It's a little bittersweet when the cute ones grow up. The 2006 Toyota RAV4 is a full-fledged crossover SUV, a "Cute-Ute" no longer. The 2006 Toyota RAV4 may have outgrown its teen appeal. But for cost-conscious grown-ups and families who need a crossover, the RAV4 may hit the mark. With a base price of $23,275 ($27,428 as tested), the 2006 Toyota RAV4 Sport 4x4 carries a 3 year/36,000 mile basic warranty and a 6 year/60,000 mile powertrain warranty. EPA estimates: 23 mpg city/28 mpg highway.
Let's get the name out of the way first -- RAV4 stands for "Recreational Active Vehicle -- 4-Wheel Drive." Awkward, sure. 1996 was the first year for RAV4 in the US, and 2006 marks its third generation. The first RAV4s were kind of ugly, clad with lots of plastic, and oddly styled. So ugly that they were cute. The second generation cleaned up the look a little, but still retained a playful quality. For 2006, RAV4 has grown in every dimension and shed its toy-like qualities for a clean, muscular appearance that won't scare off adults.
RAV4 has a broad nose with big, feline headlights and a flat, gently sculpted hood. As is the style, a gently rising beltline and level roof results in rear windows that are smaller than front ones, giving the SUV a forward-leaning impression. 18" alloy wheels sit nicely in big wheel wells. Around back, the full sized spare tire is mounted in a body-colored carrier, putting an exclamation point on the RAV4's sporting intentions. A tiny spoiler above the rear window finishes off the look. The tailgate is hinged on the right -- I wish it were the other way around.
Overall, the look is mature, even sophisticated, and attractive. If a BMW X5 and a Toyota Matrix had a love child, it might look like RAV4.
In the Driver's Seat
Is it a RAV4, or the love child of a BMW X5 and a Toyota Matrix?© Jason Fogelson
My test car was a "Sport" model, outfitted with cloth seats. The cloth covering is nicely textured and feels like it will last a good long time. The driver's seat is a little flat for my comfort -- I like a bit more side-bolstering to keep me in place during hard cornering.
RAV4's dash, instrument cluster and center stack are strikingly styled, with an organic pod look that's more modern and futuristic than I expected. Functionally, it all makes sense, with big rotary dials for the climate controls sitting below the radio on the center stack, and round gauges sitting above the steering wheel beneath an eyebrow dash. Materials and construction are first rate, solid and pleasant to the touch.
The back seat of the RAV4 is roomy enough for adults, but the seat itself is too thin and flat for a long ride. The rising beltline cocoons without restricting visibility too much. It's possible to add a set of third row seats to the RAV4 as part of an option package on the "Limited" trim model. Based on the available space in my "Sport" model test vehicle, the third row seats would be a tight fit for grownups.
There are plenty of cup holders, nooks and crannies to fill with junk in the RAV4. The underfloor storage in the rear is my favorite.
On the Road
RAV4's interior and exterior design have matured, and so have its road manners. The ride is much more car-like than truck-like, smooth and controlled with a minimum of body roll via four-wheel independent suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars. I drove the 2.4 liter 16 valve four-cylinder version of RAV4, which was equipped with a four-speed automatic transmission and four-wheel drive. Sporting 166 hp and 165 lb-ft of torque, the four was plenty powerful enough to propel the 3514 lb vehicle around town and on the freeway. The optional 3.5 liter V6 engine is good for 269 hp and 246 lb-ft of torque, the tradeoff being slightly lower (21 city/28 highway) fuel economy. I might opt for the bigger engine, just because that's the way I roll. Choosing two-wheel drive instead of four-wheel drive saves over 100 lbs -- in temperate climates, two-wheel drive is usually all you need.
Standard equipment four wheel anti-lock disc brakes, vehicle stability control and traction control add some peace of mind to the ride. Driver and passenger front seat-mounted side airbags and front- and second-row roll-sensing side curtain airbags are a $650 safety option worth springing for. Three point safety belts are standard at all seating positions.
A sea of pods, circles and organic shapes make up the RAV4's dash.© Jason Fogelson
My daily driver is a Toyota 4Runner. Most of the time, it's too much SUV for the tasks I demand -- it's too big, it gets awful gas mileage, and if I think about it too much, it feels wasteful. When I think about downsizing, I don't think car -- I think crossover. I never would have considered the previous generation of RAV4. It just wasn't brawny enough for my taste. This new edition has addressed a lot of my concerns, while still retaining enough of the "U" in SUV to work for 99% of my needs. If you're like me, and you're thinking about moving to a smaller SUV, drive the RAV4 and see what you think.
While you're at it, there are a few other worthy vehicles to consider. Honda's CR-V has evolved into a pretty useful vehicle, retaining a little more "cute" than RAV4 during its evolution. Subaru's Forester has a great all-wheel drive system and more of a car-like feel than the other crossovers. Hyundai's Santa Fe comes well-equipped and carries a 10 year powertrain warranty, not to be taken lightly. Ford's Escape is a surprisingly nice vehicle, and can be equipped with a hybrid powerplant.
There's something about this RAV4, though. I admire the transformation from "cute" to "handsome" -- I only wish I could have achieved it myself.