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.
As we've seen in other product lines, the V6 engine is making itself scarce to boost manufacturers' U.S. CAFE fuel economy ratings. Ditto here. The Camry's DOHC 2.5 L four cylinder is the lone powerplant, rated at 176 hp at 6,000 rpm and 172 lb.-ft of torque at 4,100 rpm. Replacing the previous four-speed automatic is a six-speed autobox with manumatic shift. Both fifth and sixth gears are tall overdrive ratios to boost fuel economy. Additionally, a new Eco mode promotes more fuel-efficient driving by adjusting shift points and other aspects of the drive.
Front-wheel-drive models boast fuel efficiency ratings of 8.7 L/100 km in the city and 6.4 L/100 km on the highway, while all-wheel-drive models get an urban rating of 9.1 L/100 km and 6.8 L/100 km in the country. Toyota's new Dynamic Torque Control system automatically engages all-wheel drive when accelerating or when wheel slippage is detected. It's especially quick to act, thanks to the electro-mechanical coupling used to summon rear wheel grip. There are three different drive modes: Auto, Lock and Sport. Lock allows up to half of available engine torque to be dispatched to the rear wheels, enhancing traction in muddy or sandy conditions.
On the road
Our press drive took place over the largely flat farmland surrounding Toyota's manufacturing hub. The trucklet pulls reasonably well for a four-banger, making the "Let's Play" advertising tag seem somewhat fitting. The RAV4 feels light on its feet, even tossable, belying its upright, sport-utility stance. Engine noise is subdued, turning just 2,100 rpm at 120 km/h. On the highway it's the wind and tire noise that gets you, though to be fair, our tester was shod with aggressive winter rubber. While the body was free of squeaks and rattles, I did notice the front cowl was vibrating at highway speeds — an unsettling sight when you consider the money you've laid out.
The thin-backed seats are comfortable enough and the floor at the back seat is flat enough to accommodate the shoes or boots of three close passengers. The 60/40 split-fold rear bench can recline several degrees to enhance comfort. Oddly, the armrests on the doors are very shallow to avoid intruding into the cabin, so those thick of limb might find the perches too small. The instruments, on the other hand, are big pie-plate circles and very easy to read. Needless to say, the new RAV4 offers a host of technology that you've come to expect on the options sheet; things like blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning, back-up camera and plenty more.
Given the fact one Toyota engineer turned white as a ghost as he talked about the new models emanating from the House of Hyundai-Kia, we know they're anxious about the Korean product and keen to enhance their own value proposition. Happily, the base front-drive RAV4 LE starts at $23,790 or $1,075 less than the outgoing model, and the lowest priced AWD RAV4 is $25,990 or $1,510 less than the old AWD model. Significantly, that's cheaper than any of its direct competitors' AWD models, including the dreaded Hyundai and Kia cute-utes.
That's the thing about hokey carnival houses of horror: what may frighten one person's date may put a smile on the face of another. Toyota's fear of a wily competitor will likely make a lot of consumers happy with the new RAV4.
2013 Toyota RAV4 AWD Limited
Price (base/as-tested): $31,700/$36,605
Type of vehicle: AWD compact crossover
Engine: DOHC 2.5-litre four cylinder
Power/Torque: 176 hp / 172 lb.-ft.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel consumption (city/hwy): 8.7 / 6.4 L/100 km (FWD); 9.3 / 6.8 L/100 km (AWD)
Competition: Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-5, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, Volkswagen Tiguan
Quality construction evident
Hatchback convenience at last
Four-cylinder power only
Drab selection of exterior colours
What's up with the cowl shake?