Growing up is one thing, but if you grow too big for your boots in the process you risk losing some of those admirers you made along the way.

Toyota’s new RAV4 for 2006, while it might not have become too big yet, has increased in size, weight and, in the new V6 version’s case, power and luxury equipment to the point where it is edging away from the original and successful concept.

In the ten years since its introduction here, Toyota’s RAV4 has developed from a sort of gawky newcomer unsure about the reception it would get, to a confident – and in the case of the 269 hp V6 version positively cocky – leading contender in the compact category that now accounts for 45 per cent of all SUV sales.

The cute duckling

When it was introduced in 1996 nobody quite new what to make of this Japanese compact-wagon-on-steroids that was attempting to cash in on the rapidly-emerging status of “real” sport utility vehicles. The RAV4 and others of its ilk were soon rather disparagingly dubbed “cute-utes.”

2006 Toyota Rav4

But with the arrival of Honda’s similar CR-V, and others in short order, it soon became apparent this type of vehicle was just what many Canadians were looking for. It was relatively inexpensive, frugal enough on fuel, had four-wheel-drive to handle winter driving, enough passenger and cargo capacity to be practical and, as a bonus, was part of the trendy SUV family so you didn’t have to admit all those other things were important to you.

Toyota makes the claim that with the RAV4 it “invented” the compact class of SUV but it was really only the first to bring to market here a modern approach to this type of vehicle. Let’s not forget the rather rustic Lada Niva and various small Suzuki models that, though small, were built along traditional SUV lines with separate frames.

The RAV4 with its unit-body construction, independent suspension, front-wheel-drive availability, no low-range gearing for its four-wheel-drive system and no real pretence of serious off-roadability was something a little different. What Toyota should claim is that the RAV4 was the first modern “crossover” vehicle, a description that was in most people’s minds first linked to the Lexus RX300 of a few years later.

All grown up

2006 Toyota Rav4

This new RAV4 is a considerably larger, more comfortable, better-equipped and generally more capable vehicle than its pumped-up sedan progenitor, and a worthwhile step forward in many ways from the previous version.

It provides 21 per cent more interior space inside its longer, taller, wider and certainly more attractive bodywork, which also offers seating for up to seven passengers, a unique capability in this vehicle category. And, for the first time, it offers V6 power.

It has also become more expensive, of course. Ten years ago a base, four-door, 4wd RAV4 could be had for about $23,000 and even last year for $24,735, But prices have jumped to $28,700 for the 2006 model and $32,595 for the four-cylinder Limited version we tested. The base V6, incidentally, starts at $31,200 and climbs to a positively stunning $38,670.

2006 Toyota Rav4

Does all this move the new generation RAV4 away from its roots, or does it make it a just-right sized and equipped vehicle for today’s compact SUV market? Time, and the sales numbers, will tell.

The 2006 RAV4 rides on a wheelbase extended 170 mm and it is 405 mm longer (450 mm more than the original one), 80 mm wider and 200 kg heavier than its predecessor. And to illustrate how it has stepped up in size, its overall length is only 89 mm less than Toyota’s Highlander and 205 mm shorter than its 4Runner. Perhaps more to the point, it’s just about the same size as its main rival the Honda CR-V.

Outside, inside

The new styling not only reflects its more grown-up status, it’s also become more ‘crossover-y’, losing even more of the classic SUV look, despite still carrying its spare tire hung outside.

2006 Toyota Rav4

That rather awkward rear door, which swings opens to the curb side, isn’t its best feature, but a lift-gate would mean the spare would have to go inside or underneath eating up cargo space or the room required for the third-row seat available in some models. Cargo space on the 2006 is 2074 litres vs the 1909 litres previously available.

It’s a moderate step up into the cabin, which is roomier, more attractively styled and better equipped, reflecting the overall increase in the RAV4’s level of sophistication. The instruments are large and easy to read with broad silver bezels. The top portion of the centre stack holds the good quality audio system and rather tucked away under that is the panel for the climate controls. The front seats proved comfortable for three hour stints, and it’s quiet and relaxed at highway speeds.

The headlamps, windscreen washers and cupholders are okay, the outside mirrors large and neat touches include extensions on the sun visors and a holder for your sunglasses. The rear seat splits 60/40 and holds two quite comfortably, three if necessary.

2006 Toyota Rav4

Standard equipment includes air conditioning, power windows, entry, mirrors and locks, stability and traction control, disc brakes with ABS, Brake Force Distribution and Brake Assist, 17-inch wheels, cruise control, de-icing windshield wipers and a tilt and telescope steering wheel.

The Limited adds alloy wheels, automatic transmission. Six-disc CD changer, dual zone climate control, leather wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, power driver’s seat fog lamps and other minor items.

Starts with a four

Under the hood is the familiar and smooth-running 2.4-litre four-cylinder, twin-cam engine with intelligent variable valve timing system, but it has been tweaked a bit and now produces 166 hp at 6,000 rpm (up from 161 hp) and a same as before 165 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm.

2006 Toyota Rav4

The automatic transmission in the Limited remains a four-speed, but at least it’s a smart one which Toyota has dubbed the Super-intelligent Electronically-Controlled Transaxle. Overall drivability is good and acceleration adequate. But a five-speed automatic would probably improve the performance.

In our performance tests, a four-cylinder RAV4 equipped with this automatic gearbox accelerated from 0 to 100 km/h in 10.11 seconds and from 80 km/h to 120 km/h in 8.7 seconds. It covered the standing quarter-mile in 17.24 seconds, with a peak of 131.5 km/h (81.7 mph) at the timing mark. Its fuel economy ratings are 10.1 L/100km city and an impressive 7.7 L/100km highway.

The RAV4 is only available with Toyota’s Active Torque Control four-wheel-drive system (U.S. buyers can opt for a front-driver), with a new electronically-controlled coupling that provides seamless switching between front and four-wheel-drive modes. A manual switch allows you to lock the system if you find yourself in really gooey going, splitting torque 55/45 per cent front-to-rear at speeds under 40 km/h.

2006 Toyota Rav4

Suspension is by a newly-designed MacPherson strut system up front and a “trailing type double wishbone” design at the rear. It has been set up to deliver more agile handling with reduced and better controlled body roll. The electric power steering (the wheel now tilts and telescopes) has also been retuned to give better feel and response. Standard wheels and tires are 17-inch alloys shod with P225/65R17 tires.

On the road, all this translates into a driving experience you’ll enjoy. The steering is a touch light but response to driver input is prompt. It’s far from agile but cornering is confident without undue body roll. Around town the ride is still slightly trucky, but comfortable and compliant and it’s stable on the highway. Brake pedal feel is reassuringly firm.

Safety features include up-rated vehicle stability control and traction control systems, larger side mirrors and front airbags (oddly a side curtain system seems to be only available as an option on the Limited V6).

Conclusion

With its increase in size and substance (and price) the RAV4 may not be a “cute” ute anymore, but it is a vehicle that will meet the needs of many Canadian drivers.

And in 2008 there will be an additional inducement to buy one as they’ll be built right here in Canada, at an all-new plant Toyota is building in Woodstock, Ontario. This facility will employ 1,300 workers and produce 100,000 units a year, no less.

ROAD TEST SUMMARY

Here are the salient points and overall rating of this new model, as established by our reviewer:

PROS
- Adequate power
- Good fuel economy
- Overall value for money

CONS
- The price of admission rises with options
- Five-speed automatic would improve performance
- Bigger isn't necessarily better