2013 Toyota RAV4 first drive
Toyota prepares for battle in the compact SUV arena
The skeletons move almost imperceptibly along production lines obscured by overhead wires, flatscreen monitors and pneumatic tools suspended from a massive superstructure. Look higher and you'll spy completed vehicles haunting the factory attic, floating towards the exit. Elsewhere, silent robot drones glide down the wide corridors, ferrying implements to various workstations. For gearheads, our tour is an amusement ride through IndustryWorld, offering all the sensory overload of an assembly-line carnival.
As part of Toyota's Canadian RAV4 product launch, journalists were invited to a peepshow at the Woodstock, Ontario, plant where North America's fourth-generation RAV4s are built. It's the first time the plant, one of three the automaker operates in the 401 highway corridor west of Toronto, opened its doors to journos' prying eyes. Toyota Canada managing director Stephen Beatty calls southwestern Ontario the automaker's "second home," and it begs the question: Is there another land outside of Japan that can boast of three Toyota plants in such close proximity?
In the hyper-competitive compact sport-utility segment, Toyota wants to remind Canadians just how much the company has invested in the region — with the hope the RAV4 will tug on patriotic heartstrings. Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada (TMMC) built more than half a million RAV4, Corolla, Matrix and Lexus RX 350 units last year, and with the redesigned RAV4 now in the pipeline, the Woodstock facility is poised to put together 200,000 RAV4s alone this year. Some 7,000 Canadian manufacturing jobs rely on the RAV4 and its brethren getting a good reception. So here goes.
The RAV4 has the distinction of being the world's first compact crossover SUV. It debuted in 1994 in Europe with its unibody car bones and borrowed off-the-shelf components, including the Celica All-Trac's all-wheel-drive system. Subsequent generations upped the RAV4's refinement and content — including the availability of a wicked-fast V6 — which kept Toyota's invention consistently in the hunt. Last year, the aging RAV4 still ranked third in crossover sales behind the Ford Escape and Honda CR-V. With its fourth-generation incarnation for 2013, Toyota hopes to see the nameplate leapfrog to the head of the class.
It's got the look
Toyota designers expended a lot of time, clay and server space to get the new RAV4's look just right. Beatty calls it "bold," and for Toyota it kind of is - don't forget the Japanese manufacturing giant has eclipsed mighty General Motors as the industry's largest automaker and perhaps its most conservative. With the RAV4, Toyota is signaling it wants to abandon its safe ways. Especially in light of the fact South Korean concerns Hyundai and Kia have fired some menacing shots across the bow of the good ship Toyota.
The new RAV4's profile is aggressive and dynamic even when parked, and it avoids looking plump and doughy like so many of its compact competitors. A lot of attention was paid in the wind tunnel, with designers creating "vortex generators" around the taillights and sideview mirrors. We'll assume these generators are good things to have. On the down side, more than one scribe commented on the RAV4's passing resemblance to the new Ford Escape. Another thought it borrowed heavily from the Subaru Tribeca.
With heightened emphasis on fuel economy, the RAV4's body structure incorporates a substantial amount of high-strength steel to create a lighter but stronger unibody, which in turn enhances steering and handling. Engineers used several grades of steel to form key structural components in the roof, rocker sills, doorframes, floor and engine compartment. All 2013 RAV4 models feature eight standard airbags and Toyota's Star safety system, which includes traction and stability controls, antilock braking, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist and Smart Stop technology.
The inside story
The new RAV4 remains right-sized, meaning product planners fought the temptation to make it bigger. Third-row seating is no longer offered, mainly due to the fact there was little buyer interest in the awkward jump seats. What buyers get instead are comfy cabin dimensions for five and a deeper, generous cargo hold. The single biggest improvement shoppers will notice is the absence of the spare tire out back; it's now in a cubby under the load floor (a mini spare, unfortunately). That frees up the rear door to work like a hatchback, which is easier to operate on a hill and in tight parking situations.
Designed at Toyota's CALTY studio in California, the RAV4's interior is a friendly space. The cockpit is driver-centric and asymmetrical, with primary and secondary controls all within reach. On the passenger side, the sculpted dash panel juts out to, paradoxically, create "a sense of airy spaciousness," according to Toyota, but in reality it protrudes into the cabin. Note to the copywriter: a concave dash would create extra space. Like nemesis Hyundai, Toyota has adopted blue illumination for the dash panel and gauges, which provides crisp legibility in most light conditions.