteration, but the RAV4 is by no means bloated; its size suits the purpose of transporting small families quite efficiently, and its seats fold down to offer ample storage (with a nifty under-floor section offering additional space).
Continued below. . .
In the Driver's Seat
Climb aboard the RAV4, and you'll be sitting slightly higher than the average sedan, a perch which offers a good view of the road ahead. The fabric seats on our test car were utilitarian, but the airy cabin offers good visibility all around, and seats are comfortable during long drives.
The RAV4's passenger side dashboard is split into two levels: a top compartment which slides open with a push button, and a more standard glove box in the lower half. The bifurcated setup doesnêt feel like the most efficient use of space; it's bulky, and intrudes on precious passenger legroom. Another less than ideal setup is the tailgate, which swings on a hinge on the right side of the vehicle. This arrangement was engineered to cope with Japanese streets, but can be inconvenient when parked in tight quarters, as the rear door takes up a lot of space when it swings open.
Ergonomics, nonetheless, are a strong point in the RAV4. Everything is where you expect it to be, and the interior boasts a functional, clean layout that has become synonymous with the Toyota brand. Our test car, though, had base level trim, and consequently didn't feel quite as expensive or high-end as more heavily optioned RAV4s. There's a tradeoff for a sticker price in the low 20s, and that tradeoff is luxury. Surfaces aren't as refined as they could be, and in some areas they feel downright cheap. A few saving graces -- like the fabric door inserts and metal-like dashboard accents -- save the no-frills interior from feeling any cheaper.
On the Road
Toyota has a reputation for building smooth driving, reliable cars, and the RAV4 upholds those qualities. Even at low speeds, the RAV4 emanates those signature Toyota characteristics: low effort steering, a cabin that's well insulated from engine vibration, and road feel that's isolated -- if a bit numb, which can be a good thing if you're not a driving enthusiast and don't mind feeling isolated from the road.
That feeling of insulation makes for painless commuting. In spite of some tire noise at highway speeds, the RAV4 is comfortable enough to call home during long hauls, and it excels under constant speed conditions. But if your driving route includes lots of stoplights, you might feel the four-cylinder RAV4 is a bit under equipped for the task at hand. Off-the-line acceleration is anemic, and the 166 hp four banger lacks the low and mid-range grunt required for aggressive merging. Hold the throttle, and the power finally gets satisfying at higher rpms. The engine feels like it needs to work double time during stop and go driving, and the 4-speed transmission could use an extra gear since the engine's laboring to haul around 3,300 lbs of car.
Handling in the front-wheel drive RAV4 is generally car-like and controlled, though freeway onramps reveal that 215 mm wide tires are willing to start squealing relatively early; donêt expect any skidpad heroics here. You'll have to opt for optional wheel/tire packages in order to squeeze more performance from this crossover sport ute.
Since its introduction 12 years ago, the RAV4 has developed a reputation as a benchmark setting crossover. While the four-cylinder version we tested highlighted many of the qualities that make the RAV4 a star, the car's best features are seen most vividly in its six-cylinder variant.
Our entry-level, $22,794 tester proved comfortable and capable, but one step up in the RAV4 lineup produces a much more compelling car: the 3.5 liter V6 base model. For an extra $2,035, you get 103 more horsepower (for a total of 269), 17" wheels (though they're still steel, not alloys), and a 5-speed automatic transmission. It's a big improvement over the entry level four-cylinder model, and the leap in power will only cost you 1 mile per gallon in highway driving, and 2 miles per gallon in the city.
Don't get me wrong; the entry level RAV4 is still a great choice if you're absolutely averse to spending the extra two grand for the V6 -- it's got a decent interior, polite road manners, and the assurance of Toyota's reputation for reliability and durability. However, to get the real deal, the crossover that's built a well-earned reputation as being the leader in its class, the V6 RAV4 is the car to have.