Editors at TheCarConnection.com find that the 2009 Toyota RAV4 performs quite well overall, though it's definitely best with the optional V-6.
The RAV4's base engine has been upgraded for 2009. It's now a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that produces 179 horsepower. It is largely unobtrusive and smooth, and it represents a nice bump over 2008's figures. Edmunds states that the increase in power succeeds in "making it the class leader among rival fours." Another upside is that "fuel economy has increased slightly with this engine as well." Car and Driver reports that "when equipped with the four-banger and front-wheel drive, the RAV4 returns excellent fuel economy of 22 mpg city and 28 mpg highway, albeit at the expense of quick acceleration."
Stepping up to Toyota's brilliant 3.5-liter V-6 yields impressive "acceleration, pulling and passing power at or near the top of this class," says Kelley Blue Book. At 269 hp and 246 pound-feet of torque, remarkably, "this powertrain gets almost the same fuel economy as the much less powerful four-cylinder, with 19 mpg city and 27 mpg highway," reports Edmunds. This is partially due to the five-speed auto's extra cog and partially to the V-6's more modern design than the four-cylinder. Edmunds is a fan of the V-6, asserting, "If we were to buy a RAV4, it would have to come with the optional V6. Despite having 100-plus more horses than most four-cylinder SUVs, the V6-equipped RAV4 manages to get almost the same fuel economy." The reviewer allows, however, that the smaller engine "is a reasonable choice for most buyers, as it provides adequate power for day-to-day driving."
Both automatic transmissions are praised for their smoothness and response to the driver's demands, but the four-speed could use an extra ratio for greater efficiency and response, especially given its pairing with the weaker four-cylinder powerplant.
Of note, opting for four-wheel drive with the V-6 diminishes mileage by a mere 1 mpg, and only on the highway cycle. Clearly, the V-6's torque works wonders for acceleration and efficiency. ConsumerGuide records a 0-60-mph time of 6.7 seconds with an AWD V-6 model, which is positively sparkling performance for an SUV.
The optional AWD system uses electronic control to send power rearward when slippage in front is detected, and "unlike many competitor vehicles," compliments Edmunds, "the RAV4 offers a true 4WD lock feature that fixes the front/rear power split 50/50."
Handling is roundly praised. "RAV4's linear steering evinced the sort of precision that no one would expect in this segment," say the critics at Car and Driver. Base models tend to plow ahead in tight corners, as most front-wheel-drive vehicles do, but the optional Sport models' firmer dampers largely fixed that tendency. "RAV4s have responsive steering and fine straight-line stability," claims ConsumerGuide.
Ride comfort and bump absorption on the fully independent suspension are good, though a bit harsh at times in the Sport model. Motor Trend feels the "ride is really a lot stiffer than it needs to be." "Test models with 17-inch tires showed little impact harshness on sharp bumps and ridges with only mild jitter on washboard surfaces. Sport version with 18-inch tires are not noticeably harsher," reports ConsumerGuide.