On one hand the 2014 Toyota RAV4 doesn't offer the scorching V-6 of a couple years ago, and its straight-line bravado. On the other hand, it handles better than ever before, and it includes an all-wheel drive system that makes a play for those who don't just need traction for winter snowstorms.
It's definitely a case of give and take. The Ford Escape, Subaru Forester, and really most of the rest of the segment offer stronger acceleration. Yet the 176-horsepower four-cylinder is adequate, saved by a six-speed automatic with a sport-shift mode and a 0-60 mph time of less than nine seconds. The overall impression is that the powertrain is smooth but not particularly swift—and those who want a perky, responsive feel might want to consider one of those other models.
The RAV4 is quick from a standing start, but then it tends to flick 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.
The fundamentals of good, responsive handling are here, with a reasonably low ride height for a crossover, combined with electric power steering that has good weighting and centering feel. One of the key differences here is whether or not to spring for the $1,400 all-wheel-drive system, which is now more sophisticated, so that not only provides power to the rear wheels in foul weather but also delivers torque with finesse to the rear wheels when cornering hard.
While the 2014 Toyota RAV4 is perfectly at ease in most conditions with just front-wheel drive, the RAV4 now appeals to those who 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. A new electromagnetic coupling that sends torque to the rear wheels when slip is detected; when you select Sport mode it sends 10-50 percent of torque to the rear wheels to help improve handling.
For foul weather, the Lock feature gives predictable levels of traction—enabling the RAV4 to power through snowy driveways or muddy trails.
And if you'd like the steering a little heavier, Sport mode delivers that as well. It adds more weight, with good on-center tracking and stability and less resistance to returning to center.
Overall, 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. And ground clearance is just 6.3 inches—that's a couple of inches less than you'd get in a Subaru Outback.