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The Toyota RAV4 was not only one of the original crop of compact crossovers brought into the world in the mid-1990s; it's been one of the best-selling ones ever since then. But with redesigned versions of the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape, it's time for some major change for the RAV4. And for 2013, it has arrived.
While the 2013 Toyota RAV4 has gained some ground in tuning in with what shoppers in this segment want today; it's also lost some features along the way--namely, its available third-row seat and its optional six-cylinder engine.In short—literally—the Toyota RAV4 leaves room for the larger Highlander, and plants its feet even more firmly in the compact category this time around the subdivision. It also dumps its outdated automatic transmissions, and mixes in more safety and entertainment gear. On the whole, it's more efficient and a little more enthusiastic in its daily chores, with more room than the perky Escape and more alert road manners than the CR-V, though not vice versa.
It's simple to tell whether you're looking at a new RAV4: check out the rear. Older models had a tailgate-mounted spare tire, but this year it's gone, put where all other crossovers have it, under the cargo floor. That plus the gentle migration of the body to a more hatchback-style flow, and to a lower stance, pitch the RAV4 headlong into the lookalike bin filled with the Escape, the Santa Fe, even the subtler Mazda CX-5. The Toyota does a better job than the Escape at putting a carlike face on a taller wagon body, but doesn't win all day like the Mazda at wrapping its rear end seductively in glass and metal. The RAV4's tailgate is its sore thumb: the taillamps are pointy and shelf out, all in the name of meeting safety regulations. There's some discord in the cockpit too--not in the clash of lines and surfaces, but in the plastics that form them. It's rare we like cheaper plastic better, but too many kinds of trim turn us away from the Limited and its synthetic leather, and toward the more durable, less complicated-looking RAV4 LE.
It's a case of give and take in performance, where the RAV4 gives up its V-6 aspirations for better, more carlike handling. There's only a 176-horsepower four-cylinder under the hood now, but it's saved by a six-speed automatic with a sport-shift mode and a 0-60 mph time in the acceptable range (under 9 seconds). Smoother than it is swift, the drivetrain doesn't get in the way often, but never spurs the urge to drive more as we've felt in the latest Ford Escape. Revamped suspension tuning lets the RAV4 ride lower, and electric power steering has good weighting and centering feel. The choice at hand is whether to stand by the front-drive versions and their slightly lower curb weight, or opt for the upgraded, $1400 all-wheel-drive system, which not only locks the rear wheels in line in foul weather, but delivers some torque back there when the RAV4 tacks into a sweeping corner. Whatever the choice, avoid the Eco mode button--it's called that because "joy extinguisher" wouldn't fit--and we'd stick with the 17-inch tires on LE and XLE versions for a more absorbent ride.
It's not much larger than before, but passengers will feel better attended to in the 2013 RAV4. On base versions, there's an inexpensive fabric and less supportive seats, but neither's a deal-breaker. The XLE model has more firmly bolstered seats and nicer fabrics we wish were standard across the board. On Limiteds there's a synthetic leather trim that's appealing from a few feet away, but feels shiny, if you'll give us a pass on the synesthesia. No matter where you're sitting, the RAV4 provides more space than the Escape; it's on par with the CR-V, though the back bench is less supportive and its flip/fold mechanism one step shy on slickness. Cargo space is excellent, though in-cabin storage is less than expected, and there's a power tailgate on the Limited.
The RAV4 ups its safety ante with eight airbags as standard equipment, including knee airbags. Also standard across the board: Bluetooth and a rearview camera. Blind-spot monitors with cross-traffic alerts are available on the top trim level. Safety ratings are top-notch for the most part, but they're sullied a bit by a single 'Poor' rating in the new IIHS small overlap frontal test.
Among other features, the base RAV4 LE also comes with power locks, windows, and mirrors; air conditioning; cruise control; tilt/telescoping steering; steering-wheel audio and phone controls; and an AM/FM/CD player controlled through a 6.1-inch LCD touchscreen. The XLE adds dual-zone automatic climate control; a sunroof; and fog lights, to which the Limited adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
Major options on the RAV4 include navigation on the XLE and Limited, with Entune app connectivity and satellite radio; and on the Limited, a JBL audio system with 576 watts of power and 11 speakers.
The 2013 Toyota RAV4 carries a base price of $24,145 on the LE model. We'd choose it, or the $25,135 XLE, with or without all-wheel drive, and leave the Limited for the few who have to pay $27,855 for a power driver seat and those 18-inch wheels. Knowing the RAV4's core audience, the decider could well end up being satellite radio and navigation: they're unavailable on the LE, an option on the XLE. Choose well--or at least, choose your smartphone substitute well.