The 2013 RAV4 loses its six-cylinder option and straight-line performance is just adequate, but it handles better than before, and its all-wheel-drive system makes a play for drivers who don't just need all-weather traction.
A 2.5-liter four with 176 horsepower is now the only engine offered on the RAV4. The former 3.5-liter, 269-hp V-6 option's been omitted this time, probably to give Toyota more logical room between the RAV4 and the larger Venza. Toyota pegs its 0-60 mph talents at 8.9 seconds, about two seconds quicker than before--primarily because there's now a six-speed automatic standard, geared low in first and second for urban driving and geared high in fifth and sixth for overdrive.
The four-cylinder itself is smooth enough--and helped along by better acoustic damping inside the car--but the transmission's programming really, really wants you to get into the overdrive gears quickly, where it can lock up its torque converter for maximum efficiency. The RAV4 squirts off the line from a full stop--and then flicks quickly to third and fourth even in urban driving, dropping into a low-rpm lull just as soon as it can. It's a little better in Sport mode, where the transmission smooths those quicker shifts by blipping the throttle. You'll learn to ignore Eco mode, which puts so much lag into downshifts, we left it off for most of our driving day.
Gas mileage is estimated at 24/31 mpg on front-drive models, and 22/29 mpg on all-wheel-drive models. Last year's four-cylinder topped out at 22/28 mpg, for comparison.
Front-wheel drive is the RAV4's native configuration. The optional all-wheel-drive (AWD) system uses electronic control to send power rearward when slippage in front is detected, and offers a true 50/50 fixed power split at up to 25 mph in 4WD Lock mode. It's an evolution of the system on the old version, with a new electromagnetic coupling that sends torque to the rear wheels when slip is detected, and in Sport mode, does so when cornering to improve handling. For foul weather, the Lock feature gives predictable levels of traction, but in Sport mode, the system shifts 10 to 50 percent of its torque to the rear to tighten corners. It's not a tremendous effect, and there's nothing so exotic as torque vectoring, but adds to the RAV4's more composed feel.
Sport mode also adds more weight to the RAV4's electric power steering. Toyota's become more adept at tuning its systems, and in the RAV4 there's good on-center tracking and stability and less resistance to returning to center--and in Sport mode, less assist, for a heavier feel if you want it.
Most versions have the kind of ride quality you'd expect from a compact crossover, but the 17-inch tires standard on LE and XLE models do a better job of providing comfort; the 18-inchers on the Limited serve up more tire thump, tire noise, and a slightly rougher ride. The RAV4's front-strut and rear control-arm suspension doesn't have as much travel as, say, the bigger Chevy Equinox or Hyundai Santa Fe, and it shows when the RAV4 goes for limited excursions on gravel roads, where uneven surfaces are the rule, not the exception. There's just 6.3 inches of ground clearance beneath, after all--what, you were expecting an SUV?