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Since its introduction in the '90s, the Toyota RAV4 has grown up from a compact player in an emerging niche, into a mid-size, best-selling family crossover. The RAV4 has improved as it's grown, but competitors have kept pace too, with offerings like the Ford Escape and the Subaru Forester now among our higher-rated vehicles in the class.
A 2013 redesign simplified the RAV4's lineup, trimming it to one powertrain, and added more equipment while losing some of its unique options, like the available third row and V-6 engine.
The current configuration makes sense, as the refocused RAV4 is now more clearly differentiated from Toyota's larger Highlander crossover. It's a balanced small crossover, offering more room than some with a little bit of driving enjoyment to go with it, but not providing either in extremes.
The RAV4's 2013 redesign purged one of the remaining vestiges of the model's history: the tailgate-mounted spare. The more hatchback-style flow and lower stance that result pitch the RAV4 headlong into a lookalike bin filled with the Ford Escape, the Hyundai Santa Fe, even the Mazda CX-5. Arguably, the RAV4 has a more carlike face than them all, but it doesn't pull off such a clean design in back as the CX-5. The taillamps are pointy and shelf out, all in the name of meeting safety regulations. There's some discord in the cockpit; this is a case in which the RAV4 Limited and its many trims and surfaces leave us admiring the basic RAV4 LE's simplicity.
The latest RAV4 is responsive, although never sporty in the same way as a Ford Escape or Subaru Forester XT. It rides lower than those competitors, with well-weighted electric power steering and a good sense of center. All-wheel drive is just a $1,400 upgrade, and we like how the system works not only for inclement weather conditions but also for on-the-road handling. There isn't much of a range in the way the RAV4 rides and handles, but for a slightly better ride we'd stick with the 17-inch tires on LE and XLE versions.
Once upon a time—just a couple of model years ago—there were V-6 models of the RAV4 that were surprisingly quick; but the current RAV4 gives up those chances of a transcendent upgrade in favor of a better ride and more carlike handling. There's only a 176-horsepower four-cylinder under the hood now, but the six-speed automatic with sport-shift mode saves it. Consider the 0-60 mph time of under nine seconds, and the RAV4 isn't quick, but it's quick enough for most family needs.
The RAV4 didn't become significantly larger in its 2013 redesign, but smarter packaging made it more passenger-friendly. Base versions come with a cheaper upholstery and seats that are less supportive, while XLE versions include more firmly bolstered seats and nicer fabrics that we wish were standard across the board. The synthetic leather upholstery in Limited models looks great from a few feet away, but up close it looks shiny and cheap. Seating space in the RAV4 is about on par with the CR-V—definitely more generous than the Escape. But there are some flaws: The back bench is less supportive than adults will expect, and its flip/fold mechanism is one step shy on slickness, although cargo space is excellent. Limited versions get a power tailgate.
LE, XLE, and Limited models of the 2015 Toyota RAV4 are offered. At the base level, the RAV4 LE 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. We tend to think that the base RAV4 LE or mid-range XLE models are the best deal. The XLE adds dual-zone automatic climate control; a sunroof; and fog lights, to which the Limited adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Limited models include a power driver seat and those 18-inch wheels.
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.
Audio systems are noteworthy in the RAV4. There are four different levels of Entune touch-screen audio, with the top two levels incorporating the App Suite—Bing for search; iHeartRadio and Pandora for audio streaming; MovieTickets.com, OpenTable, and Yelp for going out; and real-time traffic, weather, fuel prices, sports and stocks.
Safety ratings are top-notch for the most part, and the RAV4 has overcome a former blemish - it's been upgraded in the IIHS small-overlap test from a "Poor" to a "Good" rating. The RAV4 is equipped with eight standard airbags, including knee airbags. Bluetooth is also standard across the board; a rearview camera is included, while Limited models include blind-spot monitors with cross-traffic alerts.